Tim O'Brien received the 1979 National Book Award in fiction for Going After Cacciato. His other works include The Things They Carried, July, July, and In the Lake of the Woods. O'Brien lives in Austin, Texas.
"The Things They Carried is as good as any piece of literature can get."
"This is writing so powerful it steals your breath."
The First Gulf War began in 1990, and I was worried about being drafted. Thinking about such a thing in reference to this war seems ridiculous now but, at the time, with the ghosts of Vietnam swirling around us, I was worried. I watched the news and wondered if Iraq would be Generation X’s war. I wondered if I would experience waves of heat or if I would feel sand beneath my boots. Would the government push an M16 into my hands?
As the Allies mobilized against Saddam Hussein, my friends and I drank cases of beer and asked each other if we’d go. This wasn’t an academic exercise, you understand. We thought about the 5,000 Kurds that had been murdered by chemical attacks in Halabja. And didn’t Hussein say this would be the “Mother of All Wars”? Let’s not forget that Iran and Iraq had just finished a very bloody war with each other, a war that had snuffed out the lives of over 500,000 men.
So, yeah, I was worried.
Amid this jumble of fear and unstoppable world events I picked up a copy of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. He was from Minnesota like me and his latest book was getting rave reviews all across the nation. I’d read a lot of war literature before (All Quiet on the Western Front, Slaughterhouse Five, Catch-22) but nothing prepared me for how inviting, how visceral, and how immediate O’Brien was. Here was a writer from my neck of the woods and he said things I’d always felt deep in my ribcage, but I just didn’t know how to articulate them. I read The Things They Carried in one sitting. It mesmerized me. It captivated me. And when I closed the book, I sat back and looked out the window for a long time. A very long time.
This book shifts between war and peace so effortlessly, so brutally, that we quickly learn what it might be like to go to war and, perhaps more importantly, what it means to come home from war. I was especially hooked when I read a chapter called “On the Rainy River”. In these pages, a fictional Tim O’Brien is drafted by the government and he spends his remaining days over the summer working in an abattoir. That metaphor is perfect enough, but as the date for his induction into the US Army draws closer and closer, he drives north to the Canadian border. In beautiful prose, this fictional O’Brien sits in a boat and decides if he will flee his country (Canada is so close, just twenty yards away) or if he will turn back and go to Vietnam.
Rarely does a book speak so directly to your life. I mean, here I’m reading about a fellow Minnesotan sitting in a boat and he’s trying to decide if he will fight for his country. All of these societal expectations are swirling around him and, as I read about a fictional Tim O’Brien making up his mind, suddenly Vietnam and Iraq and American manhood and growing up in a small town all get collapsed together. As I continued to read, that was me sitting in that boat. That was me looking out at Canada. Would I go? Should I go?
O’Brien finally decides to go to Vietnam but not for any heroic or noble reason. He allows himself to be drafted because he couldn’t stand the idea of disappointing anyone in his small farming town. As he says towards the end of this chapter, “I would go to war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.”
I’d never thought of it this way before. I’d never considered how embarrassment and shame can factor into what appears to be a selfless act.
“Hey Hicks,” one of my friends asked after I finished the novel. “If our asses get drafted, what’re you going to do?”
A good question. I had visions of driving an ambulance like in M*A*S*H or maybe becoming a medic that ran from one wounded soldier to another. Carrying a gun though? I just couldn’t see myself doing that.
Flash forward a bit. The First Gulf War ended quickly and with limited loss of life, at least as far as America was concerned. My friends and I laughed at how frothed up we got about the whole thing.
“To think we were worried! Jesus, what a bunch of wimps. What on earth were we thinking?”
It’s true The Things They Carried made me re-examine my understanding of individualism, community, patriotism, and the nature of truth, but let me tell you something I’ve never told anyone else before: To my growing astonishment, I began to resent that my government could draft me into a war that I might find morally reprehensible. The more I thought about this, the more I wanted an escape clause, so I became an Irish citizen. When my purple passport arrived in the mail it felt like a magic door to elsewhere had opened up. It allowed me to live in Europe for six years and it allowed me to meet people I’d never meet otherwise.
Looking back on it now, becoming an Irish citizen fundamentally knocked me on a different road. Would I have become a dual-citizen without the hard questions that Tim O’Brien raised in his slender book? Who knows, but his book did spark my imagination to think of myself beyond the shores of America. Since my mother was born in Northern Ireland, I also started to care more about her national history around this time of my life. Some people might have a problem with my decision to become a dual-citizen but, as I’ve said elsewhere in my writing, I hold the treasonous belief that we can love more than one country. Just because I was born in the U.S. is no reason to set up a border patrol around my heart. As a rule though, countries don’t like such split allegiances. I can call myself Irish-American but it’s the American part that matters most…at least as far as Uncle Sam is concerned.
But, back to the book. Although The Things They Carried raised thorny questions of patriotism and community for me, it is, at its heart, a novel about writing. It’s very easy to miss this on your first reading. Yet O’Brien reminds us that words connect us across time, words can raise the dead, and words can help explain the incomprehensible. Sometimes it feels as if Tim O’Brien is deliberately frustrating us. In a chapter called “Good Form” he forces us to grapple with the differences between “story truth” and “happening truth”. In one of the more famous sentences in the book, O’Brien says, “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story truth is truer sometimes than happening truth.” Telling a war story or, for that matter, any story, means bumping up against the problems of perception and memory.
We may get annoyed with The Things They Carried because we don’t know what the truth is but we also get carried away by his prose. Even today, it’s hard for me to read just one sentence and put this book down. Forget about “story truth” and “happening truth” for a minute. I’m going to tell you the god’s truth: writing this review took much longer than it really should have because whenever I stopped to consult the book, whenever I flipped through my battered beloved copy, I got lost in his prose and read pages beyond what I needed to.
So here’s another truth for you: To read Tim O’Brien is to realize that you’re in the hands of a master. Don’t believe me? Okay, let’s read a few passages from “How to Tell a True War Story”:
“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.”
“In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.”
“You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it. And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.”
Even though I’ve read this chapter many times, I want to re-read it again. And again. And again. But that’s not the half of it because there are also chapters like “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong”, “The Man I Killed”, “Speaking of Courage”, “The Ghost Soldiers” and the final chapter, “The Lives of the Dead.” This ending gently reminds us that stories can save us. Stories allow us to commune with the dead. Stories give us a place to be with our loved ones even when they are no longer among the living. As O’Brien so beautifully states, “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”
Spirits in the head. That of course is the essence of good writing.
This book is almost 25 years old but it hangs in my imagination and haunts my understanding of war, returning from war, and the passage of time. When I first read this book as a young man it made me question my relationship to my country and my own sense of bravery. Now, as I creep into middle-age, this book challenges me to become a better writer and it asks some hard questions about the nature of storytelling. More and more, I realize this is an excellent book on the craft of writing. I’m confident it will be read one hundred years from now. Why? Because it’s not just about war. It’s about how we tell stories to each other. It’s about reaching out. It’s about understanding the vital power of words.