reading my way through every country in the world…

#21 Vietnam – What would you carry if you went to war?

The Things They Carried
By Tim O’Brien
Flamingo, 1991

General reading value: 5 /5
Armchair travel value: 2.5/5

Fly-by summary: A Vietnam vet fictionalises his experiences of war in an utterly gut-wrenching, compelling and unforgettable set of short stories.

Why this book? I read the first page while killing time in a bookstore and 25 minutes later was still reading.

Take the full tour: As I write this post another Australian soldier has become victim to the brutality of war in Afghanistan. This adds a deeper resonance to the reaction I have had to reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried which despite the author’s repeated emphasis throughout that it is a work of fiction, is undoubtedly an accurate representation of the hell on earth that Tim and his fellow soldiers actually did experience serving the country in the Vietnam war.

Tim O'Brien

I was somewhat conflicted about using this book to represent Vietnam for my challenge, mainly because it is written by an American about the American side of the conflict which is, of course, only a moment, albeit a monumental one, in Vietnam’s history. I still think I will read another book about Vietnam, preferably by a Vietnamese author but I don’t want to detract from the fact that The Things They Carried does provide an insight into Vietnam as a country – that insight being what is was like to live (and, for some, to die) in Vietnam while it was being ravaged by war.

O’Brien’s skill lies in making the reader feel as though they are experiencing what the characters are experiencing and he offers quite detailed and atmospheric descriptions of the areas in Vietnam that he and his unit covered during their time there. I could picture the elephant grass blowing in the wind under the helicopter blades as it carried the body bags smelling of damp fungus. I could see the red clay paths, the dense and fetid jungles and, at the other extreme, the resort style beaches of Chu Lai. Most particularly, I could imagine and will never forget the description of the “shit field” that claims the life of one soldier in the most horrific of circumstances.

What I particularly loved about this book is that it is as much a meditation on storytelling as it is a story about Vietnam. It examines and interrogates, questions and ruminates over what is really fiction and what is fact because as soon as an event is over, it becomes memory. This memory is then subject to the mind’s own literary devices for distorting and over-emphasising while at other times anaesthetising these events. What matters is not so much the accuracy of what is being conveyed to the reader as simply the act of conveying it and thereby forming the connection that enables experiences to be shared.

O’Brien is intent on convincing the reader that his design in writing these stories is not to entertain and, more particularly, not to provide some moral message that can be taken away about war. As he says:

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story feels moral, do not believe it…There is no rectitude. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncomprising allegiance to obscenity and evil”.

And sure enough, O’Brien maintains this allegiance because I came away from this book not so much depressed as feeling spent. I was exhausted by the waste – both physical and mental – that is depicted. At the same time, however, I was so remarkably glad that I had picked this book up in a moment of time-wasting because it provided one of the most unforgettable and enlightening reads I have had in a long while. Despite my reservations about using it for the Vietnam leg of my reading journey, the images O’Brien conveys of this country are so evocative that they continue to bounce around in my brain.

Regardless of whether it was fictional or not, I wanted to be there when O’Brien as a 42-year-old man, returned to Vietnam with his daughter and found himself surprised and disappointed when having located the field that swallowed his friend during the war he found it to be so amazingly dull: “I blamed it for taking away the person I had once been, For twenty years this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror. Now it was just what it was. Flat and dreary and unremarkable.” I wanted to see that field for myself, to experience its dullness and dreariness and then try to imagine what that must feel like to someone who had seen it in such another starkly different light…

One of the short stories was made into this film

But I have disgresssed from where I intended to end up which was to bring up the question that O’Brien answers so beautifully in the first story of the collection, the question being: what would you be willing to carry with you throughout the duration of a war? What would you lug up mountains and through swamplands just to know its symbolic power would somehow make the experience that little bit more bearable?

For the soldiers in this story, the things they carried ranged from a girlfriend’s pair of pantyhose to a set of comic books to the thumb of a VC corpse to premium dope to a hunting hatchet.

O’Brien, of course, goes further and examines the notion of carriage from every angle listing the physical objects that the soldiers carry both through necessity and choice, the emotional weights that also burden them and he also looks at the way the soldiers carry themselves whether that was poised, dignified and in raging panics. This was my favourite story in the collection and I have read it several times, each occasion bringing something new.

I can’t recommend this book enough – as my friends and family are now well aware having had to listen to my harp on about it – it is not only timeless but timely. And to answer the question…I would carry photographs and two bracelets – one that reads Carpe Diem and another that says Invincible.

My next post will takes us from the tragic to the comic with the lively The Last Will and Testament of Senor da Silva Arajuo set in Cape Verde.

The Literary Nomad xx

More on Vietnam…

Capital: Hanoi


Area: 331,698 km2

Language: Vietnamese

Religion: Buddhism

Currency: Dong

Delay your stay: The Book of Salt by Monique Truong; Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes; The Lover by Marguerite Duras, The Sorrow of War by Bao Ninh; The Qiet American by Graham Greene

The Lambs of London by Peter Ackroyd (and many other books by this author)

A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell

Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh

Money – Martin Amis

Downriver – Iain Sinclair

Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons

The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

The Iron Age – Margaret Drabble

Anything by Charles Dickens

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