When I was 10 years old my parents and I took a trip to Washington DC and we stopped at the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Remembering my father quietly shedding tears while he found and touched names of his friends who lost their lives in Vietnam on the memorial wall is a very important and affecting memory of mine. I vaguely knew about the war—at least, I knew my dad and uncle were veterans. My uncle’s letters home were included in the Voices from Vietnam book from the Wisconsin Historical Society. It has been a while since I read it, but I remember him mentioning very real parts of the war, and I recall the descriptions being matter-of-fact and fairly stoic. Just being… how it was, everyday. I discuss how I felt about the current wars in this post, which doesn’t even compare to the lasting emotional impact the Vietnam War had on a whole generation of Americans.
I picked up a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried over Labor Day weekend, and decided to read it this month because I recently hooked up with Sheila at Book Journey‘s Banned Books Week celebration. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is on ALA.org‘s top 100 banned/challenged books for 2000–09, challenged for profanity, disturbing violence, sexual explicitness, and disrespect for authority. I have to think that people may have not liked this also because it may cut too deeply for some with strong feelings about the war. Also, tellingly, it was challenged the years the United States declared war on Iraq and Afghanistan. I don’t agree with banning a work like this (or, well, anything, really!) because it is so important to learn from the past and young people need to know about war, especially in this time when the true horrors of war are essentially hidden from us in the media.
The Things They Carried is a metafiction—compiled fictional essays loosely based on the author’s experiences as a soldier in Vietnam. It is not clear what is fiction and what is memoir. He mentions “truth-happening” and “story-happening,” explaining that sometimes stories can better convey history than actual events; a story will evoke an emotional response more than listing the facts. The title refers to more than just the baggage the soldiers haul on their backs—their pasts, memories, feelings, fear, and more. The book’s stories weave around a handful of characters that are brought to life through O’Brien’s lyrical writing style. His descriptions of the war are real, gritty, and powerful. Many sections were painful and difficult to read, yet meaningful and important. It is not a history, but supposed to make you feel like you were there. In this case, O’Brien succeeds. I could feel the sticky air and muggy heat, the miserable incessant rains, and smell the putrid mucky swamps. Death is like another character in the book—a constant companion of the living, trudging along beside them. People die, and each time was shocking, yet O’Brien’s words show exactly how jaded and filled with inner psychological turmoil these young men became about death and about being in this volatile situation. Soldiers often died from carelessness and fought to stay alive out of fear. Boredom and waiting around are prominent factors in some of the stories. O’Brien doesn’t romanticize war with delusions of heroism or courage in his book. While profound on an individual level, The Things They Carried doesn’t address larger political or moral issues behind this or any war.
Although some chapters dragged a bit, or seemed strangely out of place—a couple were just explanations of the previous story—I really loved it. For me, this was up there with Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front.
Read from September 22 to October 5, 2012.