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Although women play a small role in The Things They Carried, it is a significant one. Female characters such as Martha, Mary Anne Bell, and Henry Dobbins’s unnamed girlfriend all affect the men of the Alpha Company—although in two of the cases, the women aren’t even with the men they’re affecting. The men idealize the women and use their presence—in letters, photographs, and even their imagination—as a kind of solace and reminder that a world does exist outside the atrocities of Vietnam. Jimmy Cross, for example, carries pictures of Martha and memories of their only date. He carries, also, the hope that she might one day return his love so that he has something to look forward to, after the war. Henry Dobbins carries his girlfriend’s pantyhose for a similar reason: to remind him of home and to distract him from the harsh realities of being the machine gunner in a platoon of soldiers. Mark Fossie invites his girlfriend Mary Anne over to Vietnam because he believes her presence might save him from the horrors before him. These men do not think of these women as beings with thoughts, fears, and needs. They instead see them as motivation to survive the war.
But the women in The Things They Carried don’t always fulfill the fantasy role that the men carve out for them. We learn in “Love” that even after Jimmy Cross returns home from the war, he cannot ever win Martha’s heart. Similarly, after a short while in Vietnam, Mary Anne Bell falls captive to the jungle’s mystery and ends up leaving Mark Fossie and breaking his heart. Sometimes, in the end, though, the reality is not enough to affect the man holding a female fantasy—even after Henry Dobbins’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he still believes her pantyhose will bring him good luck.