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Tim O'Brien's Things They Carried – Coping Mechanisms

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The Things They Carried –Coping Mechanisms to Survive

 

During the Vietnam war, soldiers were not exposed to the traditional coping mechanisms of our American society, as illustrated in Tim Obrien's The Things They Carried. These men were forced to discover and invent new ways to deal with the pressures of war, using only their resources while in the Vietnamese jungle. It was not possible for any soldier to carry many items or burdens with them, but if something was a necessity, a way was found to carry it, and coping mechanisms were a necessity to survive the war.  

 

 

Anti-depressants, psychiatrists, massages...there are many different things offered in American society today to help individuals fight the stress of life. People are willing to pay hundreds of dollars for medicine and treatments that promise to give them a better life. They will spend hours of their time at a masseuse or a psychiatrist in constant search for relief from the lives they live. During the Vietnam War, however, soldiers were not exposed to any of these traditional "coping mechanisms". Instead, these men were forced to discover and invent new ways to deal with the pressures of war, using only their resources while in the Vietnamese jungle. It was not possible for any soldier to carry many items or burdens with them, but if something was a necessity, a way was found to carry it, and coping mechanisms were a necessity to survive the war. Each soldier had a personal effect, story, or process that helped him wake up each morning and go to battle once again, and it was these personal necessities that enabled men to return home after the war. Stress was caused by the war itself and the continual conditions of battle, as well as the knowledge and guilt of killing another human, and having to view the devastation and death that surrounded the war. With no one except themselves and the men of their company, these soldiers had to carry their own necessary burdens and cope with issues as they could.

 

The conditions of war can be enough to drive a person to the edge of insanity, causing him or her to need something personal to bring them back to reality. They were in the war twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and the securities that each soldier had were the only things that kept them sane. Lt. Jimmy Cross repeatedly had thoughts and visions of Martha, left at home. He would read the letters she sent him and wonder about her as a tactic to keep him connected with the real world and the life he had left (3-4). At one point during the war, Martha even sent Cross a simple pebble from the Jersey shoreline - another small connection to the life he used to live, and to which he would someday return (9). He recalled memories of walks they used to take together, and Cross was able to relieve a few of the burdens of war when he had this pebble. It remained a physical connection to the life to which he was planning to return, and it continued to give him strength, support, and sanity throughout the war. By facing the everyday challenges of commanding a unit through battle, Jimmy Cross was forced to carry more burdens than any other man in his company, both emotionally and physically, and yet he still found a place for these letters and the pebble. They were necessary items for him to remember his purpose in fighting the war, and therefore he needed them just as much as any ammunition, food, or clothing.

 

Other members of Alpha Company used personal effects to remain connected to something outside the war, as well as find comfort for themselves. Dobbins carried a pair of his girlfriend's pantyhose around his neck each time he went to battle (129). Kiowa carried with him always a Bible from his father, a necessity to get through each day (4). During this war, men could not afford to carry anything that was not necessary to their survival. As it was necessary for the soldiers to remain sane, however, these personal effects also became necessities. Ted Lavender carried tranquilizers and, "six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity" (4). O'Brien illustrates to us the necessity for each man to be connected to their old life, telling a story of Mark Fossie flying in his girlfriend to ease his loneliness (104-05). Each soldier found himself facing insurmountable barriers throughout the war, and these small effects and coping mechanisms were often the only necessity that would give them reason to return home again. They needed personal methods of coping with the war, and this primeval survival was the only way to remain a man.

 

Sometimes, however, no matter how much a soldier tried to find escapes for himself, obstacles would come in their way and force men to find other means of coping with reality. Many times this extra stress would come after a soldier killed someone, and felt overwhelming guilt for taking another human life. In The Things they Carried, there are not thousands of examples of this form of death, but we are made aware of one specific story. O'Brien tells us about the man he killed, and the difficulty in releasing his guilt in this matter. He more than once describes the man in great detail, almost attempting to clear the event out of his mind even though he claims he "did not look on [his] work as therapy" (139, 179). This is a time when the best coping mechanism the men have is time and open ears. As they drag Tim away from the scene after giving him a few minutes to accept and process the death, Kiowa urges to "talk" (144). This is the only way he can eventually rid himself of the horrors of this event, and he needs to be supported at this time by those in his company to be able to survive. This is an event no individual can escape from by himself, and the only way Tim is able to cope with it is to talk with someone who will understand his grief. This is the only mechanism available to him at this time, and it is necessary that he use it to relieve the stress he is feeling and continue his job as a soldier.

 

Also in dealing with death, the men of Alpha Company are required to face death and devastation on a daily basis. In order to cope with this reality, it is often necessary for the man to release anguish in violence or laughter. There are times when they encounter a person dead, and it becomes a ritual to them to shake his hand, talk, and joke a little, in hopes of making the death less real (356-57). At another time they encounter a broken village, and a single girl dancing. Without knowing how to react, many men choose simply to make fun of her and escape the pain by mocking her dance (154). After a death that is closer and more personal, however, these men react violently to release some of their pain. After the death of their own Curt Lemon, they spend hours with a baby buffalo, shooting at it, "not to kill; it was to hurt" (85). They needed someone else to feel their pain, and this is how they expressed it. Another example of this violence occurred after the death of Lavender, when Cross's men went into the village of Than Khe, shooting, burning, and trashing the village to release some of their stress and enable themselves to continue their duty (16). This use of violence, although not a very positive choice, is necessary for these men, and the only way they are able to move on with their lives, and continue their work in the war.

 

To cope with the stresses of the war, it was necessary for each soldier to have personal effects as well as a group comradery. These men were alone in the Vietnamese jungle, and if they could not help themselves, they were not going to be helped. If struggle were encountered, men had personalized ways to reconnect with the real world, and if a tragedy were encountered which affected the entire company, they also found a combined way to cope with this pressure. The priorities of men during the war shifted greatly toward emotional connections to people and events other than the war, and it was these connections that helped them survive and return home. Coping with the stress and burden of war is not an easy task for anyone, yet in The Things they Carried, O'Brien depicts men dealing and coping as much as they can, using only their primeval resources. They learn how to cope with the barest necessities in life, and they learn how to make use of the smallest opportunities to obtain the most relief and joy from every moment in life.

 

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