The Big Read—a national program encouraging citizens to read great works of literature—wraps up its 30-day celebration of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, and I find myself slogging once again through a quagmire of questions about Vietnam, a war that ended as I was coming of age, the war that tore our country apart.
I wasn’t there. My father was. Three tours. My family has the scars to prove it. I’ve spent 30 years nursing a peripheral obsession with that war in an effort to understand its effect on my dad, a highly decorated Marine Corps pilot who died last year. He rarely spoke of his time in Southeast Asia, and The Things They Carried filled in some gaps for me in unexpected ways.
The first time I read it, five years ago, I was knocked out by O’Brien’s prose. Combat is ugly, he writes, but it also contains astonishing beauty: “Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference … and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.”
I’ve read dozens of books on the Vietnam War, but O’Brien’s is the only one that gives equal weight to the mundane and the extraordinary. Extreme acts of heroism are recalled with the same detail and emotional heft as heartbreaking acts of cowardice. There is no judgment, just the clear-eyed conclusion that war can turn us inside out. The sublime and the horrible came at you non-stop.
O’Brien’s ability to witness and remember the startling gems of truth within the surreal, horrific backdrop of a pointless, never-ending jungle war brings the focus of the narrative where it is most effective: soldiers not as soldiers, but as vulnerable people. Just like you and me. He doesn’t ask the big political or dramatic questions about the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia, he writes about a butterfly on the chin of a Vietnamese man he’s killed with a grenade.
These stories are hard to tell, and O’Brien doesn’t gloss over the rough parts. His account of a platoon of foot soldiers searching tunnels and digging foxholes and slapping mosquitoes and marching from village to village with no purpose or direction is so vivid I half expected to see mud on my fingers after turning the page. I especially appreciated his liberal use of combat jargon, leaving the reader to suss out the meanings of the colorful language that helped the soldiers feel like they belonged, like they were a part of something.
And yet, The Things They Carried is much more than a collection of war stories. It’s a book about how to tell a story. “By telling stories,” O’Brien writes, “you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself.” Like my father, O’Brien didn’t talk much about his experiences in the war after returning stateside. But he wrote about it, expecting catharsis, hoping for wisdom. “Telling stories seemed a natural, inevitable process, like clearing your throat.”
I wonder if my dad just never felt like he was ready to clear his throat.
One night about 20 years ago, I stayed up with the Major in his Las Vegas home. My mother had gone to bed, and we sat at the kitchen table drinking gin over ice, just two men shooting the shit. I asked a couple of general questions about helicopters, and the conversation angled to the time he was flying missions out of Khe Sanh, a notoriously dangerous Marine outpost, around 1969.
Although he’d been identified as one of the top 10 chopper pilots in the theater, he told me he was frequently “scared shitless” flying missions through the jungle or taking enemy fire out over the South China Sea. As the gin loosened him up, he shared his memory of one such mission, and I watched as his jaw clenched and his eyes grew large, remembering not just what he saw, but how he felt. The intensity and determination on his face is what I remember of that night, not the particulars of the story.
The Things They Carried helped me realize that maybe I’m not asking the right questions. The heaviest things they carried in Vietnam were not of military issue. They were the things you can’t see. And most of the men and women who served in that singular hell called Vietnam will carry these things until the day they die.
Tim O'Brien talks about his influential book at the Dennison Theatre tonight, Oct. 28, at 8 PM as part of Big Read festivities. Free. The Big Read's big finale is a capstone event at Draught Works Wed., Oct. 29, with tunes provided by Bob Wire. 5-8:30 PM. Some proceeds benefit the Valor House.