Friday, July 22, 2011

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

I was born in 1970.  So while my life overlaps briefly with the Viet Nam War, I have no real memory of it.  What I do remember is going to downtown Chicago with my granny, and later with my parents, and seeing the faces of the homeless vets that were begging on the streets.  Wild-eyed, or blank-stared, the memories of their faces color everything that I have heard, read, or seen about the war since.  And I have heard, read, and seen a lot.  Stories from the fathers of friends who fought in the war, lessons from school, movies like Full Metal Jacket and Platoon-from these sources I have cobbled together a picture of that hot, wet, chaotic, horrific place and time.

But I am not sure that I have truly felt that I had even the faintest understanding of what it might actually have been like.  Not, that is, until I read Tim O'Brien's stunning book The Things They Carried.  Neither entirely fact nor entirely fiction, O'Brien uses a series of short stories and vignettes to tell the tale of Alpha Company, a group of soldiers based, in part, on the real men that O'Brien served with during the war.  The stories meander from stateside to the jungles of Viet Nam, from childhood to middle age, detailing how each experience prepares or informs or explains the person that Tim was or is or may yet become.

I will admit to having some difficulty at first with the non-linear narrative, and with the fact that I was never sure what was true and what was made-up.  But the genius of this work is that you soon realize that it doesn't matter.  In fact, the way that the book is put together and the inability to tell fact from fiction ends up doing a better job describing what living through that experience was like than any straight forward telling could.  O'Brien and his fellow soldiers lived a reality that most of us will never experience, and can never truly comprehend, where time was skewed, day and night traded places, where extraordinary circumstances became ordinary, and where the ordinary world as most of us know it became a dream that you couldn't let yourself believe in.

My favorite section of the book (if favorite is even the right word) is the story of how O'Brien almost ran away to Canada rather than go to war.  Part of O'Brien's extreme talent is an ability to use words to paint not just a visual but an emotional picture for the reader, and I was able to feel how deeply terrified he was at the prospect of war.  I felt his ambivalence about running away, about choosing the possibility of death over the certainty of shame and embarrassment.  But the thing I found most stunning, and the line I would consider the most "controversial" of the whole piece, is this, "I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Viet Nam, where I was a soldier, and then home again.  I survived, but it's not a happy ending.  I was a coward. I went to war."
Given the hyper-patriotism of the US since 9-11, and our unquestioning assumption that every soldier is brave and heroic,  this simple statement stopped me dead in my tracks.  It felt almost sacrilegious.  Are we allowed to say that not going to war is more courageous than going?  What does that say about us as a society, that we are find ourselves so often in armed conflicts?  Is it bravery and strength, or is it because we don't want to be judged as wanting by the rest of the world?  What would happen if our young men and women, en masse, simply refused to go the next time we try to send them into harm's way?  Would it be courageous or cowardly?  Regardless of where any one of us comes down on that particular idea, what O'Brien's work has done is illustrate for those of us that weren't there that nothing is as simple and straightforward in war as those of us sitting at home watching it on our televisions thinks it is.

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