Love and Responsibility in War
by Angela Jeffery
The Vietnam War transformed civilians into soldiers, boys into men, and it would transform moments of tragedy into moments of clarity. Before these soldiers were transported from their comfortable homes to a combat zone they were issued physical tools for survival; however, there was not an extra duffle bag issued for the emotional turmoil they encountered. That baggage would have to be carried by the heart and mind. The soldiers in Vietnam lived by a code of responsibility that was meant to keep them alive. When a man who is charged with the responsibility of men’s lives is preoccupied with a private love affair that takes him outside the combat zone, tragedy is the only way to bring him back to reality. Tragedy and its aftermath weigh more than any rucksack, than any bandolier filled with ammunition, than any weapon meant for protection against the enemy. The character of First Lieutenant (1LT) Jimmy Cross in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried waged an internal war that enables the reader to understand that a soldier’s emotional gear is just as taxing as the physical weight and often times cannot be let go of as easily as dropping a rucksack.
1LT Jimmy Cross is a twenty-four-year-old child walking through the jungles of Vietnam; however, he was longing to be in a different world where he lamented not taking chances with a girl he loved rather than trudging through a strange jungle where everything seemed to want him dead. “He remembered kissing her goodnight. Right then, he thought, he should’ve done something brave” (O’Brien 4). The jungles of Vietnam were peppered with deadly landmines and booby-traps, and just like the jungles, 1LT Jimmy Cross’s heart and mind were peppered with deadly landmines named pretend and hope. Schlepping through the swamps and up the hills that bombarded Vietnam, 1LT Jimmy Cross carried his love for a girl named Martha, a girl who would never reciprocate his love. Cross also carried “the responsibility for the lives of his men” (O’Brien 5). At this point the reader can sense that 1LT Jimmy Cross is at a moral crossroads within himself. 1LT Jimmy Cross must decide what is more important to him as he marches along the jungle floors of Vietnam. Is it his love for Martha, the girl who symbolizes a different world where he does not have to be afraid, a world where he can be a 24-year-old kid swooning and pining for the affections of her? Or must he let go of his fantasies and embrace his responsibilities and in so doing, risk losing his innocence? Forgetting Martha meant that he had to grow up and grown-ups cannot afford the luxury of pretend. “He was just a kid at war, in love. He was twenty-four years old. He couldn’t help it” (O’Brien 11). The jungles of Vietnam can be unforgiving and 1LT Jimmy Cross will find out that his guilt can be just as unforgiving.
Soldiers volunteer for a job of uncertainties, and soldiers are asked to adapt, endure, and accept uncertainties due to one powerful word: because. It does not matter what words follow that “because,” because when soldiers are given orders they are expected to execute without question. There are many variables that cause a demeanor of unquestioning obedience to alter. Love and hope can potentially be detrimental in a combat zone. “First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping” (O’Brien 1). The uncertainty of Martha’s love keeps 1LT Cross’ attention away from his Soldiers and has him asking irrelevant questions and yearning for a reassurance about a love that will never exist. When his men needed him alert, he was off in another world with Martha. It is not until 1LT Cross realized he did not properly mourn the death of his Soldier, Ted Lavender, because he was consumed with care and love for someone who would never reciprocate, that his uncertainties become certain. “Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling. He tried not to cry. He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war” (O’Brien 16). 1LT Cross was certain Martha would never love him (Kaplan, “Undying Uncertainty” 43). When the uncertainties become certainties a new attitude is given life. To not love does not mean to not care. Love can be dangerous because it can lead to uncertainties. “Lieutenant Cross reminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead” (O’Brien 25). After Lavender died, 1LT Cross decided that his men deserved a leader who would remain attentive throughout their tour of duty and therefore get them home alive. Cross burns the pictures and letters from Martha, shielding the fire from the rain to assure they burn; he has burned his childlike innocence and his ideas of pretend. He has accepted that Lavender is dead and that it is his fault because at the time he was not ready to cut the cord that constantly supplied him the air and blood to his fantasy world. It takes courage to grow up, and in the jungles of Vietnam 1LT Jimmy Cross decided to be courageous, not only for himself, but for his men so that they could return home and be able to set down all the things they carried.
Before 1LT Jimmy Cross marched into Than Khe and before 1LT Jimmy Cross carried the burden of guilt, the life of Lavender was taken. To some, the Vietnam War was a statement to a loss of innocence (Evans 202-218), and perhaps Martha was a symbol of the innocence that Jimmy Cross had hope to not lose; but that was shattered when Lavender was killed in action. 1LT Jimmy Cross became a changed man and developed into a leader after the death of Lavender. His moral dilemma had reached a choice and Cross’s choice was the responsibility of the lives of his men. “No more fantasies, he told himself. …when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think that she belonged elsewhere” (O’Brien 23). It was at this epiphany that 1LT Cross and his men realized that despite all the uncertainties of war there was one certainty and that was “…they would never be at a loss for things to carry” (O’Brien 15). War carries with it many unspoken truths and many scars that are not physical. 1LT Jimmy Cross and the remainder of his men marched into the village of Than Khe because that is what they were ordered to do and they carried with them the essential tools to survive a war. What there were not told to carry was guilt, or sadness, or emotion, and yet Cross and his soldiers carried all of that and then some because it was easy to drop an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat), and it was easy to accidentally drop ammunition or to forget a flashlight; but it was never easy to let go of the guilt, sadness, weakness, or strength that was shared by every soldier.
1LT Jimmy Cross is a young soldier in Vietnam. He battles the prioritization of a love only felt by him and the welfare of his soldiers. When you are alone in the trenches all you think about is home and who was left behind (Kaplan “Undying Uncertainty” 43). Jimmy Cross was awakened out of his complacency (his daydreams of Martha) and had to confront a new self (his guilt for the death of Ted Lavender) and in so doing he could carry on and tell his men to carry on (Kaplan “Interview” 93-108). The jungles of Vietnam claimed many lives and many emotions; however the things that 1LT Jimmy Cross carried, he would carry to his grave because he accepted what was and what never could be. Children, like 1LT Jimmy Cross were dropped into a combat zone and forced to grow up quickly, and in times of turmoil and tragedy children transform into adults with a sense of urgency. 1LT Jimmy Cross transformed into a man as he marched along the wood lines in Vietnam, and each step he took was weighed down by guilt. No matter what equipment he lost along the way, his footsteps would always be weighed down.
Angela Jeffery is a Sociology major in her second year at Ashford University. She is an Active Duty Noncommissioned Officer in the Army. Her aspiration upon graduating and earning her Bachelor of Arts in Sociology is to submit an Officer Candidacy School (OCS) packet in hopes of acceptance and joining the Officer ranks in the Army. Her education is not stopping with her B.A.; she intends to continue and earn her Master’s Degree in Psychology.