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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

P
remiering in 1972, M*A*S*H, the
TV series about an emergency
medical unit in the Korean War,
was viewed by many as veiled commentary
on the Vietnam War. By focusing on an
earlier war, the show rounded off the edges
of controversy, avoiding the inevitable
criticism – even censure – had the subject
been Vietnam. But at the same time, by
stripping it of the emotion of now, it was
easier to see clearly the futility of the war
we were fighting. Ironically, MASH, the movie, was not nearly as affective as the TV
series. The movie struck me as a much more naked display of rage – an unvarnished
reflection of the national mood in 1968. There was no question of it being a transparent
indictment of the Vietnam War. The movie captured the frustration and rage that
characterized the 60s, not the post-WW II 1950s. For me, the movie was less affective
because it was too much in the moment.

What’s my point? I wonder if we can view the war in Afghanistan more clearly by
imagining a time twenty years hence; I wonder if an imagined distance in time can lend
clarity to what often seems like confusing and contradictory messages, fraught with the
dire predictions and forebodings that fog our vision.

While reading the book “MATTERHORN: A Novel of the Vietnam War” (reviewed here
earlier) and Tim O’Brien’s now classic “The Things They Carried,” it occurred to me that
a thoughtful reexamination of an earlier war provides an opportunity to more deeply
contemplate the cost of the two wars we are fighting now; especially the Afghanistan
War. It’s not that the strategies employed are the same as earlier wars, nor are the

Reviewed by Paul Schlieben -1- synaptia.blogspot.com


rationale and objection to fighting it the same, but reading these two books vividly
spotlights the profound cost in human lives – those fighting on either side and those
caught in the middle – and provide a powerful antidote for Americans’ tendency towards
a cavalier attitude towards wars, particularly the Afghanistan War.

The only responsible examination must start on the ground, with this question: What is
the cost of war in lives? Everything else is an abstraction, providing a vague and often
theoretical basis for war that may or may not have any basis in fact and, at any rate, is
pure speculation. Only history can validate a war and even then, it’s debatable.

Here’s an example. One could argue that the Korea War prevented the entire Korean
peninsula from becoming a despotic dictatorship dominated by North Korea. But we can
only guess that that would have been the consequence. History might have turned out
differently had North Korea succeeded in defeating the US and SK forces. One could
argue that the continued presence of 25,000 or more US soldiers in the DMZ for almost
fifty years and the existence of a hostile regime to the south provided North Korea with
just the enemies it needed to sustain itself and wall itself off from the world, enabling it to
successfully enslave its people and distract them from the dismal conditions there. Had
Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, been denied those convenient facts, history might
have turned out differently. The only thing that can be said with certainty is that
thousands of allied soldiers, thousands of Korean soldiers, and a million or more of
civilians died. Everything else is conjecture.

In Vietnam the story has played itself out and the consequences are nothing like those
imagined at the time. As I pointed out in my review of “MATTERHORN,” dominos
didn’t fall; China and the USSR were not the beneficiaries of our defeat. Vietnam
realized their decades-long determination to be free of colonial powers and, today,
Vietnam his become one of our trading partners in SE Asia. For most Vietnamese, the
war is a distant memory. For most of the American who fought there, it is a painful
memory.

What would have happened if we had never escalated the Vietnamese War? Who can
say? The only thing we can say with certainty is that many thousands US and allied

Reviewed by Paul Schlieben -2- synaptia.blogspot.com


soldiers died, thousands of North and South Vietnamese soldiers died, and a million or
more of Vietnamese civilians died. Add to this accounting the chaos and deaths in Laos
and Cambodia, and the collateral damage that occurred in our own country during this
time. How many deaths might have been avoided? No serious reexamination of that war
could draw a conclusion other than that it was folly. People died in vain. History has
pulled the rug out from under the empty platitudes that served as cover for our being
there.

Thoughts like these led me to read “The Things They Carried,” a much studied and
discussed novel derived from Tim O’Brien’s experiences in Vietnam, but pared in the
intervening years to their essence – made-up stories refracted through a long lens of time
to more perfectly reflect the truth of what he experienced; a powerful and paradoxical
refutation of the assertion that truth is more powerful that fiction.

Or, in O’Brien’s own words:

“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer
sometimes than happening-truth.”

Most of “The Things They Carried” is presented as Tim O’Brien’s fictional wartime
memoir. Tim O’Brien is the protagonist and the book is dedicated to his own fictional
characters. It’s deeply personal and, in some instances, painfully confessional in tone.

It starts simply. He introduces his characters by describing, literally, the things each
member of his platoon carried; calculating the weight of each item of standard issue – the
M-16, the M-79, the M-60, the canteen, the radio, the star scope – the weight of personal
items that each soldier carried, and the weight of memories and dreams they bore –
welcome diversions against the tedium of war or, in a flash of inattention, as lethal
distractions in the line of sight of a sniper or in the startling, terrifying moments of
combat. As O’Brien puts it:

“In the field, though, the causes were immediate. A moment of carelessness or
bad judgment or plain stupidity carried consequences that lasted forever.”

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In this book, O’Brien tells just a half dozen stories, but he circles back to them time and
again, as if haunted by them decades later. For example, in a later chapter, as a writer
reflecting on the war twenty years later, he returns to the image of the death of his friend
Kiowa in a shit-filled, swampy field, and reflects on this pivotal moment of profound
change he experienced in himself.

“[It] was hard to find any real emotion. It simply wasn’t there. After that long
night in the rain, I’d seemed to grow cold inside, all the illusions gone, all the old
ambitions and hopes for myself sucked away into the mud. … For twenty years
this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and
horror.”

Embedded in his stories of Vietnam is a story of how he got there, when he received his
draft notice and of his own aborted flight to Canada. As he tells it, for him, submitting to
the draft was an act of cowardice – he made it all the way to the Canadian border; he just
had to exit a small boat and go ashore. But he was not brave enough to turn his back on
his town, his family, his school, and all things familiar and escape into an unimagined life
of exile. While he is convinced that the war is unjust, he can’t bring himself to abandon
his familiar life and be branded a draft-dodger. So he’s drawn into the war he believes to
be wrong, and experiences the death of his platoon mates and friends, of young men
whose promise, conveyed sympathetically, even lovingly, is extinguished in random acts
of combat and cruel acts of chance.

Page by page, O’Brien absorbs the reader into his stories, so much so that, gradually, you
refuse to believe the book is a work of fiction. I found myself wondering if O’Brien’s
stories were really truth masquerading as fiction in order to provide cover for his candor
and avoid hurting those with whom he fought; of blurring the lines between invention and
truth, consequently, having the effect of amplifying the sense of reality. As a reader,
when you will the stories to be true, they become so.

O’Brien serves up fragments of memories, at one point saying, “What sticks to memory,
often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning or end.” But these fragments
of memory form a mosaic of detail that breaths life into his characters.

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And he serves up passages like this that are both generous, loving description and
damning commentary:

“Henry Dobbins was a good man, and a superb soldier, but sophistication was not
his strong suit. The ironies went beyond him. In many ways he was like America
itself, big and strong, full of good intentions, a roll of fat jiggling at his belly, slow
of foot and always plodding along, always there when you need him, a believer in
the virtues of simplicity and directness and hard labor. Like his country, too,
Dobbins was drawn towards sentimentality.”

Many readers may be confused, finding this book too fragmentary, with no clear
beginning, middle or end; and there’s truth in that. But taken together, it hits you like a
fragmentary grenade; full of vivid imagery that are, like scars, impossible to erase. In
that you will share something of the lives of those who fought in Vietnam, unable to
shake free of the experience no matter how much time has gone by. And you will
remember lines like these:

“If it had been possible, which it wasn’t, [Norman Bowker] would have explained
how his friend Kiowa slipped away that night beneath the dark swampy field. He
was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste.”

The final pronoun, intentionally ambiguous, could describe Kiowa or Norman Bowker,
who is haunted by Vietnam and his friend’s death, so much so that he ends his own live
ten years later.

“The Things They Carried” was published in 1990. Tim O’Brien was interviewed
recently on the PBS NewsHour1 on the occasion of the 35th anniversary of the end of the
war and the 20th anniversary of the publication of his book. What struck me during the
interview is that today O’Brien’s memory of the war is as vivid and painful as ever.
When reexamining the Vietnam War, or trying to clear the fog of the war in Afghanistan,
it’s worth remembering Amos Oz’s prophetic statement.

1
see http://www.pbs.org/newshour/video/module_byid.html?s=news01n3edeqe91

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“No idea has ever been defeated by force.”

The only question that remains is this: whose idea is more potent? That is the surest
predictor of the outcome of any conflict.

Thomas Friedman, the writer and NY Times columnist recently said it best, when
discussing the recent change in US military leadership in Afghanistan (NY Times
6/22/2010):

“The president can bring Ulysses S. Grant back from the dead to run the Afghan
war. But when you can’t answer the simplest questions, it is a sign that you’re
somewhere you don’t want to be and your only real choices are lose early, lose
late, lose big or lose small.” [Italics are mine.]

Now, imagine that it is 2030 and you are looking back on this period of our history,
writing the epilogue to the war. If you favored our continued involvement, how does that
look to you now? Would your rationale be best characterized as empty platitudes or
sound reasoning? And, if you could, what would you say to the thousands of people
who died? Would they agree it was worth it?

To help clear your head of the fog of war, add “The Things they Carried” to your list of
truly important books to read.

Reviewed by Paul Schlieben -6- synaptia.blogspot.com

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