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CHAPTER SUMMARIES WITH NOTES
CHAPTER ONE (The Things They Carried)
Lieutenant Cross carried a letter and pictures from Martha, a girl back home. His obsession with Martha distracts him from his duties as platoon leader. He constantly finds himself fantasizing about her when should be checking the perimeter or watching for ambushes. Lt. Cross not only carried the photographs of Martha, he also carried his love for her and the pain of knowing she would never return his love. Martha had sent him a pebble from the Jersey shoreline. Lt. Cross carried it in his mouth while humping and pretended that he was back with Martha at college instead of in Vietnam. He sat wondering if she was a virgin while Lee Strunk crawled through an underground tunnel and a Viet Cong sniper shot Ted Lavender. The next morning Jimmy Cross burnt Martha’s picture and her letters, but the guilt remained. He resolved to stop pining and act like a Platoon Leader.
Each soldier carries the same standard issue protective gear and weapons that help him survive. But they also ‘humped’ a variety of other items dictated by personal preferences, such as a bible, comic books, foot powder, a hunting hatchet, and marijuana. Rank also dictated what they carried. Platoon leaders carried a pistol, RTO’s carried the radio, medics carried morphine and syringes, big men carried machine guns, and regular grunts carried standard issue M-16’s among other equipment. They carried a silent awe at the power of the weapons, which could keep them alive by killing the enemy. They carried infection, the weak or wounded, the thumbs of slain Viet Cong, guilt, and the soil of Vietnam itself. Perhaps the only certainty of a rather ambiguous war was that there would never be a shortage of things to carry.
Dignity was perhaps the heaviest burden for a soldier to carry. It could never be put down. Everyone had experienced fear, panic, or a time when the noise of battle just wouldn’t stop and they started crying, praying, making promises, or firing their weapons around madly. In Vietnam, the only tangible reason for fighting was to avoid the “blush of dishonor” (Page 21).. Men covered up their fear with tough talk and crazy stunts, even as they fantasized about ending the war by shooting off one of their own toes.
Chapter One introduces the reader to O’Brien’s writing style. There is neither an identified narrator, nor a cohesive narrative. Instead, we get a constant stream of memories, discontinuous events, observations, insights, and an attempt at realism. In addition several themes begin to develop, starting with the significance of the title. The different items carried in the backpacks serve to humanize and individualize the soldiers. By listing their various belongings, O’Brien helps the reader to identify with the characters in his book.
The first of these characters, Lieutenant Cross, is O’Brien’s sketch of an officer in the Vietnam conflict. Jimmy Cross daydreams about his girls, sex, college, the beach, and acts like a kid - because he is a kid. The kids fighting the war in Vietnam were brave, but they were still kids. Among other things, soldiers died from a lack of maturity. O’Brien shows that teenagers (the average age of an American GI in Vietnam was 19) were just not emotionally equipped to deal with the ugliness of war. They not only dehumanize their victims to relieve themselves of the burden of killing, they also dehumanize each other to cope with the deaths of their comrades. They use grotesque vocabulary to preserve the detachment between the living and the deceased.
The intangible items carried by these soldiers (which O’Brien has difficulty setting down even after the war ends) prove to be heavier than any backpacks. Soldiers carried the weight of duty, God, and country. O’Brien asserts, quite effectively, that none of the men knew why they were fighting. He writes, “it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march.” (Page 15) Their only real motivation was fear of being called a coward. “Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to.” Death was better than humiliation.