When US combat troops first started landing in Vietnam, I was six years old. That may explain why I knew no one whose life was touched by that war, whether as a combatant, a loved one or a draft dodger.
It wasn’t until I moved to Washington DC in 1981 that I met my first Vietnam vet. By that time, the war had been long over and the vets had come home. But their welcome was less than warm. They didn’t get their parade until 1982 when the Vietnam Memorial opened on the Mall.
I stood once at the Vietnam Memorial and touched that black wall. Saw the dogtags, the flowers and the broken men. I went to law school with one of them, though I never knew his name. He was a bearded man in a wheelchair who could often be found at the Memorial helping vets and their families find the name they sought.
Here they are, brought back to life in The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Rat Kiley and Kiowa, First Lieutenant Jim Cross, the nice guys and the dead guys and the one destined to chronicle it all: Tim O’Brien.
author as character
When an author enters the pages of his own book, it’s usually for comic relief. That’s not the case here. O’Brien the character is a member of Alpha Company, a grunt humping the province of Quang Nai. O’Brien the author served in the US infantry from February 1969 to March 1970, when US fatalities in the Vietnam War reached their peak.
It’s tempting to conflate the two personas and O’Brien seems to encourage it. The book is dedicated to Alpha Company and its fictitious members. For those who lived through that war, the line between fact and fiction was often meaningless. Vietnam was a ghost country and the enemy magical. The nights were so black you couldn’t tell if you’d blinked. Nam was all one big mindfuck.
So O’Brien isn’t out to explain or define.
I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
The Things They Carried was first published in 1990. At the time, its narrative form was found to be distracting. People were confused by the fact that the book was labelled as fiction when the flavor was that of memoir. The New York Times decided the book couldn’t be called a novel, despite the fact that the same characters appear throughout. Yet despite all the mewling about form, the substance was hailed.
The title story has been anthologized many times, including in the Best American Short Stories of the Century edited by John Updike. Francine Prose cites the same story for the quality of its sentences:
the haunting, dirgelike force … created by the repetition of the words … and by the rhythm established by the obsessive listing.
O’Brien does all that. Every now and again, he throws in a grenade.
Taking turns they carried the big PRC-77 scrambler radio, which weighed 30 pounds with its battery. They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or the weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself – Vietnam, the place, the soil – a powdery, orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky.
These days, we recognize O’Brien’s form as interlocking short stories. And we’ve come to value that form for its ability to do all the things a novel can achieve and more.
“Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” is a great story within a story. The two narrators are O’Brien looking back and Rat Kiley in the moment. Their voices merge to tell the tale of Mary Ann Bell who, in defiance of all logic and God’s laws, comes to visit her boyfriend in Vietnam.
“Listen, the guy sends her the money. Flies her over. This cute blonde – just a kid, just barely out of high school – she shows up with a suitcase and one of those plastic cosmetic bags.”
O’Brien’s audience may be as incredulous as Rat’s. None of the guys wants to swallow the story of a girl who strips down to her underwear for a swim in the Song Tra Bong.
“A real tiger,” said Eddie Diamond. “D-cup guts, trainer-bra brains.”
Then things get out of hand when Mary Ann goes native. Turns out, she’s got a gift for the ambush. She goes on night patrol with the Green Berets. Mary Ann is happy, her boyfriend is not. They solve the problem by getting engaged. Rat Kiley tries to offer his congratulations.
“Well hey, she’ll make a sweet bride,” he said. “Combat ready.”
His audience likes the zingers but they hate it when he interrupts himself. Rat feels the need to analyze and clarify. The guys just want him to get on with it.
What you have to do, Sanders said, is trust your own story. Get the hell out of the way and let it tell itself.
A writer can learn a lot from O’Brien’s book. Not in the geeky craft sort of way or the high-toned sense of the literati. The Things They Carried is more like a sermon, rumbling soft and low out of a Baptist church. Though this is no sermon on the virtues of war.
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, of if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger wast, 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 war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
“Speaking of Courage”, “Notes” and “In the Field” are three takes on the same heartbreaking moment when a boy loses the best part of himself in a shit field in Vietnam. O’Brien calls himself too young and too afraid to look at all the death around him. Now he tries to remember all those dead. Storytelling is his form of redemption.
in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.