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They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die.  Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.  They carried shameful memories.  They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture.

(from The Things They Carried, page 20)

I just couldn’t let the War Through the Generations Vietnam War Reading Challenge end without reading something by Tim O’Brien, and since Serena bought me a signed copy when she attended an author event earlier this year (thanks so much, dear friend!), I decided to read The Things They Carried.  This book blew me away, and I can see why many people consider it THE novel about the Vietnam War.

The Things They Carried reads like both connected short stories and a memoir and focuses on a group of soldiers who fought together in Vietnam.  The stories are not presented in a linear fashion, as O’Brien skips around from before, during, and after the war.  It takes some time to really get to know the characters, but the story unfolds and the characters are developed bit by bit.

The narrator is named Tim O’Brien, but the book is subtitled “A Work of Fiction,” and in a few of the stories, O’Brien discusses the idea of truth and war stories.

A true war story is never moral.  It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done.  If a story seems moral, do not believe it.  If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.  There is no rectitude whatsoever.  There is no virtue.  (page 65)

Here is the happening-truth.  I was once a soldier.  There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look.  And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

Here is the story-truth.  He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty.  He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe.  His jaw was in his throat.  His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole.  I killed him.

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.  (pages 171-172)

Wow.  So I guess it boils down to this:  War is ugly, and there is a bit of both truth and fiction in these stories.  Sometimes the true facts are unemotional and distant, while a fictional account that truthfully portrays war is more emotional and more alive.

O’Brien punctuates thoughts like these with stories of the men, such as those about First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, who carries the photo of a girl he loves who doesn’t love him back, who carries the guilt of mistakes he made when his mind was on Martha and not on his men, who was afraid to disobey orders and camped his men on a village latrine (a literal shitfield) and had to face the disastrous consequences.

The Things They Carried is about the physical things (weapons, keepsakes, other men) and the mental things (fear and guilt) that the soldiers carried on their shoulders.  O’Brien covers everything from memory and guilt, to friendship and loss, to action and inaction, to decision and dishonor.

As a novel of the Vietnam War, I expected The Things They Carried to be brutal and gruesome and heartbreaking.  I’ve read many war novels, and they all have stayed with me in some way.  But after I finished this book — in my opinion, a literary masterpiece — I carried with me a great sadness and will for a long time carry the stories of these men (whether fact or fiction) in my heart.

Disclosure: I received a copy of The Things They Carried as a gift from a friend. I am an Amazon associate.

© 2010 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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