I picked up this little gem from my coffee table at home. It was assigned reading this summer for my daughter, a rising junior in high school. I marvel at how much better educated my kids are than I was at their age. In my crappy public high school on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama, we weren’t even asked to read To Kill a Mockingbird, nor any Mark Twain. If this book had been available to read back then, I’m sure it wouldn’t have been on the curriculum either. I got most of my education on my own initiative.
But the autodidactic way is the best way. It is learning because of the desire to learn, not because learning is forced upon you. I imagine The Things They Carried is required reading for a bunch more school districts than just my daughter’s. For that reason, I fear its message, and the artistic grace with which it is delivered, will fail to be properly appreciated. It is a marvelous, and marvelously written, book. But it is rare when students, particularly American teenagers, who are led to the water of great art appreciate the drink. Sometimes there are benefits to being in a crappy school system. You might eventually learn way more than you are asked. And it’s actually impossible to learn something unwillingly. The best a school district can do is expose a student to good stuff. It’s up to the student to do the rest.
If you are a student of one of those good school systems, and are reading this review because you stumbled upon it in searching for a summary that will replace actually reading the book, you may as well quit reading the review right now. This won’t be a cliff notes version of the book. O’Brien’s writing is too poignant and eloquent to be amenable to summary disposition. I’ll only attempt to sketch in a little finer detail the book’s historical context.
The first thing to understand about the book is that it is a memoir about the writer’s experiences as an infantryman in Vietnam during the apex of hostilities in the Vietnam War, and as such, the events depicted in the book are necessarily quasi-fictional (which O’Brien admits). Nobody really knows what is happening in the moments of their lives, even as they are living them. A memoir must depend on memory, which is radically more unreliable than even the limited perception available to temporal consciousness. We remember emotions best, because memories are more powerful the more painful, dangerous, fearful and impossible is the situation in which they are formed. Our brains have evolved to provide us a permanent record of things that imperil us. A toddler needs to get burned only once on the eye of a stove to know not to touch it again. Pain and fear are the posts we drape time upon, which is why anyone who has ever served in combat will remember most vividly their time in combat over any other time of their life. American Legion posts aren’t just there because old guys like to drink beer and relive their war. It’s because for the grunts on the front lines, the war never leaves them, and at some point, it is all they really have. No matter what else they do in life, there will never be anything (except perhaps another war) that can usurp the emotions and attendant memories they acquire during their time on the bottom line of killing and death that is infantry combat.
I read this book from the perspective of a veteran who served six years in the US Army (1985-1991), and one who personally knew a great many Vietnam vets, most of whom were serving out their last few years in service as I was coming on active duty. But I wasn’t a combat infantryman, I was a helicopter pilot, and it was mainly former combat pilots who I count among Vietnam vets who were friends and colleagues. Their experiences, harrowing as they undoubtedly were, were quite different than those of the average rifleman in an infantry squad. The helicopter pilots flew ridiculously dangerous missions during exorbitantly long days (Chickenhawk). And a great many were shot out of the sky, or killed in the landing zones. But they didn’t directly fight the war, except with covering fire from gunships high above the fray, or temporarily swooping in to strafe a village here and there. I remember one guy telling me how he used to tune in the Beatle’s All you need is love on the automatic direction finder (a navigation device that was essentially an AM radio) when he was rolling his Cobra gunship into a strafing run. The helicopter pilots certainly did not have things easy. But there is saying in the Army: If you ain’t infantry, you’re support. Everybody else exists to assist the guys on the frontlines, and helicopter pilots are no exception.
There has perhaps never been worse duty for an American serviceman than that of combat infantryman in Vietnam (with the possible exception of combat infantryman in Korea, and for the same critical reason, which I’ll get to in a moment). Most were draftees who lost in a lottery that did not punish people bad at math like those promulgated in lieu of taxes in the various states, but punished those unfortunate souls without the wherewithal to defer indefinitely their commitment to serve in the military arising from their original sin of being male and being born in the US. (Females were not subject to the draft, but curiously, the women’s liberation movement of the time, with its bra burning and agitating for equal pay, did not seem to mind that females were being denied their equal right to be unwillingly chosen to fight and die for their country. Females are still not subject to the draft. The ratio of male to female combat deaths in the wars of America’s history undoubtedly exceeds ten thousand or so to one. Perhaps affirmative action for females should include fighting the next dozen or so wars with exclusively female soldiers in order to equalize the opportunity to die for their country that males have always so robustly enjoyed.)
The conditions in Vietnam were utterly deplorable. Everywhere was jungle, and the jungle was everywhere miserable and dangerous. From the Viet Cong (VC) who seemingly lurked behind every tree and lay in ambush along every trail, to the booby traps left by the VC and North Vietnamese Army (NVA), to the flying, crawling, stinging, slithering hordes of jungle fauna, to the razor sharp elephant grass in the jungle clearings, to the heat during the dry season and the incessant rain during monsoon, life in the bush was singularly miserable. More so than the desolate winter at Valley Forge; more so than the thirst of the dying along the bucolic ridges and valleys of Gettysburg; more so than the killing fields of Flanders; more so than the surf, bullets and bombs on the beaches of Normandy, the Vietnamese jungle was a particular and nasty species of hell for the American infantryman.
But what made the conditions in Vietnam so uniquely deplorable wasn’t the enemy or the environment. The American infantryman in Vietnam, like the legions that came before him, was no stranger to tough conditions and foes. Vietnam was unique because of its utter pointlessness. If hell could be defined as the absence of reason; as an incongruity between causes and effects, then Vietnam was the essence of hell. Vietnam had no animating purpose, at least not for America. Vietnam meant suffering through miserable conditions day in and day out, with no inkling as to why. Vietnam was killing and dying for no discernible reason.
Politicians from Kennedy to Johnson to McNamara to Nixon to Kissinger contrived any number of reasons for Vietnam. It was to contain communism, they would say. It was to prevent the rest of Southeast Asia falling to communism. It was because the North Vietnamese attacked an American ship in the Gulf of Tonkin. It was even, laughably, to save the pure, virginal South Vietnamese representative democracy from rapacious subjugation by the Communist North. The politicians would strut each reason, each purpose, in contrived imperial majesty down the Main Streets of public opinion. And the images of bombs and the bullets and body bags streaming into the television screens of Main Street would eventually reveal their imperial nakedness, each and every one.
In the end, there were no reasons. Explanations perhaps, but not reasons yielding to purposes. The most plausible explanation I can fathom is that the US were rank amateurs at administering overseas empire, and bungled their way into involvement as an ally of the losing side in what amounted to a civil war aimed at overthrowing the yoke of colonialism, and in the process got its reputation and military prowess badly bloodied. Or, that the US wanted to test the limits of its ability to project imperial power, a successful exercise in the premises, as the limits were capably revealed, but at a great expenditure in blood and treasure.
But ulterior purposes don’t matter in a firefight. Nobody thinks about mother, country, God or apple pie in a firefight. There is only one purpose in a firefight, and that is survival. Each man fights for the other so that all may have the greatest chance to survive. It is after the smoke and dust clears, when the deafening silence of spent energy descends on the battlefield; it is in the long stretches of boredom between firefights when the mind impulsively tries to make sense of what the body carrying it has experienced—these are the times when ultimate purposes matter; these are the times that a reason for fighting becomes the one thing every man must carry. And it was in those stretches of silence where the contrivances of the politicians failed. There was no purpose to the killing and dying in Vietnam. For the American infantryman, it was just killing and dying for the sake of killing and dying.
The Vietnamese had a reason to fight. They sought freedom from colonial oppression and rule, a circumstance from which they had suffered often over the course of their culture’s two thousand plus year history. In the modern era, beginning in the mid 1800’s, there were the French, who westernized the country with their colonization, insofar as such a thing is possible, while exploiting the land and people through plantation economics. By the end of World War Two, the barely viable French Empire gave way in Vietnam to an independence movement, culminating in French defeat in the massacre at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, at which point Vietnam was split into northern and southern halves (not for the first time in its history). Then came the Americans to fill the vacuum of western influence left in the wake of French collapse. Before the Americans and French, there were the Japanese; before them, China. To the Vietnamese, the identity of the colonists didn’t matter; this was finally the time they would reestablish their place as one of the few survivors among mankind’s ancient and storied cultures. With much the same impulse yielding the founding of the US as an independent state almost two centuries earlier, the Vietnamese were determined to win their independence. The Vietnamese killed and died for a reason that each of them understood, from the lowliest VC guerrilla or NVA grunt to Ho Chi Min himself. The American infantryman was left to his own mystical ruminations as to why he had to kill and die in Vietnam. After one or two pointless firefights, he knew the politicians offered nothing but meaningless platitudes and lies.
The casualties of war often leave the battlefield physically unscathed, as a poignant story of the suicide one of O’Brien’s comrades attests. Vietnam was a complete mind-fuck for the infantryman. Imagine how you would have fared had the following happened to you:
A young male citizen “wins” the lottery and is drafted and sent to basic training, where he learns the rudiments of infantry combat. He then spends a few more weeks learning more advanced infantry fighting skills, while his cohorts in other specialties learn how to fire cannon or drive tanks or cook or man supply depots. After completing maybe three or four months of training, he arrives in country at his new unit for his one year “hardship” tour. He arrives to replace a casualty, or more happily, fill a slot left by one of the lucky ones who survived their year in hell. In not more than a few days, he goes from the civilized world of shopping malls and daily showers and personal automobiles and leafy suburbs and fast food to the depths of Vietnamese jungle where forces, human and otherwise, lie strategically or indifferently arrayed to do him harm. He lives in this jungle hell (the “bush”) for weeks at a time, coming back to the rudimentary headquarters outposts that count for him as civilization for only enough time to get cleaned up, sleep in a cot for a few days, eat cooked food and drink warm beer, then it’s back to the bush.
Wash rinse and repeat over and again until the year is up, and then it’s back to the States, as if nothing ever happened. And that’s how the people back home want him to pretend. They don’t want to confront the ugliness of what they had asked him to become, so they don’t want to hear about what he went through. They don’t want to acknowledge that they have the blood of every war casualty on their hands. They don’t want to know the truth because they can’t handle the truth. And not the truth of what it takes on the vanguards of empire to protect their cushy lives back home, because that’s not what Vietnam was about, and they know it. They don’t want to confront the truth that they sent him to live like an animal and to kill and die and for no good reason. They expect him to handle it with grace and resolve, and most of all, quiet rectitude.
For a great many who were there, handling it simply was not possible. The human brain is a marvelously adaptable and malleable organ, but has its limits. More than a few minds of those who served were stretched past the point of capably internalizing and reconciling the civilization and savagery to which the body housing it had been subjected. Often even the most capable of rationalizing minds could not discern an ultimate purpose for the pain that was endured. O’Brien was a brilliant, summa cum laude, college graduate. So far as I could tell from this memoir, he had no idea what was the point of Vietnam. He managed the cognitive dissonance to become a great and highly regarded writer. A great many others were not so successful at living with the incoherence.
The things the American infantryman in Vietnam carried were the ordinary things soldiers have always carried—gear for fighting, tobacco, extra socks, ammunition, letters and pictures from back home, and talismans like pocket New Testaments and lucky stones. But his kit also included the shame of a people who forced him into savagery for no reason other than they didn’t have the guts to stand up and say no to killing and dying just because.
Nothing of what I’ve covered here is referred to in O’Brien’s book, except by implication, but I think it is important to understand the historical context of the war, and particularly from the Vietnamese perspective. Go and read the book. And think, while you read it, about what your government asked its front line troops to do and become then. And ponder how easily it might do the same again. Iraq and Afghanistan were Vietnam light, longer in duration but drastically lower in casualties. Roughly 58,000 Americans and several magnitudes more Vietnamese died for the folly of America’s pointlessness in Vietnam. But Iraq and Afghanistan prove that the lessons of Vietnam aren’t learned. The killing and dying lasted so long with all three because nobody was quite sure of the objective. The purpose for killing and dying should be crystal clear and not contrived well before the undertaking. It is the burden we all must carry, and poignantly at the moment, as military intervention in yet another civil war is now being contemplated.