Blame in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien
Leadership is always a very difficult task, not suitable for every person, especially if leadership qualities need to be developed in a war. Tim O’Bryan describes in ‘The Things They Carried’ Jimmy Cross’ attempts to become a leader. The author demonstrates how important it is to have maturity, discipline and will to become a commander. Jimmy Cross’s emotions and feelings interfered with him: his young age, poor judgment, and inexperience frequently had disastrous results for the men under his command. Lieutenant Cross, in love with Martha, lets his comrade die and is tormented by guilt; during the war, he shows arrogance and an inability to apply theoretical knowledge in practice.
His obsessions with Martha, a former fellow college student, lead to the death of Lavender, when he was daydreaming about her. Cross blamed himself for the death of Lavender and carried this guilt throughout the war. Cross knew that “He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence, Lavender was now dead…” (O’Brien 121). Lieutenant Cross was forced to evaluate his infatuation with Martha and acknowledged that he was distracted from his leadership duties and could not lead and protect the men under him. O’Brien says, “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps” (115), and “More than anything, he wanted Martha to love him as he loved her” (114). Unfortunately, he is unsure of whether Martha loves him back. However, despite of this uncertainty, Cross “could not stop thinking about [Martha]” (O’Brien 116).
Lieutenant Cross was a weak leader, because of the outdated traditional training he had received at boot camp that was at stark odds with what he encountered at the battlefield. His training forced him to focus on proper drills, cleaning guns, reading maps, and following pre-decided standard battle procedures. Unfortunately, he had no training to help him and his men adapt to the frontline environment. Though he was the Alpha Company leader, he was never a bona fide member, placing himself apart from the men he was leading. He thought this would help him maintain a position of leadership which was deferred to him only because of his superior rank. Cross never demonstrated leadership but only enjoyed his respected and high status.
Even though he knew he was the leader, he was perpetually afraid of taking up that role. For example, to compensate for the guilt he carried after the death of Lavender, he resorted to standard battlefront operating procedures to try and exonerate himself from personal responsibility. Poorly trained, and his irritating neediness for Martha left him feeling personally responsible for the death of Ted Lavender. O’Brien states, “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” (42).
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross was professionally and emotionally unable to lead the Alpha Company. He was saving and hiding a photograph of Martha, whom he dated briefly before the war to help maintain some strong connection back home. He could not associate war and love; instead, he relied on his misplaced love for Martha to escape the reality of war. With a fictitious love that mirrored his inability to perform his leadership duties and left him emotionally unhinged, Cross was almost justified to struggle with guilt over the death of Lavender.
Unfortunately, Cross forgot that even the best-trained soldiers commanded by the most experienced company leaders are shot at and killed or injured in war. Though Cross seemed justified to shoulder the responsibility of the death of Lavender as his commanding officer, he needed to acknowledge that the enemy they were fighting was trained and in combat. This would have appeased his guilt and enabled him to function better as a war leader.
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin (Trade), 2009.