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Book Review: The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien

The definitive American novel about Vietnam.


The Things We Carried

Mariner Books, 1990, 233 pages



A classic work of American literature that has not stopped changing minds and lives since it burst onto the literary scene, The Things They Carried is a ground-breaking meditation on war, memory, imagination, and the redemptive power of storytelling.

The Things They Carried depicts the men of Alpha Company: Jimmy Cross, Henry Dobbins, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Norman Bowker, Kiowa, and the character Tim O’Brien, who has survived his tour in Vietnam to become a father and writer at the age of forty-three.

Taught everywhere—from high school classrooms to graduate seminars in creative writing—it has become required reading for any American and continues to challenge readers in their perceptions of fact and fiction, war and peace, courage and fear and longing.

The Things They Carried won France's prestigious Prix du Meilleur Livre Etranger and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize; it was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.





... I detest their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simpleminded patriotism, their prideful ignorance, their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes, how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn't understand and didn't want to understand. … the polyestered Kiwanis boys, the merchants and farmers, the pious churchgoers, the chatty housewives, the PTA and the Lions club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the fine upstanding gentry out at the country club. They didn't know Bao Dai from the man in the moon. They didn't know history. They didn't know the first thing about Diem’s tyranny, or the nature of Vietnamese nationalism, or the long colonialism of the French… but no matter, it was a war to stop the Communists, plain and simple, which was how they like things, you were a treacherous pussy if you had second thoughts about killing or dying for plain and simple reasons.


Tim O'Brien is in that weird space occupied by so many 'Nam vets - he hated the war, thought and still thinks it was wasteful and pointless, and yet he maintains a deep bond with his fellow vets, and he also feels the conflicting senses of pride and shame in having served. In his afterward, he describes how when his draft number came up, he initially decided to take the Canada route, and how he eventually changed his mind.


All those eyes on me--the town, the whole universe--and I couldn't risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule.


In his own words: "I was a coward. I went to 'Nam."

The Things They Carried is technically a novel, but author Tim O'Brien creates a fictitious Alpha Company very much like the Alpha Company he served in, and a fictitious author named Tim O'Brien, who twenty years later is a writer writing about Vietnam. It reads like an episodic memoir, and it's easy to forget that these stories are not, technically, true, though it's obvious they are at least stitched together from real events.

So this semi-autobiographical novel is full of anecdotes, characters, and harrowing episodes, war on a small scale. Some of the author's buddies die, and others go nuts. Most just try to struggle their way through their tour and survive. They see action but not many epic battles, just the constant threat of being shot at in jungles and drawing lots to see who will crawl into a Viet Cong tunnel with a flashlight in one hand and a combat knife in their teeth.

Vietnam is a war fading into the past for America. At this point, it is history for all but the ones who still remember it. When this book was published in 1990, Vietnam was a barely-healed wound, and its issues were still very much in the public consciousness. Going on three decades later, Vietnam has been explored and trodden and, if not exorcised from our national psyche, made bearable and confrontable again. The Vietnamese, desperate to get in on the global market and its bounty of modern technology and foreign currency, no longer hold a grudge against us. They run tours through villages and war memorials. They greet American vets coming back to confront the place they once shed blood in almost like returning alumni.

As a wargamer, I have an academic interest in war. My particular area of interest is World War II, a war so long ago now that there are an ever-dwindling number of men and women who remember it first-hand, and which has faded into the fog of history and national mythology. Vietnam, I think, is getting there. You can find Vietnam wargames now, something that might upset living vets but which would probably have been unthinkable in the years immediately after the war ended. Tim O'Brien's thinly fictionalized account of his war experiences sounded very similar to books narrated by World War II vets - equally horrible but equally distant.

I found the stories and O'Brien's narration compelling, but I don't know if it was really the "definitive" Vietnam book. It is certainly more human, grounded, and less sensational than movies like Apocalypse Now or Full Metal Jacket — there are no psychotic drill sergeants or massacres, just guys sent to do shit they didn't want to do and survive. There is not much historical context, and almost nothing about strategy and tactics, just the day to day living of the grunts on the ground.

Rating: 7/10.






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