Friday, January 30, 2009

"The Things They Carried"

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien

Book Review by Teresa Friedlander (copyright 2008)

To understand the experience of being on the front lines of a ground war, you have to be there: sweating in the trenches, your stomach rising in your throat, while you watch your buddies lose body parts and bleed to death, screaming in agony. It is a horror that no movie or book can truly draw you into, but The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien gets very close. He was there, against his will, and returned physically intact, but haunted by the experience. In order to regain his mental health and rebuild his ruined life, Mr. O’Brien took his painful memories and invited anyone willing to look directly at the horror of war to return to Vietnam with him.

A soldier in combat never knows if he or she will live to see another day, or even another hour. Everything can change in a split second: all it takes is one projectile. For some, this knowledge is the heaviest thing they carry into battle, for others it is an excuse for self-destructive or degrading behavior, and for the heroic few it is what motivates them to give everything they have with no fear of death. In every platoon, however, there are the lucky ones who, through denial or faith, carry the certainty that they will emerge from the war unharmed and go home to a hero’s welcome.

Veterans returning from Vietnam got little in the way of a welcome home. That was a great injustice and symptomatic of how bitterly divided the United States was at the time. With war protestors facing riot police, black Americans struggling for basic Constitutional rights, and middle-class white teenagers turning to drugs and poor hygiene as a way of rebelling against the “establishment” that was responsible for the war, America had a hard time appreciating the sacrifices of our men in uniform. While their physical wounds may have healed, their emotional wounds were never fully acknowledged, understood, or treated with the result that many Vietnam veterans were unable to return to society. To this day, Vietnam veterans are over-represented among the homeless and substance abusers in our population.

The Things They Carried describes, in visceral terms, the Vietnam War and it’s lingering aftermath. It is written as a collection of short stories which, taken together, reveals the Vietnam experience from the perspective of a reluctant soldier. During that time, the law of the land required all men between 18 and 26 to register to be drafted into the military. If there were not enough volunteers to fill the ranks, then the Selective Service would hold a lottery. It was a scary time to be a young American man: every day’s mail might bring “the envelope” that would determine his fate. Lots of young men, our current President (George W. Bush) and his immediate predecessor included, used a variety of tactics to defer reporting for service with the (often silent) hope that the war would end or they would age out of the system before the Draft Board caught up with them.

While there were young men who enlisted to join the fight against Communism, most were ambivalent at best – not true believers, but doing what was expected of them by their families and communities and hoping to make it out alive and intact. Tim O’Brien was one such soldier. He deferred by going to college and receiving degrees with highest honors, from Macalester College. Following graduation, he had been accepted by Harvard College to pursue a Ph.D. in Government. Uncle Sam, however, had a different plan for peace activist and war protestor, Tim O’Brien: it was time to report for basic training. Vietnam needed more soldiers.

The Vietnam War was the first war to be shown in real time on television, giving Americans an understanding of what it was like to see ugly, brutal death every day. When faced with going to Vietnam, a number of young men went into exile in Canada, knowing that they could only return home in handcuffs. Many draftees, including Tim O’Brien, considered exile, but could not bring themselves to sever their ties to family and home. Going into exile, according to the author, was the more courageous choice and he himself was a coward. He was afraid of the shame he would bring on his family and of disappointing his community. And so, giving in to this perceived weakness, Tim O’Brien returned from the brink and reported for duty.

Basic training and combat drills did little to prepare soldiers for Vietnam. The enemy didn’t play by conventional rules of war; he was invisible and he could be anywhere disguised as anyone. There were no clearly defined battlefields, just jungles, rivers, rice paddies, and villages. Guerilla warfare is quite a bit like terrorism except on a more concentrated scale: the enemy lurks behind every tree, inside every dwelling, around every bend in the river, even when he doesn’t. Fear permeated the environment and led to massacres of innocent civilians. For many soldiers and many more Vietnamese citizens, the Vietnam War was pure horror.

Vietnam’s jungles are hotter and much more humid than the worst Summer days in south Florida. Imagine wearing a five pound metal helmet, fatigues, heavy boots, and a loaded ammunition belt, while carrying two full canteens, C-rations, an assault rifle and your share of the platoon’s field supplies in hundred-degree heat and soaking humidity. Troops would march for miles through jungles, rivers, leech-infested ponds, and centuries’ old waste fields trying to secure their position so they might live to see another day. Land mines were everywhere, making each step feel like Russian roulette, and each completed step offering only a split second of relief.

The title, The Things They Carried works on many levels. On top of the sixty or so pounds of Army issue, each soldier carried something from home. Photographs, mementos, letters, fantasies, hopes, and dreams held close to the heart kept small pieces of soldiers’ souls alive while they endured the physical discomfort, anger, and terror engendered by the theater of war. Some carried emotional baggage, as well, which caused episodes of unspeakable behavior. Vietnam had a way of making sane people crazy and sending crazy people over the edge.

The Things They Carried, while a work of fiction, has a strong basis in reality. The book reads like a memoir, but characters, events, and villages have been altered in the service of literature. The real Tim O’Brien, like his fictional alter-ego, served in Vietnam for just over a year with a similar band of brothers. Mr. O’Brien’s characters are composites of people he knew and illustrate the types of men who served and how Vietnam affected them. There is the good-hearted and innocent Kiowa, the simple and decent Henry Dobbins, the emotionally damaged Norman Bowker, the immature and foolish Curt Lemon, the drug-addicted Ted Lavender, and the mean-spirited and cruel Azar, among others. A central figure in the book, Jimmy Cross, is the lieutenant responsible for Mr. O’Brien’s fictional platoon. Lieutenant Cross was a typical good soldier who followed orders often against his better judgment, but was tortured by guilt when doing so resulted in the loss of some of his men.

An important message from this book is that combat leaders are often immature and emotionally unprepared for command. This was especially so in Vietnam where so many soldiers were not volunteers and did not necessarily agree with or even understand the mission. Orders from Washington, coming through a long chain of command, to the troops on the ground sometimes made no sense and had the effect of sending men to their deaths. Lieutenant Cross and others like him had the agonizing choice of following orders which they knew were mistakes or not following orders and facing courts martial.

The Things They Carried belongs among the classics of American Literature. While beautifully written, it is not easy to read. Tim O’Brien brings the reader into the Vietnam War in a way that no other piece of writing does. This is a book that will stay with you for the rest of your life and will change the way you think about war. It will make you think hard about whether any war is a “good” war if our good, young people return home damaged or dead. I can’t think about this book without tearing up and wishing that back in the day, in addition to protesting the war, I had stopped to thank the soldiers.

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