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An Iterative Descent into Traumatic Grief through Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

Valasandra Hightower, 13 July 2022

In The Things They Carried, O’Brien uses an iterative writing technique to describe the gradual acceptance of shock and guilt, inviting the reader to step into the beginning of a soldier’s trauma process that may, in time, evolve into Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

O’Brien divides his short story into ten scenes in a mixed, slightly overlapping temporal sequence that focuses on specific objects and events at varying levels of detail. This change in focus from one part to the next is critical to understanding the writing technique O’Brien applies to engage the reader in the trauma of a soldier.

As the story opens, the author draws the reader’s attention to the physical objects soldiers carried for survival. O’Brien was precise regarding the weight of objects. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were…” (O’Brien 624). In the same paragraph, we have a casual mention of the death of a platoon member. “Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity.” (O’Brien 625). As this section closes, O’Brien chooses to focus on the weight of the poncho that Lavender’s body was wrapped in. “With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost 2 pounds, but it was worth every ounce. 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.” (O’Brien 625). O’Brien holds this death at a distance, using the passive voice “was shot.” We receive no information about who Ted Lavender was, and the reader has neither connection nor empathy with the dead soldier.

The foxhole is a special setting in O’Brien’s story from the start. It is here that Lieutenant Jimmy Cross takes time to carefully re-read Martha’s letters. “In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips… She never mentioned the war, except to say, Jimmy, take care of yourself.” (O’Brien 632). The foxhole was where Jimmy escaped the reality of war and maintained his connection to civilian life. It was a form of isolation he allowed himself after completing his duties. The reader soon finds that Lieutenant Cross is carrying this fantasy with him while on duty. The illusion has effectively bled over into his military life. “To carry something was to hump it, as Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps.” (O’Brien 625).

As the story progresses, O’Brien revisits Ted Lavender’s death, still attempting to hold it at a distance, but now it is close enough to focus on all of the things Lavender carried with him. Lieutenant Cross is replaying the details of Lavender’s death in his mind, which are now intruding on his other thoughts. “…rations and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear. He was dead weight. There was no twitching or flopping.” (O’Brien 626). “It was a bright morning in mid-April. Lieutenant Cross felt the pain. He blamed himself.” (O’Brien 627). At this point, the reader begins to feel the weight of Lavender’s death, even if the event itself has not yet been described. The distance the reader felt from Lavender earlier in the story was shock, which is now wearing off. O’Brien gives just this small dose of acceptance and pain before Cross mentally slips back into reviewing the soldiers’ inventories, focusing on the weapons they carried in an effort to keep thoughts of Lavender at bay. Lieutenant Cross is moving through different behaviors of denial (“Stages of Grief”, Kübler-Ross 34).

The reader is then treated to a sensuous flashback, Jimmy’s fantasy of being with Martha. “His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war. On occasion, he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending…” (O’Brien 628). There is no blame or regret in the prose, just a gentle fade between reality and fantasy. “Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey Shore.” (O’Brien 630). While Cross is absorbed in this daydream, Ted Lavender suddenly dies. “…right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing.” (O’Brien 630). Nowhere in that scene is the reader given any indication of Lt. Cross’s reaction to Lavender’s death. Instead, in this flashback, he reflects on the responses of his platoon members before mentally distracting himself again with soldiers’ inventories, heavily in denial and attempting to shut the death out of his mind. But the author has revealed a critical fact here: Jimmy Cross has mentally entangled the fantasies of Martha with the death of Ted Lavender. This mental knot is the source of guilt Cross felt prior to this flashback.

Later we find Lt. Cross again in the foxhole, but the wall of fantasy he had constructed has shattered, and he is unable to hold back the reality of recent events. “…and then later, when it was full dark, he sat at the bottom of his foxhole and wept. It went on for a long while. In part, he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged to another world, which was not quite real…” (O’Brien 633). Here is the epiphany for Jimmy, the moment he comes to the understanding that his relationship with Martha is not grounded in reality. This is also the point where he accepts responsibility for Lavender’s death because he can no longer distance himself from it.

With the catharsis resolved by the following morning, he progresses from denial to anger (Kübler-Ross 44). His fantasy crumbled in an instant, at which point he decided to withdraw from his relationship with Martha. “She wasn’t involved. … He hated her. Yes, he did. He hated her. Love, too, but it was a hard, hating kind of love.” (O’Brien 636). This withdrawal could be interpreted as a sign of PTSD (Monson et al. 2). It also breaks his attachment to the civilian world, a common problem that complicates coping with the death of comrades. Further, attribution for a death in a brotherhood tends to provoke blame and anger (Lubens and Silver 5, Figure 1). Lt. Cross knows that Lavender’s death wasn’t the fault of any other members of his platoon, so he seeks another form of accountability, ultimately taking it on himself. This acceptance of the burden of blame leads directly to anger.

Finally, Cross moves on to bargaining. In this stage of grief, a person typically makes behavioral changes in an attempt to save someone they lost (Kübler-Ross 72). First, he decides to adhere strictly to all protocols in his platoon, including ordering his men to give up some of their comforts (some of the things they carried that were earlier indicated as “necessities”). He also forces himself to adhere to the same standards by giving up the things he carried (Martha’s letters, photos, the pebble, and the fantasy in his mind). “He would not tolerate laxity. He would show strength, distancing himself.” (O’Brien 637). He has decided to fully immerse himself and the rest of his platoon in military doctrine and to give up all connections with the civilian world.

O’Brien leaves the reader there, at the second-to-last stage of grief. There are two paths a person takes from this point: acceptance or breakdown and crisis (Kübler-Ross 75). He brought the reader to this point of the grieving process and left him here intentionally. We don’t know which path Lieutenant Cross took from here, and O’Brien hands this responsibility to the reader. We understand that the mental entanglement of his relationship with Martha and his feelings of guilt is not entirely resolved. This may lead the reader to speculate about how Jimmy’s reintegration into civilian life will go once he returns home from war.

Works Cited

Lubens P, Silver RC. U.S. combat veterans’ responses to suicide and combat deaths: A mixed-methods study. Social Science & Medicine. 2019;236:112341 (published ahead of print May 28, 2019 at

Kübler-Ross E. On Death and Dying. New York, Macmillan Publishing Co., 1969. ISBN 0-415-04015-9. cf.

Monson CM, Taft CT, Fredman SJ. Military-related PTSD and intimate relationships: from description to theory-driven research and intervention development. Clin Psychol Rev. 2009;29(8):707–714.

O’Brien T. “The Things They Carried.” The Norton Introduction to Literature, edited by Kelly J. Mays, shorter 14th ed., W.W. Norton, 2021, pp. 623–637.

Stanaway C. The Stages of Grief: Accepting the Unacceptable. University of Washington Counseling Center. June 8, 2020. Accessed July 12, 2022.

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