The things soldiers carry are usually ones of either practical use or of personal, emotional value. Thus, their physical loads are extremely heavy, but simultaneously, their emotional loads are equally, if not more, burdening to them. They are merely shadows of their former selves, “[slipping] out of your own skin, like molting, shedding your own history and your own future” (O’Brien 201). They carry physical mementoes of their life without war, such as Henry Dobbins carrying his girlfriend’s pantyhose or Jimmy Cross carrying maps and compasses. These little things they carry symbolize their need for love or their burden of responsibility for themselves and the men around them. In addition, their emotional loads are anguish, confusion, loss, remorse and ignominy at all the inhumane things that needed to be done during the war. Consequently, in order to deal with this burden, O’Brien shares his war stories, in an effort to relieve himself of feelings of guilt and shame, and to show the rest of the world, Vietnam is not just an individual’s burden, but the burden of collective human past.
O’Brien job as a pig declotter serves as a potent symbol of what is to ensue, the foreshadowing of his part in the Vietnam War. His job was a bloody one: “removing blood clots from the necks of dead pigs the hogs were decapitated, split down the length of the belly, pried open, eviscerated, and strung up to remove the stuff I used a kind of water gun like standing under a lukewarm blood-shower” (O’Brien 41). The extremely detailed description he offers is wrought with critical symbolism, auguring the slaughter he will be forced to do in Vietnam. This image relates to war in the sense that even during the peaceful times his hands were red with pigs’ blood. Now, during the Vietnam War, he will only continue this practice on live objects, instead of dead pigs. He will be forced to think the opposite side less than human, animal-like, unworthy of compassion and mercy, and he will treat them according to this inflicted belief, which will create a heavy psychological burden for years to come.
Our habits are what define us, who we are and why we behave the way we do; just like the soldiers carried different objects, which exemplified their hobbies, wishes and longings. There was anything from pictures of girlfriends to stockings, comics, maps, etc. This helped to keep the illusion of humanity alive, that the habits are still there, only the individual is unable to completely devote himself to them. Subsequently, when thrown into a situation where our typical behavior needs readjustment, our whole psyche suffers. We eat, we sleep, we love, we live, but we want no change. And, when the inevitable change comes, suffering begins, because our habits need to change as well.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: First Mariner Books, 2009. Print.