First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross of Alpha Company is carrying letters from a girl named Martha that he loves from back at college, though he doesn't believe she loves him. He reads them carefully, and decides her letters are "chatty." Each night, he checks on his men after reading her letters and then returns to his foxhole and thinks about her.
The letters establish a link between the war in Vietnam and home. Cross' letters provide a framework for the rest of the story, told largely out of order. Cross can't accept Martha's love as he fears his death in the war, thinking she writes out of pity.
The things they carry are determined by necessity and what the army mandates, but also by each soldiers' personal quirks. Henry Dobbins carries extra rations. Dave Jensen carries a toothbrush, dental floss, and soap. Ted Lavender ("who was scared") carries tranquilizers. Mitchell Sanders carries condoms. Norman Bowker carries a diary. Rat Kiley carries comic books. Kiowa carries a copy of the New Testament.
The different items introduce the characters that will fill the entire collection. The items they carry are intended to illustrate aspects of their personality. The emphasis is on Ted Lavender, the scared one, who carried tranquilizers. Even though these men had things they had to carry, they elected to carry more.
Ted Lavender is always very careful, but he's shot dead in April. He's wrapped in an army issued poncho and carried into a chopper
Lavender's death is one of the central events of the story. Its blunt introduction shows the arbitrariness and suddenness of death.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross walks with pictures of Martha all over Vietnam. He has two pictures of her: one is of her standing against a brick wall, the other is of her playing volleyball in college. He remembers taking Martha on a date to the movies and touching her knee during the final scene until she looked at him and made him move his hand. He remembers kissing her goodnight at her dorm. Now in Vietnam he wishes that he had taken her upstairs and tied her up and touched her knee all night long.
The mundane normality of the pictures is striking—Cross seems to cling to both Martha and the normality. Cross's fantasies about tying Martha up shows how the violence of war has warped his thinking, but also his essential innocence and inexperience—he just wants to touch her knee. .
The things they carry depend on their rank and role. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is a lieutenant and so he carries a different kind of gun and the responsibility to protect his men. Rat Kiley is a medic and carries medical supplies. Henry Dobbins carries extra ammo and an M-60 because he was big. Everyone else carries a standard M-16 with a standard 25 rounds of ammo, but Ted Lavender was carrying 34 rounds (and his fear) when he was shot outside Than Khe.
The list of characters' ranks and positions adds to the reader's understanding of life as a soldier. Cross has the highest rank, and responsibility is his greatest weight. The soldiers carry not just things but social obligations. Lavender carried extra rounds for protection but still got shot dead, showing death in war does not reward the prepared.
Kiowa describes seeing Ted Lavender die and says it was like watching a rock drop to the ground. The men carry him to a chopper and then smoke his dope. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross blames himself for Ted Lavender's death because he loves Martha so much that he's been preoccupied. They burn Than Khe. Kiowa keeps describing the way Lavender fell when he died.
Kiowa's repetitive description of Lavender's death illustrates how death is harsh, swift and meaningless—like a rock falling. Notice also how the narrative circles around Lavender's death just as the soldiers do: the story structure mirrors and portrays the soldiers own thoughts. Cross continues to feel the weight of his responsibility even though he could have done nothing, and the soldiers respond to their trauma with inhumanity of their own: burning Than Khe.
In the first week of April, just before Ted Lavender died, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross got a pebble as a good luck charm from Martha. She said in her letter that she found it on the Jersey shoreline and it made her feel like they were "separate-but-together." He walks through the war daydreaming of Martha, distracted.
The shifting of the narrative through time disorients the reader, again mirroring the disorientating state of war. The pebble is Cross' connection to home and Martha. He has been thinking of her long before Lavender died.
The things they carry vary by mission, depending on whether they're in the mountains, in heavily mined areas, setting ambushes, on night missions, or on special missions. In mid-April they had to search and then destroy the tunnels near Than Khe. They drew numbers to decide who would go below ground to search the tunnels. They imagined being trapped below, being blown up, being bitten by rats.
Death can come just from drawing the chosen number—it's literally a lottery—there is no way to predict whether or not the tunnels would collapse or explode. Each mission carries the weight and fear of potentially dying in horrifying ways.
On April 16, Lee Strunk draws the number to go down. The men all feel sympathy for Lee Strunk because it's a dangerous job. Ted Lavender takes a tranquilizer and goes off to pee. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross checks the tunnel when he gets concerned about Lee Strunk, but he can only think of Martha and the tunnel collapsing on the both of them.
And the lottery is even bigger than the lottery of drawing numbers that the soldiers set up. Anyone can die, at any time, doing anything, no matter how mundane. Strunk is in the more precarious situation, while Lavender is just off peeing.
Lee Strunk eventually emerges, grinning and filthy, and everyone claps. Lee Strunk makes a ghost sound, trying to spook everyone and make them laugh. Suddenly, Ted Lavender is shot in the head as he returns from peeing. Rat Kiley keeps saying "The guy's dead."
Lavender's death shows how arbitrary death is in war. Strunk's death makes more sense, but there is no sense in war. Rat Kiley's repetition emphasizes this blunt quality of death, how the only thing death means is death.
The things they carry are determined by superstition: Lieutenant Jimmy Cross' pebble, Dave Jensen's rabbit foot, Norman Bowker carries a dead man's thumb that was a gift from Mitchell Sanders. Mitchell Sanders said there was a moral to taking the dead teenager's thumb. Henry Dobbins asks what it is and Mitchell Sanders delays answering before finally saying that there is no moral.
The carried items by superstition further flesh out the characters, but also show that superstition won't protect you. The thumb story and Sanders' claim that there is no moral shows there is no meaning, no obvious right or wrong, in war, nor is there a right or wrong in a war story.
After Ted Lavender dies and is taken away in the chopper, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross leads his men into Than Khe where they burn everything down and shoot every living thing.
The soldiers respond to the trauma of death by dealing out terrible, mindless death to others. It's an endless, awful cycle (and the stories repetitive structure might also be described as cyclical)
That night Kiowa talks about what it was like to see Ted Lavender die. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross walks away and begins digging a foxhole. He sits at the bottom of his foxhole and cries.
Cross cannot bear to think he's responsible for Lavender's death, and separates himself from the Company to mourn.
Kiowa and the men are still talking about the abruptness of Ted Lavender's death, the short distance between life and death. Kiowa says Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is commendable for caring so much about Ted Lavender and his men. Kiowa goes to sleep thinking of how good a man Lieutenant Jimmy Cross is for his "capacity for grief," And wonders why all he can do is think of Ted Lavender falling like a rock.
Kiowa's high esteem for Cross and the reader's view of Cross from Cross' perspective are contrasted to show how differently each soldier perceived the other. They believed they had to uphold a certain kind of behavior. Kiowa can think only of death because when faced with the abruptness of it he must think of his own potential death.
They carry themselves with poise, while hiding shame, with "wistful resignation," "pride," "stiff soldierly discipline," "good humor," and "macho zeal." They are all afraid to die but try not to show it. They tell jokes. They talk about Ted Lavender's supply of tranquilizers and Mitchell Sanders says there's a moral to the story: don't do drugs.
Their behaviors and jokes are meant to help them hide from the fear of death. Sander's moral to Lavender's story is ludicrously insufficient—and just further emphasizes that there is no moral. It could have happened to any of them.
The emotional baggage they carry: they know they might die, they carry their reputations, they fantasize about purposely blowing off their own toe and going home but don't do it. They carry a whole host of complex feelings but they hide them inside. They imagine flying over America, going to McDonald's.
They all think about ways to leave the war, but don't leave because they would shame themselves and their families. Instead, they comfort themselves with thinking of home, but do their duty, even though they can find no moral in it.
The morning after Ted Lavender dies, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross burns Martha's letters in his foxhole. Then he burns the two photographs. He decides he hates her. "Love, too, but it was a hard, hating kind of love."
In burning the letters Cross is destroying his connection to past, giving up on all that distracts from the war, and punishing himself for his failure In war, love and hate become tangled.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross feels determined to excel as a Lieutenant now and protect his men. He decides he will get rid of the pebble, get rid of the rest of Ted Lavender's drugs, accept all the blame for Lavender's death. He expects the men won't like his newfound strictness but that they will keep marching.
Cross's failure leads him to accept the burden of leadership—even if it means losing Martha and the goodwill of some of his men.