Tim O’Brien’s classic Vietnam short story is about much more than the technical listings of standard issue war gear. The things these men carry are only underscored by the weight of ammunition, rations, weapons, and canteens—“They carried the sky” (364). I love this piece for its ability to combine the gritty realities of war with the inner turmoil that is almost never talked about after the fighting stops. The “Thousand Yard Stare”, or countless other names, will always be only an enigma to most of us civilians.
Lieutenant Cross is carrying much along the march through the jungle: his gear, his command, and his men. Mostly, though, he carries Martha. Not a yearning flame for passionate love, but instead only a vague notion that he must get back to her, that she is the thing that might save him. But war distorts reality, and he knows that she only signs “love” at the end of the letters as a formality.
However, Martha’s pebble and the story that accompanies it is the most important aspect of this story. She finds it on the Jersey shore where the waves meet the land, where they’re “together but also separated” (359). This is the core of Cross’s, and most of the men’s plight. They are separated from all the things they care about, separated from each other by their own ideologies, and separated from the horrors they do and have done to them. They are separate soldiers but a solid unit—separate but together.
Cross thinks it’s his daydreaming that gets Ted Lavender killed, but it’s not. War gets him killed. Lavender’s over-prepared, weighed down with too many tranquilizers, dope, and grenades. He’s “dead weight”. He carries enough to keep him permanently separate, but not together, and it kills him. Or at least, that’s the poetic way of looking at it. But war is not poetry. It’s men and women and children dying in awful ways with no resolution. No one ever “wins” a war, they only keep carrying it.
What these men are truly carrying is the “burden of being alive” (367). Their friends and enemies fall around them, and still they must go carrying on, forced to try and make sense of a senseless situation.
I remember asking my great-uncle Ray about WWII once, and what he did during the war, and all he said was, “I killed Japs.” He was in his eighties then, mostly senile and in deteriorating health, but even then as little kid I could see the weight in his eyes—the weight of what he’d carried back from the war. It must be a profoundly human thing to experience such an extreme set of circumstances, and no amount of flowery language would render me remotely capable of reaching for meaning in war, but I do know what it means to see suffering in its rawest forms. And in those moments there is a great weight that can crush you if you let it. To carry it is not a heroic deed, it is not a mark of honor or courage. It is only the rule of life that one must carry on.