In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien blends fact and fiction in his depiction of the Vietnam War he experienced as a young infantryman. O’Brien leverages the best of each to paint a visceral, unflinching portrait of America’s most tragic conflict. The resonance of TTTC with the American conscience has proved so profound that the book has become a staple of high school English classes in spite of the violence, vulgarity, and emotional desolation that permeate it.
Like many people, I first encountered TTTC some twenty years ago when I was in high school. I can’t remember my reaction to the book with precision, but I can say that it opened my eyes to a personal side of war in a way no other work ever has. Oliver Stone’s academy-award winning Platoon came close, in some respects, but no matter how much Stone’s war experience bolstered the film’s authenticity, it was, in the end, a story. It had a traditional story arc and a lesson of sorts.
There is no arc in TTTC, and no lessons – at least not in the conventional sense. TTTC is a collection of real war stories. Even if not all of it is strictly true, it effectively captures reality. But it holds to no plotline and hides no moral. As O’Brien says in the book,
“You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end….In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, its like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning.”
I am no genius, and no mystic, so I won’t try to pin a deeper meaning to TTTC. Even if I were, it strikes me that that TTTC is the type of work that means many different things to different people, which would make the exercise self-defeating as well as inappropriate. Instead, I can only relate the patterns I saw in this second reading as a 37-year old father of two, and the somewhat amorphous conclusions they led me to.
Two ideas came into sharper perspective for me as I worked my way through the just less than 300 pages of TTTC. First, war is a universe unto itself, one where the rules of life elsewhere don’t exist. It cannot be imagined, much less understood, except by those who have experienced it.
This is hardly a new idea. During the American Civil War, as an example, a Union officer stationed atop Cemetery Ridge during the battle of Gettysburg remembered the experience of 250 trained cannon firing on Confederate General George Pickett’s divisions as they charged the heights on the last day of the pivotal battle.
"We sat and heard in silence," the Union officer remembered. "What other expression had we that was not mean for such an awful universe of battle?"
America is a warlike nation. We have been involved in dozens of “public” armed conflicts, large and small, plus God knows how many smaller actions remembered only by those who took part. War is one of the most dominant themes in our arts. With notable exceptions, Vietnam included, soldiers have generally been respected figures in American society. We think these things mean that we as Americans understand war.
We don’t. TTTC makes that clear. If you haven’t been involved in direct combat, you know as much about war as a dog knows about trees – that it exists, in other words, and its general shape.
O’Brien tries his best to break down this barrier. One of the ways he goes about it is by reinforcing that war is not an absolute. It is a series of dichotomies so varied that it forms a unique dimension.
“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.”
The split-personality of war comes back at you again and again throughout TTTC. A couple more examples:
“(Combat) Its not pretty, exactly. Its astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not.”
“…any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life”
The second pattern that emerged to my eye was that Vietnam was war on a plane beyond any other that America has ever fought in. The contradictions of war I just noted, its unique dimension, these apply to any war. O’Brien makes clear that one element of Vietnam made it different – the horror.
All wars have terror, and all have horror. But not like this. The horror of O’Brien’s Vietnam is an all-day, every-day affair that makes battle look straightforward by comparison.
The horrors of other wars drove men to silence, as with the Union Officer at Pickett’s charge. The horrors of Vietnam drove men to speak and act in ways so morbid, so profane, that O’Brien was for years even more reluctant to detail them than he was to speak of death and pain dealt and received.
There are the generalities – the jungle, the burning villages, the ghost-like nature of the enemy. Then there are the all-too-vivid specifics.
A young Vietnamese woman dancing by herself amidst the ashes of her home and the burned bodies of her grandmother, mother and child. Then the half-mocking reenactment by the soldiers later that night.
O’Brien’s friend Kiowa sinking to his death in a muddy shit field as mortar fire falls all about them and O’Brien tries desperately to pull him out, only to let go moments before he would have been sucked down as well. The bubbles that appear in the mud where Kiowa’s head should be.
An old man laying dead by a pigsty, one arm blown off. Each of the soldiers stopping to shake his remaining hand and saw a word or two of greeting.
“A real honor.”
“Pleased as punch.”
O’Brien, in his first week in the field, refusing to do likewise, to the consternation of his comrades, one of whom told him “Be polite now. Go introduce yourself…Show a little respect for your elders.”
They did these things to maintain sanity, to diminish the world around them so as not to be consumed by it. But that does not change the unreal, revolting reality that these men endured.
I won’t ever understand what it means to be in a combat zone. I won’t ever understand what it meant to fight in Vietnam or the current Global War On Terror. But like so many others, thanks to The Things They Carried, I now know that much, at least.
Aaron Stronberg is a former professional print journalist published hundreds of time since beginning his writing career in 1999.