Book Review: The Things They Carried

The Vietnam War is foreign to me. My father was far too young to be drafted, as he was in elementary school when the war ended. By the time I was that age, Vietnam had opened itself to foreign tourists. To my generation of Americans, Vietnam is an exotic vacation or perhaps somewhere to live for a year after college.

Historical events fade from collective memory, but for the certified "bad war" the process is closer to a scrubbing. I only encounter the Vietnam War when I see the words "Vietnam Vet" scrawled in Sharpie on a homeless man's cardboard sign. World War II feels much closer, with Pearl Harbor, D-Day, and other anniversaries commemorated each year. There are no similar remembrances of the Vietnam War, and in truth I don't even know what days would be equivalent. If pressed, I can generate names like "The Gulf of Tonkin" and "Tet Offensive", but I don't understand the narrative of the war.

I first read the titular story of The Things They Carried as a high school freshman in my dad's English class, and I remembered the story clearly even before picking it up last month. Reading it this time gave the jarring sensation of looking at something familiar with new eyes. To a fourteen-year-old, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's obsession with Martha's virginity signified an adult proximity to sex that I could only imagine. Consciously, I recognized his folly in blaming himself for Ted Lavender's death. But how could I ascribe that folly to his youth and innocence when I possessed the same traits in greater quantity?

The stories are fiction, but, as O'Brien writes, "story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth." Grand strategy makes no appearance in this book about experience, and I know nothing more of the Tet Offensive than before I read it. Instead, as the title promises, I know the burdens carried by the men of Alpha Company. They lived in fear of sudden death and they lived in the mud that's ubiquitous in anti-war novels.

O'Brien in particular carries his own moral failings. He explicitly believes that the war was pointless and amoral. Simply by going of to war (rather than fleeing to Canada or risking prison) he showed his own cowardice and weakness. Clearly, that's why he was still writing about the war twenty years after returning home. "A true war story is never moral," he writes, and amoral stories rarely feel complete. When he writes of characters who survived the war but never truly returned home, he is of course speaking of himself.

The theme of cowardice and weakness run throughout the book. If only O'Brien had been stronger, he could have saved Kiowa as he drowned in a field of shit. If only he'd been braver, he could have refused to fight and to kill. The insistence on blaming himself for so much of the bad (just as Jimmy Cross does) is his feeble attempt to assert some slight degree of control over what happened. It's easier to accept blame for such catastrophes than to acknowledge that they were far beyond your influence.

The stories in The Things They Carried stand in stark contrast to how I spent my early adulthood. I lived the rarefied life of an Ivy League student, and I was never shot at in the jungles of Vietnam. But the difference is not quite so clear. My own brush with mortality came when I was diagnosed with melanoma at 20, and a quick glance at statistics suggests that the cancer was easily an order of magnitude more dangerous than deployment to Vietnam. Undoubtedly, I carry that trauma, and I thought of it frequently as I read the book.

And then, in the final story, the author draws the same parallel. The final story in this collection about Vietnam is instead about his childhood sweetheart Linda, who died of a brain tumor at age nine. He writes that he keeps Linda alive by telling her story, just as he does for Kiowa and Ted Lavender and all the others. But O'Brien is too haunted for me to take that explanation at face value. Once again, he dwells on his moral failure to stand up to Nick Veenhof, a classmate who teased Linda for wearing a red hat to cover her balding head. But of course, O'Brien was powerless to stop a child bully, and even more powerless to stop the cancer that killed her.

War is not unique in its ability to inflict senseless suffering and misery. But for O'Brien, the war revealed and expanded his moral failings in a way that vastly outstripped the trauma of any one experience. The horror, the horror...

Throughout this review, I've used the word "read." That's not entirely accurate; I actually listened to the Audible recording of this book, read by Bryan Cranston. I highly recommend it. Bryan Cranston is a brilliant reader, and some stories are meant to be told orally. Additionally, the recording includes an hour long non-fiction piece written and read by Tim O'Brien about his return to Vietnam in the early 90's.

Here's what I wrote about why I wanted to read this book last December. It succeeded on both counts.

I'm interested in this collection of short stories for two reasons. First, the Vietnam War was a defining experience for a generation of Americans, and I don't know much about it. Second, I enjoy well-executed creative writing, and by all accounts this book fits that description.