The Things They Carried Brief Summary
Literary accounts of war have provided new generations with a great deal of insight into the horrors of war beyond what can be discerned from the images carried home through newspapers or the factual accounts conveyed through statistics and progress reports. Through the text of literary works, the reader is able to get inside the mind and hearts of the soldiers themselves, giving them a much deeper understanding, despite age or gender, of what the young soldiers had to face from a practical as well as an emotional point of view as is shown through stories like Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried.”
Reading through this story, it becomes clear that there is a tremendous distinction made between the romantic concepts of war as they are typically held by people back at home and by young soldiers who have never seen war and the realities of war as they actually exist and are experienced. The boys in the story were once young men dreaming of adventure and perhaps even glory as they risked their lives to save those of their fellow soldiers. Most of them come from a relatively low background and perhaps saw service in the military as their means of escaping the perceived horrors of their own lives, passing them by in obscurity and mediocrity. The realities of war, however, include details such as having to carry numerous supplies required for their own survival – compresses to stop bleeding and perhaps save a life, morphine to stop the pain, tranquilizers to cope with the nervous sickness that strikes in the heat of battle, the guns that are meant to kill and with which these boys themselves might be killed.
In the midst of their confusion, these soldiers value frivolous or unnecessary items as a means of holding on to their ideals and fantasies. Jimmy Cross cannot manage to move beyond his infatuation with the lovely Martha, a woman who has never encouraged this attachment except, perhaps, through her insistence in signing her letters to him with “Love, Martha.” The pantyhose of Henry Dobbins’ girlfriend worn about his neck both highlight his superstitious nature as well as highlight the fragility of his mental defenses against the real nature of the war around him. While they try to remain focused on the strangeness of their surroundings and the unfamiliar hostility of the people around them, these soldiers cannot forget what they have left behind as they continue to allow their thoughts to be occupied by the dreams and hopes of youth.
However, by their very realities, war must inevitably change these young men into fighters. Through their experiences, they become hardened and cynical as they realize their dreams are little more than the fluff of the mind and provide little protection against the violence of the actual world. Although Lavender is able to escape the horrors of the war for a while through his use of marijuana, a substance that was widely in use back home and promised a dream-like relief from stress and worries, his drugged state is not sufficient to protect him from the horrors of war as a simple, everyday activity, an essential act of the human body in the process of living becomes a fatal exposure. This death affects all of the boys in the group, forcing them to realize the realities of their situation and finally, completely, abandon their fantasies as they recognize them for dangerous delusions.