The Emotional Trauma In 'The Things They Carried' by Tim O'Brien

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In our lives as we grow up we go through situations and we don’t know how to process or understand the feelings we are experiencing. Many times we take drastic measures to get rid of these feelings that make us feel guilty and scared. In “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien is a story about a man named Jimmy Cross and his men during the Vietnam war and how they cope with emotional trauma they endure during the war.

In the beginning of the story Jimmy reminisces about his time with this girl named Martha.“They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack”(O’Brien). He wants them to be love letters but they’re not. Jimmy is the leader of his men at their camp but, he cares more about Martha than his own men. Jimmy believes that Martha is in love with him but, in reality she’s not.

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While he’s in Vietnam he gets a letter from Martha and talks about a pebble she found in New Jersey while walking along the beach. “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross received a good-luck charm from Martha. It was a simple pebble..It was this separate-but-together quality..where it seemed weightless, and then to send it through the mail, by air, as a token of her truest feelings for him. Lieutenant Cross found this romantic. But he wondered what her truest feelings were, exactly, and what she meant by separate but together”(O’Brien).

Before Jimmy leaves for the war he goes to movies with Martha and she turns him down at the movie theater. “during the final scene, when he touched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober way that made him pull his hand back”(O’Brien). Jimmy after he drops her off back at her dorm he wishes that he had kissed her goodnight before he left and all he had were the letters and pictures he had of her.

Cross thinks about Martha before he burns down Than Khe after Ted Lavender is shot.

“He pictured Martha’s smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, more than his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so much and could not stop thinking about her. When the dustoff arrived, they carried Lavender aboard. Afterward they burned Than Khe”(O’Brien). Jimmy was just so upset that he didn’t pay attention to one of his men while he was thinking about Martha that one of his own men is dead.

Jimmy copes by burning the village as he feels guilty for Lavender’s death. “After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe. They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage..while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling”(O’Brien). The emotion that Jimmy feels knowing that Lavender is dead is heartbreaking.

He feels guilty and numb for what happened to one of his own men as his watch. “He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was some- thing he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.”(O’Brien). The way that he feels is a burden that will haunt for the rest of his life.

Jimmy has this realization that he needs to let go of Martha and his feelings for her so he can focus more on his men rather than her. “Jimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha’s letters. Then he burned the two photographs. He realized it was only a gesture. Stupid, he thought. Sentimental, too, but mostly just stupid(O’Brien). He burns the letters and photos as he gets this emotional baggage of Martha off of his shoulders so he can focus on his men.

The letters and photos are burned into his mind like an emotional scar that will remind him of her. “e burned letters Martha had never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. She wasn’t involved. She signed the let- ters Love, but it wasn’t love, and all the fine lines and technicalities did not matter. Virginity was no longer an issue. He hated her. Yes, he did. He hated her. Love, too, but it was a hard, hating kind of love(O’Brien). Initially he’s heartbroken that she will never love him and that he has to move on. Jimmy after he burns her letters and photos he turns a new leaf and focuses on protecting his men.

“He was now determined to perform his duties firmly and without negligence. It wouldn’t help Lavender, he knew that, but from this point on he would comport himself as an officer”(O’Brien). Jimmy starts behaving like a lieutenant and looks out for his men. He begins to discipline them like children by being more strict with them. “On the march he would impose strict field discipline. He would be careful to send out flank security, to prevent straggling or bunching up, to keep his troops moving at the proper pace and at the proper interval”.

Jimmy out of all of his men in the story carries the most emotional trauma during the war. He goes through heartbreak of the realization that a girl he loves back home doesn’t love him like the way he wants her to live him. He carries guilt when he focuses more on Martha than his own men leading up to the death of Lavender which causes him to burn down a village, take a tranquillizer, burn Martha’s letters and photos he had of her and goes through a grief period after Lavender death.     


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