The story clearly shows that the soldiers are undergoing this psychological trauma as it lasts for more than 30 days, which is different from brief stress disorder. Post-traumatic stress symptoms persist for a longer time and affect one or rather many other areas in normal life functions. As for the soldiers, O’Brien talks about how the soldiers still remember the deaths of their friends. Traumatic events that result in the post-traumatic stress disorder may lead to actions such as torture and many others such as concentration of war victims as portrayed in ‘The Things They Carried’.
These patterns of trauma can be triggered by fear that makes the individual highly responsive to fearful situations that may come up in future. O’Brien’s experiences demonstrate the trauma that makes them live with fear of attacks. This experience makes the soldiers overwhelmed and feel stuck in some sense of danger, and they carry on with painful memories such as the ones of their dead friends. Post-traumatic stress disorder mainly affects the individuals who experience the calamity and those, who witness as well as those, who collect the pieces after the happenings such as O’Brien and his fellow soldiers.
After a traumatizing event, the mind as well as the body is in shock. This makes the feelings and the memory to be disconnected, and they are likely to remember the original event such as certain words or an image, like it happened to O’Brien. He could remember the image of the little girl who died, when he was a little boy. In the book, all the characters are both figurative and literal. This implies that most of the characters apart from carrying physical loads also carry emotional loads such as love, terror, grief and longing. Each man is portrayed as having numerous emotional burdens that underscore the mental capability and thinking. Henry Dobbins, for example, is seen to carry the emotional burden of longing, love and comfort, going by the fact that he carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose. Jimmy Cross, on the other hand, is in charge of his men and he carries the burden of responsibility for his men in the sense that he is carrying compasses and maps, which are directly related to the safety of his men.
All the men also have the burden of reputation, despite the fact that the author portrays an array of fear in them. All the characters, however, know that showing their fear only portray their vulnerability to both the enemy and their fellow soldiers in the squad. The aftermath of the war sees the psychological burdens continue to define the lives of the men who carried them. Most of the men, who survive the war, carry the burden of grief, guilt and confusion. Most of them are seen as trying to come into terms with their predicaments and their experiences during the war. A practical example of how these men try to come into terms with how their past experiences affect their current lives is when Jimmy Cross confides to O’Brien that he has never forgiven himself for the death of Ted Lavender. Norman Bowker, on the other hand, is so grief stricken and confused that he drives around aimlessly in his hometown, speaking of courage (O’Brien 1998, 77). This thing prompts him to write a seventeen-page letter to O’Brien, detailing how life has never been the same since the war.
O’Brien’s personal experience in the war is a clear indication that the fear of being shamed in front of one’s peers is one of the greatest motivating factors in war. At the beginning of the war, O’Brien is reluctant to participate in the war sighting moral and ethical considerations as his reasons. However, he does not want to be thought a coward by his peers, which is the reason why he participates in the war. O’Brien is even tempted to flee to Canada, but the only reason why he does not do so is his concern over what his family and local community will think of him, if he decides to flee. This shows just how much public perception affected the uncertainty of the characters, regarding a particular course of action.
The fear of being shamed in front of their peers not only affects the reluctant nature if the men want to participate in the war but also affect their relationships during the war. One of the greatest concerns among the men is to worry about social acceptance. This is, perhaps, what leads some men to engage in absurd or dangerous actions. An example of this situation is when Curt Lemon results to having a good tooth removed by a dentist to clear himself from shame of having fainted during an earlier encounter with the dentist. The youthful nature of the soldiers combined with the stressing nature of the war creates some sort of psychological dangers that further enhance the inherent risk of fighting. Jimmy Cross strikes out as having gone to war simply because his friends were also in the war, ends up being a not so efficient leader. The author uses some of the characters to show that fear of shame alone is a misguided perception for motivation, but it somehow exists, especially in a war situation.
Through the entire book, it is almost next to impossible for the reader to distinguish between fact and fiction. This implies that the reader is faced with the challenge of identifying whether an event really happened or not. The author goes ahead and heightens this impossibility by portraying the characters in a contradictory manner. In a general analysis, the author is trying not to write a history of the war in Vietnam, but rather write about the experiences of the war as lived through the various characters in the story. The entire story bears some sort of traumatic experiences that come to haunt the participants of the war, giving them an almost zero chance of peace. There is no clear balance between right and wrong and the brutal killings, carried out by the men, reveal the pain that the men have to undergo in judgment. The men seem to let out this pain by continuously repeating out a particular event. Exposed to some horrific situation in the war, some of the characters have to let out their frustration and guilt in a rather unprecedented manner. Cross, for example, deals with his own guilt by burning an entire village of Than Khe. In an almost related situation, another character Rat Kiley is able to let out his frustrations by killing a water buffalo.
There is also an ever present issue of loneliness and isolation in the sense that the two are some of the most destructive mental situation in human. The author portrays the issue of solitude on all the soldiers, implying that the components of fear, solitude and worries are even more dangerous than the Vietnamese soldiers. This is due to the fact that the soldiers feel somehow cut out from the rest of the world; a situation that is very synonymous in Vietnam, where the men have to contend with dwelling on an unknown period of time with unknown circumstances. The issue of loneliness remains strong on the soldiers, even after the war is over. Jimmy Cross, for example, is seen to continue being lonely with his only source of happiness Martha, who rejects him. Norman Bowker also strikes out as isolated feeling prompts him to drive aimlessly around town, speaking of courage. He even attempts to speak to some few people he comes across, but unfortunately there is no one who gives him attention.
O’Brien uses the Alpha company members and their actions to portray the emotional burden that these soldiers carry. One of the burdens is that the soldiers are faced with a hard task of confronting the tension between reality and fiction. This is one of the main causes that lead Cross to forget Martha, thinking that what existed between him and Martha was fantasy. Cross, further, blames himself for Lavender’s death, a thought which leads him to consider himself as being negligent. In a general context, “The Things They Carried” is a practical example of how love and war conflict. The disillusionment of most of the soldiers after the war signifies that the conflict between the two, in this case, is won by war.
Cross’s reaction as a result of Lavender’s death is a clear indication of just how gloomy and cynical men can be after a war. Coupled with the thoughts of Martha, Cross becomes obsessed with trivial issues such as whether Martha is a virgin or not, and the reason as to why she so tantalizingly signs her letters love. Cross goes on to think that Martha may indirectly be responsible for Lavender’s death. According to Cross, it was Martha’s distraction and incompetence that somehow caused the death of a fellow soldier. Cross tries to distant himself from this sentimentality by burning Martha’s pictures and letters. The end of the story portrays just how much Lavender’s death has affected Cross. Most of the men, who were at the war in Vietnam, are mostly in their early twenties, signifying that they have a whole life ahead of them. However, the experiences of the war have somehow traumatized their lives and continue to shape their current lives as seen through the various characters in the story.