Tim O’Brien The things they Carried (Agrumentative)

In the story” The Things They Carried” by Jim O’Brien, seventeen Army recruits find themselves randomly lumped together to comprise Alpha Company and are subjected to the collective atrocities of war. The story takes place in Vietnam and mostly amongst the mountains, in the villages and through the rice paddies. O’Brien conveniently plays down the war theme and focuses the attention of the reader toward the weight of the literal and figurative burden that the soldiers carry. Only one person in Alpha Company however, is tasked with the heaviest weight of all–the responsibility of the lives of the other men. <<Introductions : Introductions should gracefully lead your reader up to the main point (thesis) you’ll express at the end of it. Offer only that contextual information that will establish the foundation and reason for writing, then let the details appear in the body paragraphs as evidence used to support the thesis claim. >>This burden cannot be quantified and is borne by Lieutenant Jimmy Cross alone. He’s responsible to lead this company of men and return them safely home. From the start, O’Brien begins to quantify the weight each man carries but Lt. Cross’s burden cannot be measured Lt. Cross goes through a metamorphosis. He not only carries the literal standard issue burdens, but the burden of love amongst other things. Throughout this story, Lt. Cross must unfortunately face devastating realities and his newly adopted culture could not possibly prepare him for the unforeseen circumstances of war. Lt. Cross carried the burden of being an immature leader and inexperienced man; he had to grow up very quickly and sacrifices would be made. <<Identity in thesis : Remember that the assignment asks you to make a claim about the theme of identity… what does the story suggest we can learn about the relationship between objects and identity, even if we’re not soldiers? You have made some accurate comments about the story itself, but so far you’ve only set your essay up to summarize the story instead of providing a sequenced argument about the assigned theme.>>

The vast majority of the recruits were young, Lt. Cross was only 23, and the majority of them never witnessed a man die much less murder one. The Vietnam War was hell. The nature of this battle in particular was that it had been historically disorganized so each company had an extraordinarily hard time finding purpose as they hunted down the “bad guys”. “Humping” was what they called carrying their physical load on their backs. All the men “humped” their standard issue gear. Additionally, they humped the psychological weights of their own gripping emotions.

Without a thesis that makes an argument, you’re essentially only retelling the story to your reader… who has already read the story herself! Without a thesis argument, you don’t need any of this information.

Lt. Cross had at times found himself unable to keep his attention on the war. After all he was very young and in love with a girl back home. She had captured his heart and had written him several times though never mentioning the war or confessing any real love for him. He loved her rather he was infatuated and obsessed with her. Some things had been carried partly of necessity and hand written (strictly platonic) letters from Martha were just that. They were kept at the bottom of the Lt’s rucksack. O’Brien tells of almost ritualistic washing of hands and the careful flap-by-flap unfolding process that took place as Cross would slip away into his comforting fairytale world to read Martha’s letters. Cross would not spend the last hours of daylight preparing for the next day’s hump or hike or wade through the rice paddy, no. Instead, he’d dig usual foxhole and spend the last daylight hours pretending he and Martha were in New Hampshire on some romantic camping trip. He’d fantasize about the romance he’d never had between he and Martha. Tasting the opened envelopes that Martha had tongue-licked and mailed was the closest he’d ever been to kissing her. He was wasting his time entirely.

No matter if O’Brien tried hard to make this story about the war itself or about random objects that personified different individuals, this story was about Lt. Cross’s invisible burdens he carried. Cross has been given orders to march through villages to explore foreign territories. All the troops of Alpha Company had been issued food rations, standard ammunitions, and protective armor. In addition to his flak vest, steel helmet and canteen Lt. Cross, as the Officer in Charge, had been specially issued a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, a strobe light, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9 pounds fully loaded. These things had been determined by specialty and could determine his fate. His gear became as much of an appendage to him as his heart for Martha. The Lt. had to “hump” them up the hills and through the swamp if he were to maximize his advantage in the battlefield.

The men of this short story had not known each other before the war they had just come together on the battlefield to form a unit. Out of necessity and specialty, Lt. Cross had been selected to lead this company of soldiers into battle. They were all versed in military customs and courtesies and the military culture had been a device to bond the men on the battlefield. Most times the men found oneness in their shared pursuit to stay alive. They all also identified intimately with the ever present fear of dying. Tim O’Brien does at times give us details on the setting as opposed to the lists of objects they carried. He paints a hot jungle, wet mostly from the humidity and rain. The soldiers faced horrendous conditions in Vietnam.

Military members are given a new culture. During wartime exchanging one’s own identity for the militaristic persona becomes a byproduct, a survival mechanism. In the Vietnam War zone, seventeen men of Alpha Company were tasked to face the unimaginable atrocities of battle and expected to deal with the unfamiliar subsequent emotional ramifications. The personal things they carried of which O’Brien makes the center focus of this story helped them to deal with these circumstances. O’Brien describes some items of which served to assist the men in preserving their humanness. Of the various personal items soldiers beheld, photos were the most likely keepsakes. Lt. Cross carried two. The first was a snapshot of Martha staring straight into the camera. The back side had been signed “Love” , cross knew full well that this signature was simply a gesture and not a true expression of her heartfelt emotion. He was young but not stupid. He knew his love for her was one-sided, but that did not keep him from romanticizing over her. The second photo was taken straight out of a yearbook. Both visuals were reminders of home, his life before the war, and most importantly mementos of the deep love he had for Martha.

Before the war he was an ordinary new college grad ready to take life by the horns. He had probably never experienced love like that which he had for Martha. A first. Had he been back home he could have probably would not have been obsessed with her, unfortunately this was not the case. He was worlds away from home and he like many of the other soldiers could not find solace in the newly adopted culture. It was their duty at times to reign terror on the enemy–kill or be killed. Most humans don’t want to identify with monsters that do the unthinkable. In the line of duty, these men had to do just that, they had no choice but to assume their new role once they were drafted into the war. So, in order to preserve some sanity amidst the chaos they psychologically rely on their belongings from home as reminders that they are human beings and not killing machines. The overall sense that readers get was that nobody had more mental vacation time than Lt. Cross. the photos and the love he humped” comforted him daily. O’Brien tells how the vivid mental images of Martha had given Cross an escape from the war altogether. He seemed to be most removed from the war when he was expected by his subordinates to be most present.

The physical weight of the killer 63 pound starlight scope was probably the heaviest government issued burden which Ted Lavender had “humped” until his sudden death. The other “grunts” as they were called in the field, humped other mission related gear along with their mementos from home. The mementos from home would return the personal identies of who they had been before they were. To remember home was to stay in touch with reality. At home they were not village raiding assassins or order taking machines, they were regular people. O’Brien illustrates the regularness of these people by telling of the ordinary things they carried. Rat Kiley carried comic books, Norman bowker “humped” his diary, Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck, Mitchell Sanders brought condoms, Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion, Ted Lavendar carried a stash of dope & tranquilizers, and Kiowa, a devout Baptist carried an illustrated Bible. The individual items added weight to their already heavy load, but humping their mementos meant they had the security of know that they held on to some part of their real selves.

The combined intransitive weight of the mementos, weapons, ammo, food rations and other procedural gear hardly compared to immeasurable burdens weighing on each soldier’s mind. They all “humped” ghosts. The deaths of fellow company members, friends, murder inflicted upon the enemy, dead villagers haunted them all. That wasn’t all they carried. They all carried with them the fear of dying. However, only Lt. Cross was charged to “hump” the added burden of leading and keeping the men of Alpha Company alive. Cross bore his standard issue gear and added responsibility. He for the most part had retreated from it all into a mental comfort zone. He wasn’t ready to lead or for what was to be the requirement of him–to be present and accounted for. He could not be afforded the luxury of mindlessly following orders, too much was at stake. However, he unfortunately could not prevent himself from detaching from the reality of The Vietnam War. His irrational preoccupation with Martha is his mental doorway to an unreality where love saves him from the pressures and his personal development is not required.

On hot days in April, Lt. Cross would march ill attentively. Perhaps the gravity of the situation had not donned upon him yet. He like the many others would cling to his good luck charm. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot, Mitchell Sanders had gifted Norman Bowker a human thumb. They humped these things out of superstition. But O’Brien makes it clear that Cross humped his lucky pebble to facilitate his untimely fantasies. On occasion, he’d yell for his men to keep their eyes open as they spread out while he himself rolled his lucky pebble around in his mouth getting a sense of lightness from his daydreams. His mind wandered off to Jersey Shore. He pretend to bewalking barefoot feeling the sun and ocean breeze with his love Martha. The realities of his extraordinary circumstances were too much. He’d received the pebble in the mail from Martha, who had written about a separate-but-together quality which only served to heighten Cross’s romantic ideologies for what could’ve taken place between them. O’Brien usues plain language and an almost conversational tone when describing the Lt’s romantic fascination with this woman from back home.

O’Brien’s word choice makes it easy for the reader to imagine what might happen next. He gives vivid first person descriptions of the lieutenant and his daily events. One mission ordered by higher command had required Alpha Company to search out and destroy the elaborate tunnel complexes in the Than Khe area south of Chu Lai. It was April 16. Lt. Cross carried out this task by randomly selecting a grunt to go in to explore the tunnel. Lee Strunk drew the bad news number and went in headfirst with only his flashlight and a pistol. The rest of the grunts spread out for security. Cross had leaned in to examine the dark tunnel, but it was his mind that had “blacked out”, Lt. Cross gazed watching the hole not present at all. He had his pebble in his mouth and couldn’t slip away from the magnetic hold of his fantasy world where he could sleep in Martha’s lungs, breathe her blood and be smothered by her. On the first and last date he’d ever gone on with Martha, she had never given him any sign of her budding romantic interest in him and that fact made his disturbing disillusions even more unsettling. Cross couldn’t help himself though, he tried hard to concentrate on the dangers surrounding him but the escape was too alluring his mind incessantly wandered back to Martha. Cross hadn’t even noticed that Ted Lavendar had wandered off alone to relieve himself. He simply knelt there vaguely aware of anything at all until Lee Strunk re-emerged from the tunnel. O’Brien then presents what is undisputedly the climax of the story, Ted Lavendar is killed on his way back to the group.

“Zapped while zipping” is how they termed it. Humor, sarcasm, storytelling many ways in which they dealt simultaneously with the grief of loss, guilt, and their own joy to be alive. Lt. Cross said nothing. In fact, he dealt with this tragedy in a much different fashion. Though O’Brien doesn’t tell us that anyone else blames cross for Lavender’s death, he harshly blamed himself. He felt the pain. However, this event functioned as a much needed reality check for the Lt. A man had died under his command. This was the wakeup call he needed to put away his childish imaginations of love and take hold to his true nature as a soldier at war.

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross found himself trembling when they would re-enact Lavender’s dramatic death. He had been shot in the head from behind “Boom-dead” just like that, he was gone. The Lt. grieved his death. He realizes the error in his ways and pains deeply for the loss of one of his men. This unfortunate loss was shameful and Cross hated himself for loving Martha more than his men. He had known Martha didn’t love him and never would, but now Lavender was dead because of his absent-mindedness. He would have to carry these realizations. O’Brien uses metaphoric imagery when he describes how Cross would have to carry this “like a stone in his stomach”.

The readers learn early on in the story that Lt. Cross was an emotional person. He had loved Martha and cared deeply for his men. And the night after Lavender’s death whilst digging his usual foxhole, Cross did not participate in his fantastic ritual of letter opening and pretending. Rather, he climbed in his foxhole and wept profusely. The next morning he burned those photos and letters from Martha. A commitment was made to himself to accept his responsibilities without escape. He made a commitment to dispense of his other worldly obsession with Martha and be fully present, his men needed him to lead. He’d dispose of his distractions rid himself of the pebble too. Man up. He reasoned that nobody else need die because of his carelessness. So commencing immediately, no more fantasies, he would muster the strength to perform his duties. O’Brien tells us how the morning after; Cross shook his head to symbolically shut down all daydreams, as if a total transformation had taken place. He was a changed man. He reminded himself that his charge was to lead not be loved. So by the end of the story, the readers learn that Lt. Cross did just that.

 

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