This classic work by Tim O’Brien about the Vietnam War was not nearly as daunting as I expected, once I got past the first chapter. It covered very difficult subject matter, certainly, but in a very human and accessible way.
If you’ve read Redeployment, I would say this is equally good and equally important. It deals with an earlier generation, so that makes it feel a little less relevant than Redeployment did. On the other hand, O’Brien’s soldiers face a war they don’t understand, in a country they don’t understand. Which is not so different from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.
They carried the land itself – Vietnam, the place, the soil – a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces. They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.
These two books are similar in structure, in that they tell a collection of short stories from the perspectives of different soldiers. However, O’Brien’s work stays more with a single platoon, and while this book is designated as fiction, it is dedicated to the very same men who are featured as characters. O’Brien himself is a “character” in some of the stories, and this is clearly his experience in the war. I believe this is a book that is mostly nonfiction, but was probably called fiction so that O’Brien could take some license with factual events.
I found this book powerful and informative. O’Brien shows us not just the hardships but the friendships as well. Only these friendships are often disrupted by tragedy. The story that was hardest for me to read involved one of the soldiers who walked on a mine and was blown to bits. The platoon had to pick his limbs out of a tree. Later, the troop captures a water buffalo, and one of the soldiers, a close friend of the one who died, ends up expressing his rage by mutilating this water buffalo bit by bit. I can’t bear to read about the abuse of animals, they are so powerless, but this book clearly connects the powerlessness of these men with this poor, tortured animal.
O’Brien writes a lot about the coping mechanisms the men use, from shaking the hands of the dead to calling the Vietnamese (especially the children) names that dehumanize them. And yet, O’Brien reminds us that these coping mechanisms don’t always work, as he is haunted by the death of one man that he kills while on watch.
In one story, O’Brien describes his own attempt to dodge his draft notice and flee to Canada. He describes the anguish he feels, being torn by two horrible options: leave his family and country and everything he knows, or fight in a war he doesn’t believe in. Interestingly, he describes himself as a coward for choosing to go to war, where most people would think the opposite.
Most important is O’Brien’s recurring theme that there is no one truth to a war story. The ones that sound real might not be, and the ones that are most real are probably a blend of truth and imagination. Because in the end, we can never share exactly what happened, we can only share how we experienced it. He says if a war story has a moral, it’s not real. If it has a clear beginning and end, and a logical structure, it’s probably not real. True war stories are a little more like dreams, experienced through the haze of fear and anger and other emotions.
I thought this book would be hard to write about, and maybe it tells you something that I – knowing almost nothing about the Vietnam War – found this to be a book I could relate to. O’Brien’s writing is beautiful and at times lyrical, even while he’s describing painful, horrible events.
If you’re interested in learning more about the Vietnam War and the experiences of its soldiers, or if you loved Redeployment, I highly recommend this book.
You can enter to win a copy of this book in my End of Year Book Giveaway.