As illustrated by Tim Obrien’s The Things They Carried, during the Vietnam War, the U.S. soldiers were not exposed to the traditional coping mechanisms as is used in the American society. These men were rather forced to invent and discover new ways to deal with pressures of the war. Invention was thus there only resource to use while in Vietnam jungle as it was not possible for the soldiers to carry many burdens with them. But sometimes if it was very necessary to do something, they have to devise ways to do it and thus coping mechanisms were necessary to survive the war.
As shown by O’Brien, it is when people go to war that they become aware of their own mortality. O’Brien shows how each soldier “carried ghosts” while at the same time walking through the tall grass than they were used at home sitting in the chair watching television. The story carries an emotional baggage of strain and weight that the soldiers endured during the war. Through the author’s psychology, we are able to deduce the unusually difficult struggles from the lack of coping mechanisms used by his fellow men in dealing with the atrocities of the war (Chapter summaries and analysis, p.2).
O’Brien’s fellow solders used a variety of techniques in trying to manage the anxiety, fear and guilt that was happening around them maybe by way of reflex or consciously. One of the methods used was psychological escape technique while the other was the crude humor technique. O’Brien tells of how after a heavy firefight, the soldiers could start joking immediately. An example is in, “…almost cut me a new asshole, almost (O’Brien, p.19) and then another soldier could grin and interject them. O’Brien goes on to follow this by explaining the psychology behind this kind of humor by saying that the soldier found jokes to enlighten them or used hard vocabularies to soften and contain the hard life. He says, “When someone died, it wasn't quite dying because in a curious way it seemed scripted… irony mixed with tragedy, and because they called it by other names, as if to encyst and destroy the reality of death itself” (O’Brien, 20). Clearly, this shows that the soldiers used humor to console themselves although O’Brien admits of not getting the rumor. For psychological escape technique, Jimmy Cross provides an example when he fantasizes being with his women called Martha in the U.S. In his fantasy he is shown thinking, “He was buried with Martha under the white sand…” (O’Brien, 12), this was after Lee had climbed down to look Cross at the Vietcong tunnel and found that ‘he was not there.’
We are shown some soldiers who used personal effects in order to remain linked to something outside the war and try to find a comfort zone. An example here is when Dobbins is shown carrying his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck every time he went into the battlefield (O’Brien, 129) or as a necessity to get through the day, we are shown Kiowa carrying a Bible that was given by his father (O’Brien, 4). Although during this war men could not afford to carry anything unnecessary unless it was useful to their survival, it was a necessity for them to remain sane and thus these kinds of personal effects became a necessity. O’Brien shows us another soldier, Ted Lavender, who carried tranquilizers with about 6 to 7 ounces of premium dope and says that for him they were a necessity (O’Brien, 4) or for Mark Fossie who flew in his girlfriend to ease his loneliness (O’Brien,104). O’Brien successfully illustrates to us the necessity for each of the soldier and what connected them to their old life. Throughout the war, each of the soldiers faced insurmountable challenges and thus the devised coping mechanisms that later became a necessity for them and the reason that propelled them to want to go home again.
However, as much as the soldiers tried to escape the reality, reality could force its way and hit them hard. Say when a soldier kills another person, they could feel guilt for taking another person’s life. O’Brien carries thousands of such deaths and in his own story about the man he killed, Tim. He says that it was difficult for him to release his guilt in such a matter. The guilt seems to make him describe the man he killed severally maybe in trying to clear his mind (O’Brien, p.139, p.144 and p.179). This seems to be one of the best coping mechanisms. As they drag the young man away, Kiowa urges them to talk (O’Brien, 144) so that they can rid themselves of the horrors of such an event. By using such a necessary tactic, they can relieve stress and be able to have the energy to continue their work as soldiers. In order to cope with the reality of death, the men are seen releasing their anguish in two ways: anger or laughter. An example is when they encounter a dead person, take out and shake his hand maybe to make the death appear less real (154). But if it is a death that is closer to them, the men act angrily and violently in order to release pain. After the death of Curt Lemon, they shoot a baby lion but “not to kill it, it was to hurt” (85) it. They felt like transferring the pain and this happened after the death of Lavender when they terrorized the villagers (O’Brien, p.16 and The Teacher’s View).
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In trying to cope with the stresses caused by the war, soldiers devised different ways to help them cope with the prevailing situation. They had to help themselves in the Vietnamese jungle as nobody was there to offer help. As such, the devised ways to reconnect with their real world or even shifting emotional connections to other people. O’Brien depicts the men in The Things they Carried as being able to cope with stress and the burdens that come with war by using different ways albeit not an easy thing for them.