I could have been drafted in 1971, for induction in 1972, my twentieth year. I was in college a few years later and encountered Viet Nam veterans attending classes, and noted a certain tone in their discourse. I tried to identify it one day for one of them, and I clearly struggled. There was a frankness in it, borne of necessity on the battlefield, no doubt, but also carried from there and adapted to everyday conversation. You could sense the entitlement in it, the “Geez, I was there, and you don’t know shit” attitude, and clearly I didn’t and never would. I also sensed an expectation, like they perceived a want of gratitude on the part of the population that just wanted to forget the whole miserable thing. In Tim O’Brien’s patchwork exposition of his Viet Nam experience, we have the full and glorious flowering of this plaintive theme.
The Things They Carried isn’t a novel, but it does have novelistic features. Its closest relative, the memoir, has less invention, and clearly fewer of the attributes of fiction. Tim O’Brien knew he had to tell his story, complete with ambiguity, heart-rending tragedy, and monstrous stupidity, because as he says in the end, he needed to try to save himself.
This is so much more than war memoir, as has been said so often before, and much more persuasively. There are passages about belief, about morality, perception, pain, and so much else, but all of it is done in such a ruthless tone of honest
The Things They Carried contains the full Viet Nam veteran’s prayer for understanding. By its ruthless honesty, by its raw power, by its willingness to shoulder more blame than is maybe justified (if blame is warranted at all), O’Brien’s book achieves its end overwhelmingly well. After I finished, I felt ashamed I had waited so long. If you haven’t yet, take up The Things They Carried. It will fill out your understanding of a wretched, wounding time.