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Posted on May 9th, 2012, by

Uncovering the Nature of Soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”¯


The theme of war is probably one of the most popular theme in the world literature, especially in the 20th century when the real value of human life decreased dramatically in the result of the numerous military conflicts which acquired unparalleled scale in the past century. In fact, the 20th century was the time when military conflicts swapped away millions of human life both military and civilian. As a result, many authors realized that human life worth practically nothing that may be traced in works of such outstanding writers of the 20th century as Earnest Hemingway, Graham Green, and many others.

On the other hand, the nature of soldier, who is traditionally perceived as an essential part of the war, was particularly interesting because it was and still is important to realize what the nature of a man, who kills the same living beings without even knowing them, is. In this respect, the work created by Tim O’Brien “The Things They Carried”¯ seems to be particularly noteworthy since in this book the author attempts to uncover the veil that hides the nature of soldiers. At the same time, the author attempts to challenge traditional and a bit stereotyped views on soldiers and raises some questions which are really difficult to answer: what is the real nature of soldiers, can it be uncovered by soldiers’ actions or probably the things they carry may be much more eloquent, and whether soldiers are really soulless, thoughtless murderers, or probably they are martyrs that readily crucify themselves on the cross of others?

Basic characteristics of soldiers

To answer the questions posed above, it is primarily necessary to clearly realize what a traditional view of a typical soldier is and how soldiers are perceived in a public eye or by an average individual that has neither military experience nor independent ideas about military service and war at large. This is extremely important for the analysis of Tim O’Brien’s work and understanding its message which uncovers the nature of a soldier.

In fact, it is not a secret that often people have quite a vague image of a real soldier, it means a soldier who took an active part in real military conflicts, especially such terrible one as the War in Vietnam. Nonetheless, it is traditionally believed that a typical soldier is an individual that is specially trained to execute thoughtlessly order of a commander. What is more, the numerous military conflicts as well as modern poop culture created an image of a soldier participating in a war as thoughtless machine for slaughtering enemies, or in a better case an individual who can readily kill a proclaimed enemy without long hesitation.

As a result, the general public perceives a soldier as an individual who is just a kind of machine good or bad, but its nature is purely mechanistic since the only goal and function of soldiers is supposed to be the destruction and total defeat of enemies. In such a situation, the readiness of soldier to kill seems to be particularly striking because the general public believes that as they move and act fast than they do not think a lot of what they are doing.

Consequently, it seems as if soldiers simply kill enemies they were ordered to kill.

Obviously, such a view of a soldier is extremely stereotypes and basically, soldiers nature is characterized as the dominance of physical power over mind, lack, or even total absence of emotions and feelings resulting in cruelty, and, finally, the only function of a soldier is to kill for the sake of victory whose real value they cannot even realize because their only purpose in war is considered to be self-survival that reveals certain soldiers’ egoism.

Naturally, it is possible to argue with these ideas concerning soldiers and their nature because it is necessary to agree that this is basically a pacifist point of view but, nonetheless, all characteristics mentioned above are relevant, if not to say dominant in the modern society.

The nature of soldiers as shown by Tim O’Brien

However, Tim O’Brien has quite a different view of a soldier in war and, apparently, he does not really believe in stereotypes and beliefs of the general public. Instead, in “The Things They Carried”¯ he attempts to uncover the real nature of soldiers which participated in a terrible military conflict which real purpose was though quite unclear for them. At the same time, the author has managed to show a soldier totally different from what he is traditionally thought to be and, according to the author his nature turns to be not so different from the nature of any other human being. In such a way, the soldier turns to be similar to any ordinary person but, as the further analysis of the book will show, even such a view of soldiers’ nature is quite superficial.

Physical burden

In actuality, Tim O’Brien in his book depicts a group of soldiers who are marching through Vietnam and each soldier carries with him different items which are supposed to be the most important things that must guarantee their survival in the territory of the enemy. In such a way, the soldiers carry only the most essential things that are supposed to weigh not very to make their pace fast and their marching cannot be tiresome.

The author thoroughly depicts the items soldiers carry with them and, taking into consideration such an attention to even not very important details, it is possible to presuppose that he does intentionally in order to emphasize the weight of items on the shoulders of each soldier. In this respect, it is possible to say that he attempts to evaluate the traditional belief about physical power of soldiers. Not surprisingly that he is very precise in his description and seems to be merely cataloging what being carried: “As the first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, map, code books, binoculars, and a .45(c) caliber pistol that weighed 2,9 pounds full loaded”¯.

In such a way, it seems to be that soldiers carry only the most essential things that debunk a bit the myth about physical power of soldiers as supermen. In other words, the author intentionally make soldiers closer to readers to make them understand that soldiers are really human they do not possess any superpower and they also suffer a lot.

At the same time, it is very important to underline that the author does not express a lot of feelings or sentiments when he depicts physical sufferings which seem to be really significant since “the weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20 round magazine. The rifleman carried anywhere around from 12 to 20 magazines”¦ adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum”¯.

Obviously, this descriptions of physical sufferings of soldiers are very important because in such a way the author to a certain extent agrees with the general public that the physical strength is an essential part of soldiers’ nature, but, on the other hand, he underlines that physically soldiers are not supermen and they carry only as much things as they need. As a result, due to special training and the weigh of things they carry, the physical burden does not really affect soldiers significantly and it is obvious that they get used to it.

Consequently, on analyzing soldiers’ nature as the author wants readers to perceive it, it is possible to say that physical aspect is vitally important but, unquestionably, it is not dominant. In fact, it is rather a question of training and remarkably that it is only the things that affect soldiers’ feelings and emotions are, on one hand, the most valuable for them, while, on the other hand, they are the most difficult to carry.

Moral burden

Obviously, such an intentional emphasis on the depiction of items the soldiers carry is quite symbolic because it is through these items the author wants to reveal the nature of soldiers. At the same time, on analyzing their things and their thoughts, its getting to be obvious that physical burden of the march is incomparably less significant than moral burden of soldiers.

In fact, it has been already mentioned that some things are of a paramount importance for soldiers, though, at first glance, they are of a little value, if any at all, and they seem to be useless in the war. For instance, Jimmy Cross carries a small pebble which is totally useless during the march but, in actuality, its real value, its weigh is enormous since this pebble is a symbol of his love for Martha. It is very symbolic that he cannot rid of this tiny thing which merely weighs an ounce because it was Martha who gave him this pebble and he cannot just through it away, even though he wants to forget her.

Practically, the same may be said about his letters from Martha which he burns attempting to forget his love.

However, he clearly realize that he cannot simply forget Martha by burning the letters because this simple act cannot rid him of his memories: “He realized it was only a gesture”¦ Besides, the letters were in his head”¯.

As a result, it is obvious that moral burden turns to be much more significant than physical one and soldiers’ nature is not deprived of morality, feelings and emotions. In actuality, soldiers’ emotions and feelings are so strong that they are practically incomparable to material items that cause physical sufferings of soldiers. This is why “Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps”¦ Lieutenant Cross remembered touching her left knee. A dark theater he remembered”¦ when he touched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober way that made him pull his hand back, but he would always remember”¯. This is why physical items are less important for him as well as for other soldiers than moral and spiritual ones.

Remarkably, on depicting soldiers’ feelings, emotions, and state of mind the author’s language becomes more vivid, picturesque, and sentimental. Unquestionably, he wants to uncover and show to readers this side of soldiers’ soul which is hidden from the general public as the dark side of the Moon. Obviously, such a view of soldiers’ nature is quite different from stereotypes dominating in readers’ beliefs.

Moreover, the author also underlines that soldiers suffer dramatically from the pressure of their memories, thoughts, and moral sufferings. This is why Tim O’Brien says that their emotions and feelings are intangible but very heavy to carry: “Grief, terror, love, longing these were intangibles, but intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight”¯.

Furthermore, the author also wants to create a real image of a soldier, to put it more precisely, his moral image. Intentionally or not but he characterizes soldiers as brave people who really respect courage and who condemn cowardice about which he says “in many respects, this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down”¯.

Thus, speaking about moral and intellectual side of soldiers nature, the author is very skeptical concerning the widely spread belief that soldiers are quite primitive and the war transforms them into a kind of machines. In stark contrast, he underlines that soldiers are really thoughtful, they have their own feelings and emotions that are getting even sharper during the war to the extent that he concludes that “it was very sad”¦ the things men carried inside”¯.

Self-crucifying on the cross of others

At the same time, the things soldiers carry are very symbolic and their symbolism is not hidden directly in the items themselves but in their significance for soldiers. What is meant here is that, during the war, these items are associated with the survival of each soldier. It seems as if each soldier carries his life hidden in these things.

Moreover, these things seem to be an inseparable part of each soldier. This is why it is possible to estimate that these things symbolize the cross each of the soldiers carry on his shoulders. Such an impression becomes particularly strong when a reader finds among the items some things that are a part of soldiers’ memory or even their soul.

As a result, soldiers carry their things-crosses as if they are condemned to die but, in actuality, it is evident that they are innocent and they are similar to ordinary people like any reader. On the other hand, they did not give up.

Instead, they keep marching carrying their things along with their moral burden which is even more significant than physical one.

On the other hand, it would be logical to ask but whether the soldiers carry their crosses. To answer this question, it is necessary to think over some other questions: what they are fighting for, what they actually do and what they are ready to die for. On reflecting on these questions, it is getting to be obvious that the soldiers fighting for the interests of their own country which is supposed to symbolize all people living there. In fact, they are scarifying their own lives without even been known to the general public. Finally, they are ready to die for those whom they love and whom they carry in their memory. In fact, is not it Martha who will be on Jimmy Cross’s mind in the case he is shot?

The only logical conclusion that may be done after these answers is the fact that they actually carry all their emotions, feelings, thoughts and are ready to pass through physical sufferings only for the sake of other people whom they love as well as those whom they probably do not even know. In such a way, they simply crucify themselves on the cross of others since they do not protect their interests in this war and they die for others not for themselves.


Thus, taking into account all above mentioned, it is possible to conclude that in his work “The Things They Carried”¯, Tim O’Brien offers an original view of soldiers’ nature that is quite different from widely spread stereotypes concerning soldiers. In fact, he creates the image of soldiers which are like martyrs who have to carry the cross of others and, what is more important they are ready to die for others’ sake.

Moreover, soldiers are not deprived of ordinary human feelings and emotions, they are not machines that receive and execute orders, they are real and they are heroic because they have to suffer for others which probably do not even have a vaguest idea of their existence, but which can live and work, love and marry, without any apprehensions about their enemies whom the soldiers fight against.

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