The Things They Carried, the Big Read book in May, is a novel that brings back memories. While I wasn’t around to participate in the events of the Vietnam War era directly, the legacy of the war and especially the protests against it had a large impact on the city where I spent many of my formative years: Madison, Wisconsin.
If you have spent any time in Madison, you know that it has a reputation for being a home to radical and alternative ideas. One of the monikers attached to the city, Mad-Town, says it all. A major reason for this is the fact that Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin at Madison which has a continual influx of academics and students who aren’t shy about expressing their beliefs, orthodox or not.
Not surprisingly, during the late 60s and early 70s UW-Madison was a hotbed of protest and opposition to the Vietnam War. A NOVA documentary, Two Days in October, based on the book They Marched into Sunlight, artfully recreates this time and the people who lived through it by recording the events in Vietnam and on the campus of the UW-Madison over the course of the same two days in 1967.
After the war and the protests were long over, the central conflict between those who decided to go to Vietnam and those who did not still haunted the campus. One of O’Brien’s stories, “On the Rainy River,” captures the agonizing decision many men had to make and how they, and society, judged them for it.
In many of the lectures I attended my instructors were clearly still grappling with the decision they had made about Vietnam all those years ago. It is this memory, or perhaps it is a story as O’Brien suggests, of a personal decision having such a powerful effect on a whole generation that came back to me when reading The Things They Carried.