The things they carried online
Chapter 1, The Things They Carried Notes from The Things They Carried
(approx. 4 pages at 300 words per page)
The Things They Carried Chapter 1, The Things They Carried
American soldiers in Vietnam during the war carry many things, most of them from home. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from a girl named Martha, a college student back in New Jersey. He loves her, and though he knows she doesn’t love him, he hopes she will. He often daydreams about romantic vacations with her. He wonders if she is a virgin. His love sometimes distracts him from taking care of his soldiers. The men in his platoon carry objects that revealed their personalities. Henry Dobbins is a big man who liked to eat, so he carries extra food. Ted Lavender was scared, so he carried tranquilizers, which he took until he was shot and killed. Dave Jensen is worried about disease, so he carries soap and a toothbrush. They all carry heavy helmets and boots. Kiowa carries a bible—he is a deeply religious Baptist. Mitchell Sanders carries condoms, and Norma Bowker carries a diary. Rat Kiley, the medic, carries comic books. The nights are cold, the ground is wet, and you can bleed to death very quickly, so they carry ponchos and bandages. Almost everyone carries, or «humps,» photographs. Jimmy Cross carries two photographs of Martha, one where she leans against a wall (he wonders who took the picture) and one where she is playing volleyball, her left knee supporting all her weight. He stares at that knee, remembering when they went to see the movie «Bonnie and Clyde» together. He had touched her knee, and she had given him a look that made him take his hand away. Looking at the volleyball picture now, he wishes he had been more aggressive with her. He should have carried her up to her room that night after the movie. «Whenever he looked at the photographs, he thought of new things he should have done.» Chapter 1, pg. 5
The men carry some amazingly heavy physical and emotional burdens. Jimmy Cross, the leader of the platoon, carries navigation tools and the responsibility of taking care of his soldiers. Rat Kiley carries medicine, painkillers, surgical tape, and other things that weigh in total about twenty pounds. Ted Lavender is very scared, so he carries a great deal of ammunition, and when he is shot he falls heavily and suddenly, like a sandbag. Jimmy Cross thinks that Lavender is dead because his love for Martha distracted him from his men. They all carry as much as they can, for entertainment and protection, including awe and fear of the things they carry.
Jimmy Cross receives a pebble from Martha the week before Lavender dies. She says she found it on the Jersey shoreline, right where the land separated from the water, and she thought it symbolized her feelings toward him. He doesn’t understand this, but he thinks it is romantic. He wonders who she was with that day. He keeps the pebble under his tongue and thinks about walking with Martha, not carrying anything.
Mostly the men just accept everything they have to do during the war as their job. Sometimes they are required to search tunnels, something they all fear because the tunnels are dark and ghostly, and rats—or other, more dangerous things—might be down there. One morning it is Lee Strunk’s turn to search a tunnel. He seems nervous but goes down without hesitating. After a few minutes Jimmy Cross starts to think something went wrong, but then he can’t help thinking about Martha. He wants to know her completely. He wants to be down in the tunnel with her, crushed by love. He is twenty-four, and feels too young to be a leader in this war. Then Lee Strunk reappears. He is so happy to be alive that he makes a gleeful screaming sound, and then Ted Lavender is shot in the head. Rat Kiley says, over and over, «Oh shit, the guy’s dead,» Chapter 1, pg. 13, and it seems like a profound statement.
Norman Bowker carries a thumb cut from a dead Vietnamese teenage soldier. Mitchell Sanders cut it off and gave it to him, saying he could see a moral in all this. When Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was, Sanders just told him, «there it is.» Chapter 1, pg. 14
They carry many things—diseases, each other. Often their journey seems pointless. «By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they were mortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost.» Chapter 1, pg. 15 Sometimes they throw supplies away because they know more will come that evening. They are amazed at the supplies they are constantly being provided with: they even get colored eggs for Easter. After Lavender dies and Kiowa, who saw it happen, explains just how suddenly he fell, never to get up again, Cross tries not to cry. He is thinking of Martha, of how she is leading a different life far away, and will never love him, and he hates himself for letting that distract him from his men. Kiowa tries to tell Bowker the story of Lavender’s death, but Bowker gets angry about hearing it over and over. Silent, Kiowa tries to feel bad about Lavender’s death, but it happened so quickly he can’t feel anything but surprised. He would like to be able to feel as sad as Jimmy Cross does. Suddenly Bowker sits up and demands that Kiowa tell him the story again: he hates silence more than chatter.
Usually the men are brave, but sometimes when they are being attacked they become terrified and cry and scream and make promises to God. They are ashamed afterward. They don’t want to look cowardly in front of the others. They tell jokes to distance themselves from their grief and fear: whenever someone dies, they don’t call it death, they call it being «greased» or «offed» or lit up.» It doesn’t mean that they care any less, it only means that they know that caring doesn’t change anything. They don’t want to be thought of as weak or soft. They all dream about simply lying down and not getting up, or shooting off their own toe, so that they can be taken out of the war. They dream about not having to carry anything anymore.
After Lavender dies, Jimmy Cross burns Martha’s letters and photos. He knows it is a silly gesture, because he has all of them memorized. But now he knows that she will never love him. He begins to hate her, even as he loves her. He turns into a soldier—a man who does not let his feelings take him out of the reality of his duty. He still thinks about her, but she is no longer really with him. He decides that from now on he has to be stricter with his men, and distance himself, not caring about anyone as much.
Online Gallery: The Things They Carried
Korea, 1950: A U.S. infantryman shades himself as he hits the chow line. (All Photos: National Archives)
The Winter 2012 issue of MHQ featured photographs of soldiers and the odds and ends they carried to war—dolls, bicycles, and even hot tea. We’ve posted a few photos here of American GIs from 20th-century wars and “the things they carried.”
Also, MHQ is asking readers to send in photos of relatives or others and what they took to war. Click here to see those photos and find out how to contribute yours.
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A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.
The Things They Carried won France’s prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.