Title: The Things They Carried
Rating: 5 Stars
The Things They Carried was recommended to me by a friend. In all honesty, I almost didn’t want to read it. Although I was too young to be a part of the Vietnam conversation, it’s colored my culture and politics for a large part of the last 40 years.
How bad is it that Bill Clinton protested the Vietnam War while he was a student in England? How bad is it that that great chest-thumping chicken hawk, Dick Cheney, got five draft deferments to avoid Vietnam? How bad is it that conservatives, those that allegedly value war service so highly, mocked John Kerry’s swift boat heroism and attacked triple amputee Georgia senator, Max Cleland (and in the case of Ann Coulter, mocked his wounds)? How bad is it that George W Bush avoided the war by joining and sporadically participating in the Texas Air National Guard? The war has been used as a pinata by both sides of the aisle.
This topic has been such a dull, background roar in my cultural life that I’ve grown fatigued by it. I’ve read several histories of the war over the past twenty or thirty years, but beyond that, I’ve actually actively tried to avoid reading too much about it. It’s still too close to me for some reason.
I trust my friend’s judgment though, so I finally yielded. This is one of the best collection of short stories that I’ve ever read. I’m not just talking about war but any topic in general. In about twenty stories covering about 250 pages, O’Brien manages to distill the entire life cycle of the Vietnam War.
Do you want to know about the struggle over whether or not to serve in a war that you consider unjust? Read ‘On the Rainy River’, a story about receiving a draft notice, trying to ignore it, deciding to run off to Canada, and the final moment of determining what is right under the quiet guidance of a taciturn elder guide.
Do you want to know what it is like to take a life? Read ‘The Man I Killed’, a story about a young man trained to kill, now in a foreign country, happening upon another young man trained to kill that happens to be, for reasons not obvious to either young man, enemies. O’Brien describing the young man, dead by his hands, lying at his feet and imagining who that person was is a haunting story.
Do you want to know what it is like to be shot? Read ‘The Ghost Soldiers’, which describes the two times that O’Brien was shot. The second time was particularly horrific, where he legitimately thought he was going to die, his initial care was bungled by a medic, and his painful recovery. He writes about meeting up with his comrades later, now that he is out of the field, and realizing that he is no longer one of them, that they consider him a citizen, an outsider, and how sad that leaves him. He does not really miss being out in the field, but he understands that he will never have relationships like that in the future.
I can go on. He has other stories about the boredom of war, the unfeeling brutality of it, the utter strangeness of it (in one story, a soldier manages to bring his girlfriend from the states into his camp), and coming home.
In all seriousness, there is not a weak story in this collection. They all speak to a truth. The stories are fiction, but he uses fiction to get to some inner truth about the war that is deeper than the actual reality that he experienced. In the story ‘Good Form’, he talks about the distinction between happening-truth and story-truth. The story-truth is used to bring the past into the present, and he does this to wonderful affect.