Professor Frederick Cope
16 September 2018
The Weight of War
Tim O’Brien plunges readers into the plight of First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in “The Things They Carried” and makes one feel the weight and burden of the young 24-year-old man who leads his platoon through the jungle of Vietnam while pining for the love of his life, who is a world away. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross materializes as the protagonist of the story after a member of his platoon, Ted Lavender, is killed while on patrol. Cross realizes that he is to blame for Lavender’s death due to his inability to stay focused on the job at hand. His platoon is on a path of destruction and only he can make it right by changing his leadership skills and his attitude towards his men.
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is the platoon leader of seventeen men and responsible for their lives along with his own. Unfortunately, while trekking through the jungle on patrol with his men, his mind is not on their safety, but in a different land and focused on a girl named Martha, the girl he loves. Every night after he digs his fox hole and before the light fades, he reads his letters from Martha and imagines what he would be doing with her if he were at home. Sadly, Martha does not feel the same way about Jimmy. He knows this is the case, but still he yearns that she will, one day, return his love. In the meantime, he sits alone at night, pouring over her letters and wishing things were different.
On patrol, Cross’s platoon not only carry the weight of their weapons, they also carry fear and anxiety in regard to the job they do. While marching with these heavy weapons through the jungle, Jimmy is also carrying something else, “Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamp” (453). Some of the heaviest items they carry do not weigh anything at all, and this is especially true with Ted Lavender. Lavender is a member of Lieutenant Cross’s platoon and is racked with anxiety and fear. His fear is so great that he needs to carry anxiety medication and dope to keep himself calm. During the first week of April, just before Lavender dies, Jimmy receives a good luck charm from Martha. It is an egg-shaped pebble of milky white with flecks of orange and violet. In her letter, she tells Jimmy that she thought of him when she found it and sent it to him, “as a token of her truest feelings for him” (455). Jimmy, sadly, is aware that he does not know what her truest feelings are. He starts to have difficulty keeping his attention on the war, and his mind begins to wander. He is consumed with daydreams of life on the Jersey shore with Martha. He realizes that his men are being ignored, but he cannot seem to stop himself from neglecting them. Even when his men are faced with danger, he is unable to direct his mind to their plight. He cannot bring himself to worry about them or their security; he is worried about his love life as he determines, “he was just a kid at war, in love” (456).
It turns out that the lucky charm is not so lucky. Shortly after Jimmy receives the pebble, Ted Lavender is shot and killed while the platoon is searching tunnels looking for the enemy. Lavender is walking towards the rest of his platoon when he is shot in the head and dies instantly. The shock of this has a profound effect on Lieutenant Cross. Due to his carelessness and stupidity he loses one of his men and it fills him with shame and guilt because he loves Martha more than he loves his men. Jimmy finds himself at war with his conscience. He feels tremendously guilty for the loss of his man while he is pining over someone who does not love him back. After he digs his fox hole that night, he sits and weeps for the loss of Lavender and the loss of a love that he never had in the first place. He realizes that he needs to let go of Martha, who was never his in the first place. He needs to concentrate on those around him, and those who are looking to him to take care of them. He feels that he needs to banish all thoughts of Martha, and he finally admits to himself that the girl was never his to begin with. With the death of Lavender, First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross realizes that he is a soldier and needs to be the leader that his men deserve.
The following morning after Lavender dies, Jimmy is up before his men and prepares to burn his fantasy. He puts fire to the letters and photographs and sets Martha free. His platoon carries all sorts of weird and wonderful items with them while out on patrol, and he has been no different. His men are trying to maintain some form of normalcy in the nightmare they are living. Lieutenant Cross does not see this because he is so wrapped up in his own misery, and he fails to notice the anxiety of those around him. It takes the loss of a life to make Jimmy realize what is at stake and to make him understand the soldier he is supposed to be. “He is now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence” (460). It is too late to save Lavender but moving forward he will conduct himself as an officer. He knows his men will fight back at first, and why wouldn’t they? Their days will be longer and their burdens much heavier, but this will not sway him. He recognizes that he has not been an effective leader and he has let too many things go unnoticed and unpunished. His mind is set and when they grumble, he will let them know that he is there to lead them and lead them he will.
Cross accepts the blame for losing Lavender because he lacked the ability to take responsibility for his men. He was living in his own fantasy and didn’t take the time to open his eyes and look at what is around him. His job now is to do everything in his power to keep the rest of the platoon safe. He knows what he must do to protect and serve and knows that he must be up to this task, as men’s lives depend on it. It took a terrible loss to make Cross realize what he was doing. The past cannot be changed, and he will always carry this burden on his shoulders and the weight of loss will surround him, but it is not too late to save the rest of his men and in doing so, he might also save himself.
Works CitedO’Brien, Tim. “The Things They Carried.” Literature A World of Writing: Stories, Poems, Plays, Essays. Ed. David L. Pike, and Ana M. Acosta. New York: Pearson, 2014. 452 – 461. Print.