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The Things They Carried': The Theme of Death

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When in war different variables lead a soldier to remain in a mentality that is unmistakably filled with uneasiness and fear. Whether it be the fear of death or being seen as prey by the opposing side, the final subject on one’s mind is the gear they carry with them. Within the novel “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, the characters deal with the emotional and mental burden of the deaths they cause. Each character carries separate sentiments, such as burdens and regrets, that they brought to their graves or the moment they returned home from the war. In a sense, the title does not only reflect the objects the soldiers had with them but rather the recollections that trapped them in a world of pondering and thought.

The deaths of Ted Lavender and Kiowa trigger fault and blame within the soldiers as everybody believes that there could have been something to prevent their inevitable passing. Throughout the war, Lieutenant Cross felt wracked with guilt because he feels that he adore for a young lady named Martha and his inclination to follow orders, despite his better judgment, caused the deaths of two members of the Alpha Company. Cross “had difficulty keeping his attention on the war” since he became obsessed with the fantasy of being with Martha. Cross reveals his guilt of Ted Lavender’s death. Right before Lavender passes on, Cross allows himself to be distracted and deluded by the thoughts of Martha. His thoughts are interrupted when Lavender is shot. Cross feels ashamed for loving a girl who doesn’t love him back more than his men on the field alongside him. Years later, Cross confesses to O’Brien that he has “never pardoned himself for” Lavender’s death. Eventually, Kiowa passes away as a result of Lieutenant Cross’s poor judgment. He had his men set up at the coordinates he was given. Several old mama-sans had warned him that the land was not a good spot to set up but as a lieutenant, he had his orders. Cross wished he had “followed his first impulse” and looked for the higher ground because later that day, Kiowa was shot and submerged into the mud in which they stood. Norman Bowker depicts an immense amount of blame from horrible incidents that took place in Vietnam in which he failed to save the life of a fellow soldier. One night after a mortar attack Kiowa was hit and begun sinking in the mud. After attempting to drag him out, Bowker became overpowered by the scent of the region and let Kiowa slide down beneath the mud. After reflecting on this tragedy, Norman cannot get over the fact that he did not stay to save Kiowa. Despite their atrocities, these men have witnessed they continue to fight for their country. The soldiers in this story carry the shame of losing their comrades for years because the internal impact never left.

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In order to capture the reality of the war and convert it into lessons for others to learn, Tim O’Brien published his recollections from Vietnam for himself to reflect on and so others can see what happens in battle. Tim O’Brien, the protagonist, tells stories based on his personal experience in the Vietnam War. O’Brien is a pacifist who tries to rationalize his participation in the war. He concluded his feelings into joining the war “because [he] was embarrassed not to” fulfill the obligation toward his family and country. He is swayed by others influence rather than following his own beliefs. When the war is over, he becomes bewildered which leads him to tell stories of the tragedies he has witnessed. O’Brien’s sentiments of confusion over the atrocities he witnessed in Vietnam, including the passing of several of his fellow troopers, uncovers his guilty conscience. His “daughter Kathleen tells [him] it’s an obsession” but in reality, O’Brien shares his experience as solace to reveal what he had witnessed as a soldier. He uses storytelling as a coping mechanism and shares his experience with those untouched by the war such as his daughter. O’Brien remains to be an engaging man by sharing his stories with anyone who listens. Jimmy Cross shares with O’Brien that he has “got long memories” which reveals how observational he is. These stories expose their loss of innocence by engaging in the war. O’Brien explains how “the dead sometimes smile and return to the world” with him sharing these recollections. He hopes to have the legacy of the fallen soldiers to remain alive within those who listen to his story. In Vietnam, as the men “listen to the story, especially as Rat Kiley told it, you’d never know that Curt Lemon was dead” and for a moment it feels as if they were all still together. Tim O’Brien carried his memories not for himself but for those he lost.

Tim O’Brien describes the objects the men carried with them in order to display each individual’s most valued memento. Kiowa is a Native American soldier who is a part of the Alpha Company. Kiowa is caring to his fellow men and has a deep concern for those in Vietnam in time of the war. The objects Kiowa carries reflect who he is and expose his deeper passions. In his pack, he carries the New Testament which is reflective from his native heritage yet he is also a devoted Baptist. He helps the soldiers in the war by showing them that there is no need for excessive violence. Kiowa consistently continues to provide support to the men in the war because the war is more than they can handle. He offers men what they need to get through the difficulties of fighting in the war. After O’Brien kills a man, Kiowa attempts to ease his burden by shouldering some of the blame. He’s trying to help O’Brien understand the entire platoon is responsible for his death, not just him. Kiowa is often soft-spoken, and quite the opposite of many of the soldiers in the Alpha Company. He is practical, carrying moccasins to be able to walk silently and helping his fellow soldiers to rationalize their unfortunate actions. Henry Dobbins “carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck” illustrates his love for his girlfriend and how he wishes to be in her arms. Dobbin’s token from his girlfriend symbolizes how he holds onto his past so it could never escape him. These tangible objects reveal the innocence these men bring into the war in order to provide them with comfort.

Tim O’Brien focuses in-depth about the characters and what they carried with them physically. Over the course of the novel, it is shown that not only do they carry physical materials, but they also carry feelings and burdens that will follow them until their last breath. “The Things They Carried” reveals what experiences and terrors soldiers face while trying to hold onto their innocence. All of the men in this war cope differently and carry the emotional traumas with them while still attempting to maintain their patriotism towards their country.

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The Things They Carried’: The Theme of Death. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 31, 2023, from
“The Things They Carried’: The Theme of Death.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
The Things They Carried’: The Theme of Death. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 31 Jan. 2023].
The Things They Carried’: The Theme of Death [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 15 [cited 2023 Jan 31]. Available from:
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