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The Things They Carried

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending....”

Those are the first lines of a remarkable short story of the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried,” by Tim O’Brien [The Things They Carried, Broadway, 1998].  The author tells the story of a platoon of soldiers – ordinary grunts – as they go about the hard work of fighting a war no one quite knew how to fight.

He tells the story using the things they chose to carry in their rucksacks.  Some were obvious:

“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twenty pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism.”

But, once the necessities were accounted for, O’Brien tells us of other, discretionary items: like Lieutenant Cross’ letters and photographs from the college student Martha, back home in New Jersey.  He wasn’t sure if she loved him, even though she signed her letters, “Love, Martha.” He hoped she did.

Ted Lavender was scared; he carried tranquilizers.

Norman Bowker carried a diary.

Ray Kiley, comic books, brandy and M&Ms.

Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament presented to him by his father, back home on the reservation in Oklahoma.  He also carried his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet – a tomahawk, really – decorated with feathers.

Being soldiers, they carried much in the way of weapons, of course.  Also the heavy ammunition that went with it.  “They carried all they could bear,” O’Brien tells us, “and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.”

It’s a brilliant literary move, telling the story of this small group of men according to the things they carried.  Somehow, we find out more about them as people this way, than if the author had described them directly.
Jesus speaks of an item of equipment he expects all Christians to carry: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34)


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