Ted Lavender—The Things They Carried: Character Summary

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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Who is Ted Lavender in The Things They Carried? What are the defining moments for his character?

Ted Lavender is a soldier in Alpha Company, a unit of the U.S. Army in the Vietnam War, in The Things They Carried. Lavender adopts a puppy while serving, and his death comes out of the blue.

We’ll cover the most important scenes involving Ted Lavender in The Things They Carried.

Ted Lavender in The Things They Carried

One of the men under Cross’s command, Ted Lavender, is shot in the head and killed while the company is stationed outside a small village. His death comes entirely out of the blue, without warning. By this point, the burden of war has hardened the men—death is no longer (at least outwardly) a cause for shock or displays of grief. They coldly and unemotionally observe how Ted Lavender’s body hit the ground. They note that his death was un-dramatic and oddly mundane—in their words, “the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else.” Of the 17 men—now 16—only Rat Kiley shows any shock as he repeatedly remarks, as if in shock, “The guy’s dead.”

In lieu of expressing their grief, the men find their emotional outlet by subjecting a local Vietnamese village to an orgy of mayhem and destruction. They burn homes, destroy food stocks, slaughter domestic animals, and then call in artillery to raze the place to the ground while they watch. Azar, a soldier particularly given to performative displays of cruelty and callousness, sees a boy with one leg. His sympathies, however, are not with the boy, but with the soldier who failed to kill him and instead only succeeded in maiming him. He remarks, “War’s a bitch. Some poor fucker ran out of ammo.” This is the dehumanization caused by war and resulting in the cold reception of the death of Ted Lavender in The Things They Carried.

The company desecrates the corpses of soldiers and civilians, kicking them and cutting off their limbs to take as trophies. They also brutalize and dehumanize with language. The men joke and put on a mask of weary indifference to cope with the threat of death that hangs over their existence. When someone dies, they are, “offed,” “lit up,” or “zapped.” Even the death of one of their own, Ted Lavender, brings the same chorus of jokes. They sneer about how Lavender (who constantly took tranquilizers to cope with the fear of war) is serene and tranquil now.

Cross is consumed with guilt over Ted Lavender’s death, as he has been—and will be—about all the men who die under his command. He believes that he was daydreaming and distracted while thinking about Martha, and that this led to Ted Lavender’s demise in The Things They Carried. Wracked with guilt and shame, he is afraid to cry in front of the men. He retreats to his foxhole to weep, for Ted Lavender, for his unrequited love for Martha, and for the world he has lost to war. The morning after Lavender’s death, Cross burns Martha’s letters and photos. He would sever the connection to his old life, commit now to his duties as a soldier—and nothing more. “Love” would no longer be a factor. 

Among the men of Alpha Company, only one soldier, Kiowa, a Native American who carries his New Testament on his person at all times, shows any introspection. When death strikes the company, he is always the one who encourages his comrades to talk about their experiences rather than submerge them in acts of violence or displays of emotional cruelty. Seeing Cross’s despair, Kiowa wishes to himself that he could feel for Ted Lavender as Cross does. But instead, all he can think about is the sound of Lavender’s body hitting the ground. 

Ted Lavender—The Things They Carried: Character Summary

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Things They Carried summary:

  • What the Vietnam War was like for soldiers on the ground
  • How Vietnam soldiers dealth with the psychological stress of death around them
  • How fictional stories can be truer than the truth

Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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