Tim O'Brien(American; b. 1947)
The Things They Carried
First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, ajunior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not loveletters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack. In the late afternoon, after a day's march,he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap theletters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour oflight pretending. He would imagine romantic camping trips into the WhiteMountains in New Hampshire. He would sometimes taste the envelope flaps,knowing her tongue had been there. More than anything, he wanted Martha tolove him as he loved her, but the letters were mostly chatty, elusiveon the matter of love. She was a virgin, he was almost sure. She was anEnglish major at Mount Sebastian, and she wrote beautifully about herprofessors and roommates and midterm exams, about her respect for Chaucerand her great affection for Virginia Woolf. She often quoted lines .of poetry; she never mentioned the war, exceptto say, Jimmy, take care of yourself. The letters weighed ten ounces. Theywere signed "Love, Martha," but Lieutenant Cross understood that Love wasonly a way of signing and did not mean what he sometimes pretended it meant. At dusk, he would carefullyreturn the letters to his rucksack. Slowly, a bit distracted, he would getup and move among his men, checking the perimeter, then at full dark hewould return to his hole and watch the night and wonder if Martha was a virgin.
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among thenecessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heattabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum,candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches,sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or threecanteens of water. Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twentypounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extrarations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over poundcake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush,dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, whowas scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside thevillage of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP,they all carried steel helmets that weighed five pounds including the liner aid camouflage cover. They carriedthe standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. Ontheir feet they carried jungle boots-2.1 pounds and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl's foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until hewas shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, whichfor him was 2 necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RT0, carried condoms. NormanBowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, Carried an illustrated NewTestament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sundayschool in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however,Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet.Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it wasSOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket,which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hotdays seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each mancarried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band foreasy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons werewet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. Withits quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two pounds, but it was worthevery ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they usedhis poncho to wrap him up, thento carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that tookhim away.
They were called legs or grunts.
To carry something was to "hump" it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humpedhis love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In itsintransitive form, "to hump," meant "to walk," or "to march," but itimplied burdens far beyond the intransitive.
Almost everyone humped photographs. In his wallet, Lieutenant Cross carriedtwo photographs of Martha. The first was a Kodachrome snapshot signed"Love," though he knew better. She stood against a brick wall. Her eyeswere gray and neutral, her lips slightly open as she stared straight-on at the camera. At night, sometimes,Lieutenant Cross wondered who had taken the picture, because he knew she had boyfriends, because he loved her so much, and because he could seethe shadow of the picture taker spreading out against the brick wall. Thesecond photograph had been clipped from the 1968 Mount Sebastian yearbook.It was an action shotwomen's volleyballand Martha was bent horizontal to the floor, reaching, the palms of herhands in sharp focus, the tongue taut, the expression frank andcompetitive. There was no visible sweat. She wore white gym shorts. Herlegs, he thought, were almost certainly the legs of a virgin, dry and without hair, the left knee cocked andcarrying her entire weight, which was just over one hundred pounds.Lieutenant Cross remembered touching that left knee. A dark theater, heremembered, and the movie was Bonnie and Clyde, and Martha wore a tweed skirt, and during the final scene, when hetouched her knee, she turned and looked at him in a sad, sober way thatmade him pull his hand back, but he would always remember the feel of thetweed skirt and the knee beneath it andthe sound of the gunfire that killed Bonnie and Clyde, how embarrassing itwas, how slow and oppressive. He remembered kissing her goodnight at thedorm door. Right then, he thought, he should've done something brave. Heshould've carried her up the stairs to her room and tied her to the bed and touched that left knee all nightlong. He should've risked it. Whenever he looked at the photographs, hethought of new things he should've done.
What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of fieldspecialty.
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass,maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighed 2.9pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility forthe lives of his men.
As an RTO, Mitchell Sanders carried the PRC-25 radio, a killer, twenty-sixpounds with its battery.
As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine andplasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all thethings a medic must carry, including M&M's for especially bad wounds, for a totalweight of nearly twenty pounds.
As a big man, therefore a machine gunner, Henry Dobbins carried the M-60,which weighed twenty-three pounds unloaded, but which was almost alwaysloaded. In addition, Dobbins carried between ten and fifteen pounds ofammunition draped in belts across his chest and shoulders.
As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried thestandard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 75pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full twenty-round magazine. Dependingon numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the riflemencarried anywhere from twelve to twenty magazines, usually in clothbandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, fourteen pounds at maximum. When it was available, they alsocarried M-16 maintenance gear rods and steel brushes and swabs andtubes of LSA oil all of which weighed about 2 pound. Among the grunts, some carried theM-79 grenade launcher, 5.9 pounds unloaded, a reasonably light weapon except for the ammunition, which was heavy. A single round weighedten ounces. The typical load was twenty-five rounds. But Ted Lavender, whowas scared, carried thirty-four rounds when he was shot and killed outsideThan Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than twenty pounds of ammunition, plus theflak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper andtranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear. He was deadweight. Therewas no twitching or flopping. Kiowa, who saw it happen, said it was likewatching a rock fall, or a big sandbag or something just boom, thendown not like the movies where the dead guy rolls around and does fancy spinsand goes ass over teakettle not like that, Kiowa said, the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom.Down. Nothing else. It was a bright morning in mid-April. Lieutenant Crossfelt the pain. He blamed himself. They stripped off Lavender's canteens andammo, all the heavy things, and Rat Kiley said the obvious, the guy's dead, and Mitchell Sanders used his radio toreport one U.S. KIA and to request a chopper. Then they wrapped Lavender inhis poncho. They carried him out to a dry paddy, established security, andsat smoking the dead man's dope until the chopper came. Lieutenant Cross kept to himself. He picturedMartha's smooth young face, thinking he loved her more than anything, morethan his men, and now Ted Lavender was dead because he loved her so muchand could not stop thinking about her. When the dust-off arrived, they carried Lavender aboard. Afterward theyburned Than Khe. They marched until dusk, then dug their holes, and thatnight Kiowa kept explaining how you had to be them how fast it was, how thepoor guy just dropped like so much concrete, Boom-down, he said. Like cement.
In addition to the three standard weaponsthe M-60, M-16, andM-79they carried whatever presented itself, or whatever seemedappropriate as a means of killing or staying alive. They carriedcatch-as-catch can. At various times, in various situations, they carried M-14's andCAR-15's and Swedish K's and grease guns and captured AK-47s and ChiCom'sand RPG's and Simonov carbines and black-market Uzi's and .38-caliber Smith& Wesson handguns and 66 mm LAW's and shotguns and silencers and blackjacks and bayonets and C-4 plasticexplosives. Lee Strunk carried a slingshot; a weapon of last resort, hecalled it. Mitchell Sanders carried brass knuckles. Kiowa carried hisgrandfather's feathered hatchet. Every third or fourth man carried a Claymore antipersonnel mine-3.5 pounds with itsfiring device. They all carried fragmentation grenadesfourteenounces each. They all carried at least one M-18 colored smokegrenade twenty-four ounces. Some carried CS or tear-gas grenades. Sonic carriedwhite-phosphorus grenades. They carried all they could bear, and then some,including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things theycarried.
In the first week of April, before Lavender died, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross received a good-luck charm from Martha. It was a simple pebble. An ounce atmost. Smooth to the touch, it was a milky-white color with flecks of orangeand violet, oval-shaped, like a miniature egg. In the accompanying letter,Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline, precisely where the land touched water athigh tide, where things came together but also separated. It was thisseparate-but-together quality, she wrote, that had inspired her to pick upthe pebble and to carry it in her breast pocket for several days, where it seemed weightless, and then to sendit through the mail, by air, as a token of her truest feelings for him.Lieutenant Cross found this romantic. But he wondered what 'her truestfeelings were, exactly, and what shemeant by separate-but-together. He wondered how the tides and waves hadcome into play on that afternoon along the Jersey shoreline when Martha sawthe pebble and, bent down to rescue it from geology. He imagined bare feet.Martha was a poet, with the poet's sensibilities, and her feet would be brown and bare the toenailsunpainted, the eyes chilly and somber like the ocean in March, and thoughit was painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon. Heimagined a pair of shadows moving along the strip of sand where things came together but also separated. It was phantomjealousy, he knew, but he couldn't help himself. He loved her so much. Onthe march, through the hot days of early April, he carried the pebble inhis mouth, turning it with his tongue, tasting sea salts and moisture. His mind wandered. He had difficultykeeping his attention on the war. On occasion he would yell at his men tospread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip awayinto daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing. Hewould feel himself rising. Sun and waves and gentle winds, all love andlightness.
What they carried varied by mission.
When a mission took them to the mountains, they carried mosquito netting,machetes, canvas tarps, and extra bugjuice.
If a mission seemed especially hazardous, or if it involved a place theyknew to be bad, they carried everything they could. In certain heavilymined AO's, where the land was dense with Toe Poppers and Bouncing Betties,they took turns humping a twenty-eight-pound mine detector. With its headphones and big sensing plate, theequipment was a stress on the lower back and shoulders, awkward to handle,often useless because of the shrapnel in the earth, but they carried it anyway, partly for safety, partly for theillusion of safety.
On ambush, or other night missions, they carried peculiar little odds andends. Kiowa always took along his New Testament and a pair of moccasins forsilence. Dave Jensen carried night-sight vitamins high in carotene. LeeStrunk carried his slingshot; ammo, he claimed, would never be a problem. Rat Kiley carried brandy and M&M's.Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried the starlight scope, which weighed63 pounds with its aluminum carrying case. Henry Dobbins carried his girlfriend's pantyhose wrapped around his neck as a comforter. They all carried ghosts. Whendark came, they would move out single file across the meadows and paddiesto their ambush coordinates, wherethey would quietly set up the Claymores and lie down and spend the nightwaiting.
Other missions were more complicated and required special equipment. Inmid-April, it was their mission to search out and destroy the elaboratetunnel complexes in the ThanKhe area south of Chu Lai. To blow the tunnels, they carried one-poundblocks of pentrite high explosives; four blocks to a man, sixty-eightpounds in all. They carried wiring, detonators, and battery-poweredclackers. Dave Jensen carried earplugs. Most often, before blowing the tunnels, they were ordered by higher command tosearch them, which was considered bad news, but by and large they justshrugged and carried out orders. Because he was a big man, Henry Dobbinswas excused from tunnel duty. The others would draw numbers. Before Lavender died there were seventeen men in theplatoon, and whoever drew the number seventeen would strip off his gear andcrawl in headfirst with a flashlight and Lieutenant Cross's .45-caliberpistol. The rest of them would fan out as security. They would sit down or kneel, not facing the hole,listening to the ground beneath them, imagining cobwebs and ghosts,whatever was down therethe tunnel walls squeezing in-how the flashlight seemed impossibly heavy inthe hand and how it was tunnel vision in the very strictest sense,compression in all ways, even time, and how you had to wiggle inassand elbowsa swallowed-up feelingand how you found yourself worrying about odd things-will your flashlightgo dead? Do rats carry rabies? If you screamed, how far would the soundcarry? Would your buddies hear it? Would they have the courage to drag youout? In some respects, though not many, the waiting was worse than the tunnel itself. Imagination was akiller.
On April 16, when Lee Strunk drew the number seventeen, he laughed and muttered something and wentdown quickly. The morning was hot and very still. Not good, Kiowa said. Helooked at the tunnel opening, then out across a dry paddy toward thevillage of Than Khe. Nothing moved. No clouds or birds or people. As they waited, the men smoked and drankKool-Aid, not talking much, feeling sympathy for Lee Strunk but alsofeeling the luck of the draw, You win some, you lose some, said MitchellSanders, and sometimes you settle for a rain check. It was a tired line and no one laughed.
Henry Dobbins ate a tropical chocolate bar. Ted Lavender popped atranquilizer and went off to pee. After five minutes, Lieutenant JimmyCross moved to the tunnel, leaned down, and examined the darkness. Trouble,he thoughta cave-in maybe. And then suddenly, without willing it, he was thinking aboutMartha. The stresses and fractures, the quick collapse, the two of themburied alive under all that weight. Dense, crushing love. Kneeling,watching the hole, he tried to concentrate on Lee Strunk and the war, all the dangers, but hislove was too much for him, he felt paralyzed, he wanted to sleep inside herlungs and breathe her blood and be smothered. He wanted her to be a virgin and not a virgin,all at once. He wanted to know her. Intimate secretswhy poetry? Whyso sad? Why that grayness in her eyes? Why so alone? Not lonely, just aloneriding her bike across campus or sitting off by herself in the cafeteria.Even dancing, she danced alone and it was the aloneness that filled him with love. He remembered telling her that oneevening. How she nodded and looked away. And how, later, when he kissedher. She received the kiss without returning it, her eyes wide open, notafraid, not a virgin's eyes, just flat and uninvolved.
Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buriedwith Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore. They were pressedtogether, and the pebble in his mouth was her tongue. He was smiling.Vaguely, he was aware ofhow quiet the day was; the sullen paddies, yet he could not bring himselfto worry about matters of security. He was beyond that. He was just a kidat war, in love. He was twenty two years old. He couldn't help it.
A few moments later Lee Strunk crawled out of the tunnel. He came upgrinning, filthy but alive. Lieutenant Cross nodded and closed his eyeswhile the others clapped Strunk on the back and made jokes about risingfrom the dead.
Worms, Rat Kiley said. Right out of the grave. Fuckin' zombie.
The men laughed. They all felt great relief.
Spook City, said Mitchell Sanders.
Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, andlight then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he wentAhhooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back frompeeing. He lay with his mouth open. The teeth were broken. There was aswollen black bruise under his left eye.The cheekbone was gone. Oh shit, Rat Kiley said, the guy's dead. The guy'sdead, he kept saying, which seemed profound the guy's dead. I meanreally.
The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition.Lieutenant Cross carried his good-luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried arabbit's foot. Norman Bowker, other-wise a very gentle person, carried athumb that had been presented to him as agift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch,and weighed four ounces at most. It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy offifteen or sixteen. They'd found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. Theboy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had beencarrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition.
You want my opinion, Mitchell Sanders said, there's a definite moral here.
He put his hand on the dead boy's wrist. He was quiet for a time, as ifcounting a pulse, then he patted the stomach, almost affectionately, andused Kiowa's hunting hatchet to remove the thumb.
Henry Dobbins asked what the moral was.
You know Moral.
Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to NormanBowker. There was no blood. Smiling, he kicked the boy's head, watched thefiles scatter, and said, It's like with that old TV show Paladin.Have gun, will travel.
Henry Dobbins thought about it.
Yeah, well, he finally said. I don't see no moral.
There it is, man.
They carried USO stationery and pencils and pens. They carried Sterno,safety pins, trip flares, signal flares, spools of wire, razor blades, chewing tobacco, liberated joss sticksand statuettes of the sniffing Buddha, candles, grease pencils, The Starsand Stripes, fingernail clippers, Psy Ops leaflets, bush hats, bolos, andmuch more. Twice a week, when the resupply choppers came in, they carried hot chow in green Mermite cans andlarge canvas bags filled with iced beer and soda pop. They carried plasticwater containers, each with a two gallon capacity. Mitchell Sanders carrieda set of starched tiger fatigues for special occasions. Henry Dobbins carried Black Flag insecticide. DaveJensen carried empty sandbags that could be filled at night for addedprotection. Lee Strunk carried tanning lotion. Some things they carried incommon. Taking turns, they carriedthe big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed thirty pounds with itsbattery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others couldno longer bear, Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. Theycarried infections. They carried chesssets, basketballs, Vietnamese English dictionaries, insignia of rank,Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code ofConduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. Theycarried lice and ringworm and leeches andpaddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself.Vietnam, the place, the sod a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces.They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity,the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity. Theymoved like mules. By daylight they took sniper fire, at night they weremortared, but it was not battle, it was just the endless march, village tovillage, without purpose, nothing won or lost. They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded alongslowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood andbone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills anddown into the paddies and acrossthe rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the nextand then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, itwas anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, thehump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect andconscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in theirfeet. Their calculations were biological. They had no sense of strategy ormission. They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, nor caring, kicking over jars of rice,frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires andsometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, thenother villages, where it would always be the same. They carried their own lives. The pressures were enormous. Inthe heat of early afternoon, they would remove their helmets and flakjackets, walking bare, which was dangerous but which helped ease thestrain. They would often discard things along the route of march. Purely for comfort, they would throw away rations,blow their Claymores and grenades, no matter, because by nightfall theresupply choppers would arrive with more of the same, then a day or twolater still more, fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woolen sweaterstheresources were stunning sparklers for the Fourth of July, coloredeggs for Easter. It was the great American war chestthe fruits of sciences, the smokestacks, the canneries, the arsenals atHartford, the Minnesota forests, the machine shops, the vast fields of cornand wheat they carried like freight trains; they carried it on their backsand shouldersand for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns,there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be ata loss for things to carry.
After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his meninto the village of Than Khe. They burned everything. They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed thevillage well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then theymarched for several hours through the hot afternoon,and then at dusk, whileKiowa explained how Lavender died,Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.
He tried not to cry. With his entrenching tool, which weighed five pounds,he began digging a hole in the earth.
He felt shame. He hated himself He had loved Martha more than his men, andas a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he wouldhave to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war.
All he could do was dig. He used his entrenching tool like an ax, slashing,feeling both love and hate, and then later, when it was full dark, he satat the bottom of his foxhole and wept. It went on for a long while. Inpart, he was grieving for Ted Lavender, but mostly it was for Martha, and for himself, because she belonged toanother world, which was not quite real, and because she was a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey, a poet and a virgin anduninvolved, and because he realized she did not love him and neverwould.
Like cement, Kiowa whispered in the dark. I swear to God boom-down. Not a word.
I've heard this, said Norman Bowker.
A pisser, you know? Still zipping himself up. Zapped while zipping.
All right, fine. That's enough.
Yeah, but you had to see it, the guy just
I heard, man. Cement. So why not shut the fuck up?
Kiowa shook his head sadly and glanced over at the hole where LieutenantJimmy Cross sat watching the night. The air was thick and wet. A warm,dense fog had settled over the paddies and there was the stillness thatprecedes rain.
After a time Kiowa sighed.
One thing for sure, he said. The lieutenant's in some deep hurt. I meanthat crying jag the way he was carrying on it wasn't fakeor anything, it was real heavy-duty hurt. The man cares.
Sure, Norman Bowker said.
Say what you want, the man does care.
We all got problems.
No, I guess not, Bowker said. Do me a favor, though.
That's a smart Indian. Shut up.
Shrugging, Kiowa pulled off his boots. He wanted to say more, just tolighten up his sleep, but instead he opened his New Testament and arrangedit beneath his head as a pillow. The fog made things seem hollow andunattached. He tried not to think about Ted Lavender, but then he was thinking how fast it was, no drama, down anddead, and how it was hard to feet anything except surprise. It seemedunchristian. He wished he could find some great sadness, or even anger, but the emotionwasn't there and he couldn't make it happen. Mostly he felt pleased to bealive. He liked the smell of the New Testament under his check, the leatherand ink and paper and glue, whatever the chemicals were. He liked hearing the sounds of night. Even hisfatigue, it felt fine, the stiff muscles and the prickly awareness of hisown body, a floating feeling. He enjoyed not being dead. Lying there, Kiowaadmired Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's capacity for grief. He wanted to share the man's pain, he wanted to care asJimmy Cross cared. And yet when he closed his eyes, all he could think wasBoom-down, and all he could feel was the pleasure of having his boots off andthe fog curling in around him and the damp soil and the Bible smells andthe plush comfort of night.
After a moment Norman Bowker sat up in the dark.
What the hell, he said. You want to talk, talk. Tell it to me.
No, man, go on. One thing I hate, it's a silent Indian.
For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity.Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed orwanted to squeal but couldn't. When they twitched and made moaning soundsand covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly andcringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and madestupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers,hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them. Afterward, when the firing ended, theywould blink and peek up. They would touch their bodies, feeling shame, thenquickly hiding it. They would force themselves to stand. As if in slowmotion, frame by frame, the worldwould take on the old logicabsolute silence, then the wind, then sunlight, then voices. It was theburden of being alive. Awkwardly, the men would reassemble themselves,first in private, then in groups, becoming soldiers again. They wouldrepair the leaks in their eyes. They would check for casualties, call in dust-offs, lightcigarettes, try to smile, clear their throats and spit and begin cleaningtheir weapons. After a time someone would shake his head and say, No lie, Ialmost shit my pants, and someone else would laugh, which meant it was bad, yes, but the guy had obviouslynot shit his pants, it wasn't that bad, and in any case nobody would everdo such a thing and then go ahead and talk about it. They would squint intothe dense, oppressive sunlight. For a few moments, perhaps, they would fall silent, lighting a joint andtracking its passage from man to man, inhaling, holding in the humiliation.Scary stuff, one of them might say. But then someone else would grin orflick his eyebrows and say, Roger-dodger, almost cut me a new asshole, almost.
There were numerous such poses. Some carried themselves with a sort ofwistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline orgood humor or macho zeal. They were afraid of dying but they were even moreafraid to show it.
They found jokes to tell.
They used a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness. Greased,they'd say. Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It wasn't cruelty, juststage presence. They were actors and the war came at them in 3-D. Whensomeone died, it wasn't quite dying, because in a curious way it seemed scripted, and because they had their finesmostly memorized, irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it byother names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself. They kicked corpses. They cut off thumbs. They talkedgrunt lingo. They told stories about Ted Lavender's supply oftranquilizers, how the poor guy didn't feel a thing, how incrediblytranquil he was.
There's a moral here, said Mitchell Sanders.
They were waiting for Lavender's chopper, smoking the dead man's dope.
The moral's pretty obvious, Sanders said, and winked. Stay away from drugs.No joke, they'll ruin your day every time.
Cute, said Henry Dobbins.
Mind-blower, get it? Talk about wiggy nothing left, just blood andbrains.
They made themselves laugh.
There it is, they'd say, over and over, as if the repetition itself were anact of poise, a balance between crazy and almost crazy, knowing withoutgoing. There it is, which meant be cool, let it ride, because oh yeah, man,you can't change what can't be changed, there it is, there it absolutely and positively and fucking wellis.
They were tough.
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror,love, longing these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specificgravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. Theycarried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct torun or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be putdown, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried theirreputations. They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fearof blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had broughtthem to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory orhonor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die ofembarrassment. They crawled intotunnels and walked point and advanced under fire. Each morning, despite theunknowns, they made their legs move. They endured. They kept humping. Theydid not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close theeyes and fall. So easy, really.Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speakand not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into thechopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. Amere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather,they were too frightened to be cowards.
By and large they carried these things inside, maintaining the masks ofcomposure. They sneered at sick call. They spoke bitterly about guys who had found release by shooting off their own toes or fingers. Pussies,they'd say. Candyasses. It was fierce, mocking talk, with only a trace ofenvy or awe, but even so, the image played itself out behind theireyes.
They imagined the muzzle against flesh. They imagined the quick, sweetpain, then the evacuation to Japan, then a hospital with warm beds and cutegeisha nurses.
They dreamed of freedom birds.
At night, on guard, staring into the dark, they were carried away by jumbojets. They felt the rush of takeoff Gone! they yelled. And then velocity,wings and engines, a smiling stewardessbut it was more than a plane, it was a real bird, a big sleek silver birdwith feathers and talons and high screeching. They were flying. The weightsfell off; there was nothing to bear. They laughed and held on tight,feeling the cold slap of wind and altitude, soaring, thinking It's over, I'm gone! they were naked.They were light and freeit was all lightness, bright and fast andbuoyant, light as light, a helium buzz in the brain, a giddy bubbling in the lungs as they were taken upover the Clouds and the war, beyond duty, beyond gravity and mortificationanti global entanglements Sin loi! They yelled, I'm sorry, motherfuckers, but I'm out of it, I'mgoofed, I'm on a space cruise, I'm gone! and it was a restful,disencumbered sensation, just riding the light waves, sailing; that big silver freedom bird over the mountains andoceans, over America, over the farms and great sleeping cities andcemeteries and highways and the Golden Arches of McDonald's. It was flight, a kind of fleeing,a kind of falling, falling higher and higher, spinning off the edge of theearth and beyond the sun and through the vast, silent vacuum where therewere no burdens and where everything weighed exactly nothing. Gone! they screamed, I'm sorry but I'm gone!And so at night, not quite dreaming, they gave themselves over tolightness, they were carried, they were purely borne.
On the morning after Ted Lavender died, First LieutenantJimmy Cross crouched at the bottom of his foxhole and burned Martha'sletters. Then he burned the two photographs. There was a steady rainfalling, which made it difficult, but he used heat tabs and Sterno to builda small fire, screening it with his body, holding the photographs over the tight blue flame with the tips of hisfingers.
He realized it was only a gesture. Stupid, he thought. Sentimental, too,but mostly just stupid.
Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame.
Besides, the letters were in his head. And even now, without photographs,Lieutenant Cross could see Martha playing volleyball in her white gymshorts and yellow T-shirt. He could see her moving in the rain.
When the fire died out, Lieutenant Cross pulled his poncho over hisshoulders and ate breakfast from a can.
There was no great mystery, he decided.
In those burned letters Martha had never mentioned the war, except to say,Jimmy take care of yourself. She wasn't involved. She signed the letters"Love," but it wasn't love, and all the fine lines and technicalities didnot matter.
The morning came up wet and blurry. Everything seemed part of everythingelse, the fog and Martha and the deepening rain.
It was a war, after all.
Half smiling, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross took out his maps. He shook his headhard, as if to clear it, then bent forward and began planning the day'smarch. In ten minutes, or maybe twenty, he would rouse the men and theywould pack up and head west, where the maps showed the country to be green and inviting. They would do what theyhad always done. The rain might add some weight, but otherwise it would beone more day layered upon all the other days.
He was realistic about it. There was that new hardness in his stomach.
No more fantasies, he told himself.
Henceforth, when he thought about Martha, it would be only to think thatshe belonged elsewhere. He would shut down the daydreams. This was notMount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems ormidterm exams, aplace where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa wasright. Boom-down, and you were dead, never partly dead.
Briefly, in the rain, Lieutenant Cross saw Martha's gray eyes gazing backat him.
It was very sad, he thought. The things men carried inside. The things mendid or felt they had to do.
He almost nodded at her, but didn't.
Instead he went back to his maps. He was now determined to perform hisduties firmly and without negligence. It wouldn't help Lavender, he knew that, but from this point on he would comport himself as a soldier.He would dispose of his good-luck pebble. Swallow it, maybe, or use LeeStrunk's slingshot, or just drop it along the trail. On the march he wouldimpose strict field discipline. Hewould be careful to send out flank security, to prevent straggling orbunching up, to keep his troops moving at the proper pace and at the properinterval. He would insist on clean weapons. He would confiscate theremainder of Lavender's dope. Later in the day, perhaps, he would call the men together and speak to them plainly. Hewould accept the blame for what had happened to Ted Lavender. He would be aman about it. He would look them in the eyes, keeping his chin level, andhe would issue the new SOPs in a calm, impersonal tone of voice, an officer's voice, leaving no room forargument or discussion. Commencing immediately, he'd tell them, they wouldno longer abandon equipment along the route of march. They would police uptheir acts. They would get their shit together, and keep it together, and maintain it neatly and in goodworking order.
He would not tolerate laxity. He would show strength, distancing himself.
Among the men there would be grumbling, of course, and maybe worse, becausetheir days would seem longer and their loads heavier, but Lieutenant Crossreminded himself that his obligation was not to be loved but to lead. Hewould dispense with love; it was not now a factor. And if anyone quarreled or complained, he would simplytighten his lipsand arrange his shoulders in the correct command posture. He might give acurt little nod. Or he might not. He might just shrug and say Carry on,then they would saddle up and form into a column and move out toward thevillages west of Than Khe. (1986)