The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien, the young man, prior to becoming Tim O'Brien, the most searingly honest writer this reader has ever read, was in an intense crisis having just received his draft notice for the Vietnam War.

June 17, 1968.
book cover by DUSTIN COHEN
His inner conflict is documented (a story he'd told no one, not even his wife, until publishing it) in "On the Rainy River," one of the interconnected tales of The Things They Carried. A month later (July, 1968) as his date of departure for Vietnam neared, he thought seriously about Canada. In too much turmoil to talk about it with his family or friends, he fled toward the border. To northern Minnesota, where he landed at the Tip Top Lodge on the edge of a lake, the opposite shore of which, lie Canada, freedom from Vietnam. He spent six days and seven nights there with the inn keeper, a wise, quiet, compassionate man named Elroy Berdahl, eighty-one, who intuitively knew it seems like, without being told explicitly, what was going on with Tim --the war raging inside him over whether or not to heed the draft notice and participate in a war he considered "unjust".

What Tim's decision to go or not boiled down to, and what made Tim O'Brien call himself a coward for the decision he ultimately made, is that he feared the opinion of people --his family and friends-- what they'd think of him running away to Canada, more than obeying the dictates of his own principles and conscience urging, pleading with him not to go. For going to Vietnam, O'Brien essentially self-embroidered the yellow letter "C" upon his character, and called himself a "Coward".

But Tim 'O Brien was no coward.

In 1989, I was assigned to interview, for my news writing class, some Vietnam veterans who were acting as docents for the Vietnam War Memorial that had recently arrived for a brief stay on our campus. My conception of Vietnam (and Vietnam veterans) at the time, was Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket. Napalm. Something about napalm smelling good in the morning. "Me so horny". Drugged out, sex-starved, surf-obsessed soldiers more counter-cultured than bona fide army, navy, marines. Boy was I in for a surprise as I approached a veteran with my first stupid question:

"So, do you think Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick nailed the Vietnam War experience?"

He just stared at me, sans expression (perhaps fed up with so much inanity emanating from the mouths of America's so-called "future"), so I stupidly specified the question (being the enlightened liberal arts collegiate I was), "You know, did Platoon and Full Metal Jacket exemplify the war experience for the average soldier serving in Vietnam?"

He subtly rolled his eyes and said those were just movies made to romanticize and vilify the experience by clueless people who had absolutely no experience or first hand knowledge of what really went down over there.

"Let me write that down," I said, and took out pencil and notepad.

"And be sure to write this down too," he replied, after I'd asked him what it was like for him coming home from Vietnam.

"When I walked into the airport, just off the plane, I was greeted by what I guess were hippie war-protesters with buckets in their hands. Buckets full of yellow paint...that they then flung on me as I walked past them in my uniform. That was my welcome home." He was matter-of-fact about it. I don't recollect perceiving this particular Vietnam veteran fishing for sympathy, like so many Vietnam veterans were accused of doing (and maybe many did), of which Tim 'O Brien alludes to in "Speaking of Courage".

That Tim O'Brien struggled for over a week (though "struggle" is too mild a term describing what he went through; "excruciated" is more precise) with his decision to go to Vietnam or not (and mind you, doing so within walking distance of the Canadian border), and then wrote about it for the whole world to witness --weaknesses, failings and all-- proves to me he was no coward. He was stuck (forget that rock and hard place, this was harder), between a draft notice and Canada, a lose-lose situation, like so many before and after him.

Cowards aren't capable of composing the kind of morally harrowing and complex stories of a soldier who suffers both psychologically and physically when he obeys the call of his country and does (and does it well) what he'd rather not do. Hump through the jungle. Go headfirst underground into Viet Cong tunnels. Cowards aren't capable of that. And they're certainly not capable of admitting their own mind numbing horror at having to kill a sunken-chested Vietnamese man with a grenade, watching that man launch with a "poof of cloud" instantly into the sky, and then land, seemingly hours later, missing half his head, in the intensely raw, "The Man I Killed".

Cowards couldn't cop to being so overcome by the stench of shit in a literal "shit field latrine" of the nearby "villes" during a firefight in which his squad found themselves cornered in, that he couldn't complete the rescue of a soldier named Kiowa who'd just been shot. Tim had him by the feet, but the smell, the taste of it in his mouth, the excrement of (and that was) the Vietnam War, so drained the strength or will or both out of him, that he lost his grip on his wounded buddy and couldn't pull him to safety, out from the pungent clutches of the bullet-roiling shit swamp.

"War is Hell" is a trite cliche. And it's an inaccurate trite cliche as well. Because Hell's got nothing on War. War is worse than what those with no experience of it can ever hope to imagine. Tim 'O Brien helps us better imagine it immeasurably, even though we, the civilian, can never hope to comprehend it.

And it's cowards who throw yellow paint on soldiers at the airport returning home from Vietnam. That's just the sort of thing a coward would do. A coward could never have authored The Things They Carried, the best damn book I've read this year.


  1. This is required reading at our local two oldest boys loved it. It's so understated and still relatively unknown in academia, but so much better than typical historical reads on the era.
    Great review!!!


  2. Thanks Tani & Amy!

    "Understated" is the truth. Fewer words = bigger punch. I'm scratching my head still as to how I'd not read it, or any of O'Brien's stuff, until now.

  3. I don't know how many times I've walked through our local bookstore, seen this book, and thought about picking it up. Why haven't I? I don't know. Next time though...

  4. That was me too Bubba for the longest time. Once you do grab it, though, it'll grab you ...


Post a Comment