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The setting for “The
Things They Carried” is the Vietnam War. This is gathered from where Ted
Lavender was shot, when the author states, “Ted Lavender, who was scared,
carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than
Khe in mid-April” (367). In the opening we see our main protagonist, First
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, carrying his infatuation for Martha with him. This
seems to consume the majority of Jimmy’s thoughts. This was a deadly distraction
for First Lt. Cross as seen in the quote, “Slowly, a bit distracted, he would
get up and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark he
would return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin”
(366-367). The writer seems to start hinting toward this “love” for Martha is
going to be a big distraction for First Lt. Cross in the story.

            The characters in this story each carried a heavy load on
their marches. Each man carried  personal
items that varied as well. “Together, these items weighed between fifteen and
twenty pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry
Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of
canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field
hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of
soap he’d stolen on R & R in Sydney, Australia” (367). Some things were
carried due to personal preference, but others were standard items mandated by
procedures. “Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each
man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7
pounds, but on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly,
each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet
band for east access” (367).

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            The protagonist in the story seems very distracted,
almost preoccupied with his love for Martha. He carried what he fantasized were
love letters from Martha with him as seen in this passage, “First Lieutenant
Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount
Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant
Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his
rucksack” (366). Also in this quote, “He would sometimes taste the envelope
flaps, knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha
to love him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusive on the
matter of love” (366). The writer suggests that even though First Lt. Cross
knew they were not love letters, it’s what he wanted to believe that mattered
to him. He wanted Martha to love him as he loved her, but it appears that down
deep he knew she didn’t as evidenced in the quote, “They were signed Love,
Martha, but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love was only a way of signing and
did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant” (366).

            We learn early on that the death of Ted Lavender will be
a major part of the story as it is mentioned three times in the second
paragraph. The first time it was quoted as this, “Ted Lavender, who was scared,
carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than
Khe in mid-April” (366). The second time the author stated, “Until he was shot,
Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a
necessity” (366). The third time it was mentioned, he referenced the poncho
they carried. “In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used
his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him
into the chopper that took him away” (368). The writer simply mentioning his
death three times in one paragraph, implies that Ted’s death plays an important
role in this story. He refers to it in a different context each time, but
references his death in each. It leads the reader to believe that the death of
Ted Lavender will be a major psychological stressor in the story.

            The men carried a heavy physical load, but carried an
equally, if not heavier mental load as well. “To carry something was to hump
it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and
through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to
march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive” (368). Lt. Cross was
carrying the mental burden from his internal fantasies about Martha with him as
he was marching. From the references of Ted Lavender’s death in the second
paragraph the reader is lead to the conclusion that this will also weigh heavy
on the men. The writer states, “They all carried ghosts”. It can be said that
the men carried the burden and the emotional stress of the things that they had
seen in the war zone, but also the things left unsaid or unfinished back home.

 

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