The Roman philosopher Seneca the Younger once said “Perjor est bello timor ipse belli”, which translates to: “the dread of war is worse than war itself”. With this quote, Seneca identifies that war has both its physical and mental tolls on its participants. The psychological and emotional scars of war do much more damage to a solider than the actual physical battles. Tim O’ Brien repeats this idea many years later in his novel “The Things They Carried”, by describing how emotional burdens outweigh the physical loads that those in war must endure. What keeps them alive is the hope that they may one day return home to their loved ones. Yet, the weight of these intangible “items” such as “grief, terror, love, longing” overshadow the physical load they must endure since they are not easily cast away.
Tim O’ Brien alternates between narrative and descriptions of the tangible items that they soldiers carry. He remembers seemingly everything that his squad mates were carrying and provides an “emotionless recitation” of the weights of each of the items the soldiers carried into the field. He frequently uses the term “humping” to describe how the soldiers carry their gear; making them appear more uncivilized, like animals. As he switches back to mentioning the intangible items, such as the experiences of his leader Jimmy Cross and his love Martha, the emotional weights of each soldier is felt by the reader. This contrast in style affirms that they soldiers are human and provides emphasis to the weight these intangible objects have on the soldiers.
An emotional burden that the men must carry is the longing for their loved ones. The Vietnam War forced many young men to leave their loved ones and move halfway across the world to fight a questionable war in an unfamiliar land. This burden of longing falls heaviest on Lieutenant Cross, the leader of the soldiers. He longs to return to Martha, a girl he knows back home. Though it seems she has no romantic interests in him, he fantasizes and creates scenarios where she does have feelings for him. He rereads her letters every day and as a result, she constantly enters his thoughts. This clouds his judgment and undoubtedly affects his ability to lead. An example of Cross’s longing for her is displayed as “he [would] watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin” (355). The idea that she is a virgin is important to him because her virginity symbolizes her purity; a stark contrast to the immorality and violence of war that he experiences daily. Lieutenant Cross is able to escape the horrors of reality and “lighten the load” by reading her letters and longing for her presence.
The greatest mental burdens that weigh on the hearts of the soldiers are those of doubt and fear. The soldiers have no clue why they are put into an...