Many Americans think real-life war is like a John Wayne movie. American soldiers are upright, brave, and honorable. When someone dies, the soldiers act in ways the audience understands. When the story ends, everyone knows the moral.
Well, Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried explodes this fantasy. In real life (and also in the book) O’Brien was a grunt in Alpha Company, in the northern part of South Vietnam. Most of the population there were Viet Cong sympathizers. For Alpha Company, death was always just a step away.
In this novel, nearly everything is shocking and unaccountable. The deaths of several soldiers are related over and over again in obsessive detail. Each retelling has a slightly different account of what happened and what witnesses did and said. When Curt Lemon is blown apart and his body sprayed into a tree, a soldier detailed to retrieve his body parts sings “Lemon Tree” as he tosses them down.
“…war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true. Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery.” [p. 82]
After a soldier named Kiowa disappears into a riverside morass of human waste during a mortar barrage, Alpha Company has to probe thigh-high muck for his corpse. Years later, one of the soldiers drives endlessly around a lake in his Iowa home town, thinking about why he can’t talk to anyone about Kiowa’s death.
“…nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink. They wanted good intentions and good deeds. But the town was not to blame, really. It was a nice little town, very prosperous with neat houses and all the sanitary conveniences.” [p. 150]
Most of us live neat, sanitary lives and honk our car horns when we see someone waving a sign that says “support our troops.” Meanwhile, our nation today occupies two countries and our grunts are sent to war for tour after tour, whether they want to go or not. The toll on them is horrendous.
O’Brien shows that war is never moral, never uplifting, and is absolutely obscene and evil. Yes, soldiers are sometimes kind and brave, but sometimes in the ghastly fog of war they freeze in terror, defile corpses, and wantonly kill. From our easy chair, we can’t comprehend this. Nor can we judge them.
O’Brien achieved catharsis through writing about Vietnam. In real life, the guy who drove around the lake wasn’t so lucky. No one listened to him and he hanged himself three years later.
O’Brien wrote this beautiful, awful book, and we should listen. When war is fought in our name, we should learn its nature and costs. You’ll never do that by watching “The Green Berets.”