First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carries letters from a girl named Martha, who's an English major at Mount Sebastian College. He reads the letters every night. He's in love with her, but she's not in love with him.
The men carry the things they need, like can openers and pocketknives and Kool-Aid and water.
Some necessities are more individual. Kiowa, for example, carries a copy of the New Testament, and Ted Lavender is scared, so he carries tranquilizers until he's shot in the head.
(For more on what the characters carry and how it helps us see them as individuals throughout this story, head over to "Character Clues.")
Some basic vocabulary: The soldiers are called "legs" or "grunts." To "hump" something means to carry it. (Get your mind out of the gutter!)
You can hump something that exists, tangibly, like a pack of ammunition, or you can hump something in the emotional sense, like the love that Jimmy Cross has for Martha. (Out of the gutter, we said!)
Almost everyone humps photographs. Jimmy Cross carries two of Martha. In one, she's playing volleyball, and he's almost sure that she's a virgin (these facts are not related). The two of them saw a movie once, and he touched her knee, and he wishes that he'd carried her up to her room and tied her to the bed and touched her knee all night.
They carry the things their military rank demands that they carry.
For example, Rat Kiley is the medic, so he carries morphine, malaria tablets, comic books, and M&Ms.
Jimmy Cross is the platoon leader, so he carries a compass, codebooks, and the responsibility for his men.
Ted Lavender, until he dies outside the village of Than Khe, carries nine more rounds of ammo than anyone else, plus everything that everyone else carries, plus the fear.
Jimmy Cross blames himself when Ted Lavender is shot, and afterwards, they burn Than Khe.
They carry weapons: the M-60, the M-16, the M-79, M-14s, CAR-15s, Chi-Coms, RPGs, and bayonets, just to name a few. Lee Strunk carries a slingshot, Mitchell Sanders carries brass knuckles, and Kiowa carries his grandfather's hatchet.
They all carry respect for the power of the things they carry.
Before Ted Lavender dies, Jimmy Cross gets a good-luck charm from Martha. It's a pebble. Sometimes he carries the pebble in his mouth, and has trouble thinking about the war because he loves Martha so much.
What the men carry depends on their mission. If it's in the mountains, they carry things like machetes. If they're going to a heavily mined area, they carry a 28-pound mine detector.
On night missions, they all carry their own necessities. Kiowa carries moccasins. Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend's stockings around his neck.
Sometimes they're required to blow out tunnels. Before they do that, they're supposed to search them—a pretty terrifying job. They draw numbers to see who has to do it.
Outside Than Khe, Lee Strunk draws the unlucky number, and goes down into the tunnel. The rest of the men sit down to wait.
Jimmy Cross tries to focus on the tunnel, but he keeps thinking about Martha, and what it would be like to be in that tunnel with her. He's trying to focus, but he's just a kid. He's just twenty-four years old.
Lee Strunk pops out of the tunnel, grinning. Everyone relaxes and starts to joke around.
Strunk then makes a noise like a funny ghost, and then all of a sudden, bam, Ted Lavender is shot in the head. He's on his way back from peeing.
Sometimes they carry things according to superstition. Norman Bowker, for example, who's normally very gentle, carries a thumb that Mitchell Sanders cut off a Viet Cong (VC) corpse.
They found the corpse lying in a ditch, and Mitchell Sanders said that there was a moral to it. He cut the thumb off, gave it to Bowker, and said that the moral was "Have gun, will travel."
Henry Dobbins said he didn't get it. We, dear readers that we are, don't really get it either. And that's okay; this book is kind of about things not making sense, so don't feel bad.
They carry stationery and chess sets and infections and the sky. They march just to march, not really thinking about where they're going. They carry their lives. They'll always have something to carry.
After Lavender dies, Jimmy Cross and the men burn the village of Than Khe. Cross feels guilty for what happened to Lavender; he loved Martha more than his men, and look what happened. He cries for Lavender but also for Martha, because she belongs to another world, and she doesn't love him.
Kiowa can't stop talking about how Ted Lavender died, how he hit the ground. He saw Jimmy Cross cry, and he says that the Lieutenant really cares. Norman Bowker asks him to shut up, please, so he does.
But even though Kiowa stopped talking about the death, he can't stop thinking about it, and what he thinks is that the only emotion he can muster up is surprise.
They carry themselves with dignity and poise, except when things are really scary, and then they don't. They joke about it afterwards.
They make their vocabulary hard and rough to cover up how much they actually care.
When Lavender dies, they say he was high on so many tranquilizers, he didn't feel a thing. Sanders says that there's a moral there—that drugs will ruin your day every time.
They're tough, and carry the knowledge that they might die at any time. They carry the fear of embarrassment and the fear of blushing. They don't talk about these things, and they mock guys who take the easy way out by shooting off a toe or a finger.
They pretend they're carried by jets back to America.
After Ted Lavender dies, Jimmy Cross burns all of Martha's letters and her photographs. He knows it's just a gesture, that Lavender is still dead, but he does it anyway. He thinks he hates Martha now, while loving her at the same time.
He decides that he's not going to be distracted by her anymore. He's going to crack down on the men, be all about discipline. No matter what the men think, he's going to be a real leader from now on.