Title: The Things They Carried
Author: Tim O’Brien
Genre: Literary fiction, Vietnam War fiction
Publisher: Mariner Books
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
First line: First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.
When I posted on Monday about receiving a copy of The Things They Carried in the mail, I received several comments from people telling me how brilliant it is and how I will love it. My first thought was, “How do they not know that this book is already in my top five novels of all time?” And then I realized that I have only posted my thoughts on this book on my personal (now mostly defunct) blog, but not here. So I thought now would be a good time to get that review moved here to Books and Movies.
This review was previously posted on my personal blog on October 6, 2006.
“Forty-three years old, and the war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That’s what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
I first read The Things They Carried when I was in high school. I was given a reading list – I believe the class was College Prep Literature – and told to choose a book and write a book report on it. I chose this one.
My dad is a Vietnam vet. He did two tours in Vietnam, one on land and one on sea, courtesy of the United States Navy. He wasn’t in the infantry, so in some ways I know his experience must have been very different than the one Mr. O’Brien describes in his book. But I’m also sure that in some ways it was the same, because my dad served part of his land tour as a medical corpsman, carrying wounded and dying – and sometimes dead – soldiers from the battlefield.
I only know this because my mom told me. Dad told her a long time ago. But growing up, the only time my dad talked about his time in Vietnam was to tell the funny stories. The time he got in trouble and had kitchen duty. How he got a cushy assignment because he was one of the only men who knew how to type. How on the aircraft carrier he would watch the same movie several times, showing it to the pilots during their “down-time” as part of his duties. He never talked about the war itself, what he saw, what he did, who he knew, who died.
In high school, reading The Things They Carried almost felt like a sneaky thing, like I was peering into a part of my dad’s past that he wanted to keep buried. But I was proud of his service and wanted to know this part of him.
When, as a teenager, I read how Mr. O’Brien described almost running away to Canada to escape the draft, and how he only went back to face enlistment because he was too cowardly to face the shame heaped on him by friends and family if he ran, I almost felt as if this book was betraying Dad’s service to his country. Dad thought that the cowardly thing to do was to dodge the draft. He enlisted, choosing the navy because it was the only dress uniform that didn’t require a tie.
I have a much different perspective now. I am still proud of my dad for the service he gave our country. But in the past four years since we declared war on Iraq, I have heard him speak more about Vietnam than I can remember in all my years of growing up. He doesn’t speak of it directly, but in the way he views this war. He is angered by the fact that our young men are sent over to fight without the body armor they need to protect themselves. He is outraged that the families of servicemen are having to scrape together funds to buy body armor, and that soldiers are using sandbags as a measure of protection in their vehicles that should be armored already. He is saddened that the war seems to be dragging on, and grieves the marriages that are destroyed as a result of multiple deployments and the psychological damage that our soldiers are bringing home.
Please don’t see this post as a traitorous, anti-war post. I fully supported President Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. But as the war has dragged on, and mistakes in the carrying out of the war have been made, my feelings toward it have become ambivalent. I believe Iraq is better off without Hussein, without a doubt. But I am grieved that it is still going on, and that the end may not come ten or more years from now. I personally know of two marriages that have been irreparably damaged as a result of long separations. The son of my best friend is likely facing another deployment, and the thought that his 6 month old baby daughter will not remember him when he returns breaks my heart.
As I re-read The Things They Carried, I was reminded that our current war is not the same as the Vietnam war. Although I believe mistakes have been made, I believe the events and motives leading us to war were more honest and ethical than the events leading to Vietnam. Mr. O’Brien’s opinion of war has been colored by which war he personally served in. This quote sums up his feelings on war in general:
“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”
Would Mr. O’Brien’s belief that there is no virtue in war be different if he had served in Wold War II? Undoubtedly. But he didn’t. He served in a war which was fought on an unfair playing field, a war that was unwinnable because our men were expected to fight with one arm tied behind their backs. They returned to a country torn apart, to hatred and scorn from people who detested them simply because they had been there.
My dad never fired a gun at the enemy in Vietnam. He spent his time with a construction battalion, building roads and bridges and, at one time, a public swimming pool for the local village. He spent time as a corpsman, helping to patch up the wounded. He spent time as support on an aircraft carrier, waking the pilots when it was time to go. None of this stopped people from calling him a “baby-killer” when he returned to the United States and was easily identified by his military haircut and residence in San Diego near the naval base.
Mr. O’Brien calls this book a work of fiction, and yet he is the narrator, even called by his real name. Only he knows how much of it is true. But in the way that a book makes you understand someone else’s experience, this book is true.