The narrator lists things that the soldiers carry with them, both tangible and intangible, such as Lt. Crosss picture of and feelings for Martha. Other members of the unit are introduced through descriptions of the things they carry, such as Henry Dobbins who carries extra food, Ted Lavender who carries tranquilizer pills, and Kiowa who carries a hunting hatchet. OBrien introduces readers to the novels primary characters by describing the articles that the soldiers carry. The level of detail OBrien offers about the characters is expanded upon and illuminated in the chapters that follow, though OBrien distills the essence of each characters personality through the symbolic items each carries.
Henry Dobbins carries a machine gun and his girlfriends pantyhose. Dave Jensen carries soap, dental floss, foot powder, and vitamins. Mitchell Sanders carries condoms, brass knuckles, and the units radio. Norman Bowker carries a diary. Kiowa carries a volume of the New Testament and moccasins. Rat Kiley carries his medical kit, brandy, comic books, and M&Ms candy. The narrator offers additional detail about selected items; for example, the poncho Ted Lavender carries will later be used by his fellow soldiers to carry his dead body.
This device is an example of the author and narrator embedding small details in the text that will be further explained later in the book. It is important to note, too, how the details are selective; they are recalled by a character, the unnamed narrator of the chapter. The details of what each man carries are funneled through the memory of this narrator.
OBrien details at great length what all the men carry: standard gear, weapons, tear gas, explosives, ammunitions, entrenching tools, starlight scopes, grenades, flak jackets, boots, rations, and the Army newsletter. They also carry their grief, terror, love, and longing, with poise and dignity. OBriens extended catalog of items creates a picture in the readers mind that grows incrementally. OBriens technique also allows each character to be introduced with a history and a unique place within the group of men.
Lt. Cross is singled out from the group, and OBrien offers the most detail about his interior feelings and thoughts. Many of these soldiers hump, or carry, photographs, and Lieutenant Cross has an action shot of Martha playing volleyball. He also carries memories of their date and regrets that he did not try to satisfy his desire to become intimate with her by tying her up and touching her knee. OBrien stresses that Lt. Cross carries all these things, but in addition carries the lives of his men.
Even as OBrien opens The Things They Carried, he sets forth the novels primary themes of memory and imagination and the opportunity for mental escape that these powers offer. For example, as Lt. Cross moves through the rigorous daily motions of combat duty, his mind dwells on Martha. Importantly, as he thinks about Martha, he does not merely recall memories of her; instead he imagines what might be, such as romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire. OBrien describes these longings of Lt. Cross as pretending. Pretending is a form of storytelling, that is, telling stories to oneself. OBrien underscores the importance of Lt. Crosss actions by emphasizing the artifacts”Marthas letters and photograph”and characterizes Lt. Cross as the carrier of these possessions as well as of his love for Martha.
OBrien moves from employing the literary technique of describing the soldiers physical artifacts to introducing the novels primary characters. The minute details he provides about objects that individuals carry is telling, and particular attention should be paid to these details because they foreshadow the core narratives that comprise the novel. This technique of cataloging the things the soldiers carry also functions to create fuller composites of the characters, and by extension make the characters seem more real to readers.
This aesthetic of helping readers connect with his characters is OBriens primary objective in the novel, to make readers feel the story he presents as much as is physically and emotionally possible, as if it were real. Though the minutiae that OBrien includes”for example the weight of a weapon, the weight of a radio, the weight of a grenade in ounces”seems superfluous, it is supposed to be accretive in his readers imaginations so that they can begin to feel the physical weight of the burdens of war, as well as, eventually, the psychological and emotional burdens (so much as it is possible for a non-witness to war to perceive). OBriens attention to sensory detail also supports this primary objective of evoking a real response in the reader.
With Lavenders death, OBrien creates a tension between the actuality of Lt. Crosss participation in battle and his interior, imagined fantasies that give him refuge. In burning Marthas letters and accepting blame for Lavenders death, Crosss conflicting trains of thought signal the reader to be cautious when deciding what is truth or fantasy and when assigning meaning to these stories. While he destroyed the physical accoutrements, the mementos of Martha, Lt. Cross continues to carry the memory of her with him. To that memory is also added the burden of grief and guilt. Despite this emotional burden, OBrien, as he continues in the following chapter, begins to highlight the central question of the novel: Why people carry the things they do?