One of my book groups recently read and discussed Tim O’Brien’s classic novel about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. I guess “classic” might be stretching it a bit since it was published in 1990, but it seems to be a well-known book that has garnered a lot of praise and was recently published in a special 20th Anniversary Edition, so it seems well on its way. Besides, it says, “This is an American classic” on the inside flap.
And on the title page, it says it is “a work of fiction by Tim O’Brien.” I would have mistaken it for nonfiction otherwise, an understandable mistake because it is an odd mix of fact and fiction. The narrator is Tim O’Brien, and the book is dedicated “to the men of Alpha company,” including a list of names that match the character names inside. The book consists of 22 interrelated short stories or essays about this same group of men and their experiences serving together in the jungles of Vietnam in the 1970’s. After reading the book, and one essay in particular in which the author talks about truth versus the differing perceptions and memories of different people, I think I understand that he made it fiction because it is based on his own memories and perceptions from decades ago, memories of a time that was frantic, frightening, and often confusing. So, I took this to mean that the stories are mostly true, though not necessarily all of the details.
It is a sobering, grim reality. I have heard things before about the Vietnam War and seen movies that depicted it, but this was somehow more powerful and more real. O’Brien hides nothing; he lays out the violence, death, and futility of the experience in vivid detail. More importantly, he delves into the emotions of the men, especially himself, and emphasizes how people must fundamentally change when they are engaged in war. Through the stories, we get to now each of the men as individuals and see how the each responded to what was required of them. Given the wars currently going on in the world, it was a very thought provoking, deeply touching book.
Two of my family members’ lives were changed forever by the Vietnam War: my cousin because he met his wife in Asia (she’s from Thailand), and they’ve been married ever since. More distressing was my uncle’s experience; he was exposed to Agent Orange there and suffered horrible medical problems the rest of his life, until his young death from cancer a few years ago. So, I found the book profoundly moving, as did most of the rest of our book group. We all felt it was eye opening, an insider’s view of war that we’d never experienced before. It is certainly a very important book for people to read, even now, to understand the real life-long consequences of sending young people to war.