One great metaphor is all a writer needs.
When I was growing up, the Vietnam War was still very present in the American consciousness. The “Vietnam Syndrome” loomed over American policy so heavily that George H.W. Bush felt it necessary to call it out after the Persian Gulf War. He declared that the “ghosts of Vietnam have been laid to rest beneath the sands of the Arabian desert.” Sadly, that may have been premature. I imagine there will be a similar hangover in the wake of the Iraq/Afghanistan experience. My son’s generation will most likely live with it well into the 2030s. I hope they live in a world where they won’t need to have “their war”.
But Vietnam wasn’t just a political phantom. Many of the people who found themselves on the losing end of the war became refugees and settled in the Northern Virginia area where I grew up. When I was little, my parents gave us permission to walk to the nearby shopping center. It was a grand adventure and my first taste of freedom. Unfortunately, I neglected to bring more than a few dollars, quickly consumed by baseball cards, with me. When we got hungry, a nice, older Asian man at the local pizzeria gave us a plate of fries free of charge. Do you know who that nice old man was? Years later, I learned that he was Major General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the guy firing a bullet into a captured VC guerrilla’s brain in the famous photo. The Vietnam War wasn’t just a memory, it was in a very real sense still going on. I had a friend whose father had been shot while working for the South Vietnamese government. In the eighties, five journalists were murdered by right wing Vietnamese groups in Fairfax County.
But Tim O’Brien’s book, while set during the Vietnam War, strangely has very little to say about that particular conflict. It isn’t a book about one war, it is a book about War. The opening quote about Andersonville said that loud and clear. What could Union soldiers captured during the Civil War have in common with Americans fighting in Vietnam? Only the common, nasty, experience of an infantryman on the frontlines. All the rest is just detail.
Not that Tim O’Brien fails to use the details of Vietnam. The book is a catalog of them. Page after page lists the contents of each man’s pack, giving the weight of each weapon, each round, and each personal item. The lists give rise to the central metaphor of the book. The things the soldiers physically carried lead into a story of the things they carried psychologically. It is a good enough metaphor to build the entire novella on. The word these infantrymen used for carrying things was “hump”, a strange sometimes transitive, sometimes intransitive verb. I learned to use it when working as a mover in the summer of 1997. Many of the older movers were of the Vietnam generation. I imagine they learned the word there. O’Brien’s characters don’t just hump grenades, or an M-60 light machine gun, they hump a photo of a lost love, and mentally hump an obsession for her, or a “distrust of white men”. They both physically carry the items and “an awe for them”.
But metaphors are tools a writer uses, to tell a story, or to make a point. What story is O’Brien telling? What point is he making? As I mentioned in my opening, the whole point of this writing is to illustrate the experience of men who go to war, primarily, the disillusionment they experience, and the impossibility of squaring the transformation they undergo with the static nature of the life they return to. Early in the book, the lieutenant in O’Brien’s platoon is so wrapped up in mulling over a woman he left behind that he gets a man killed. The incident sharpens his focus, allows him to realize the girl is gone for good, and gives him a new resolve to maintain tactical discipline. He drops the “thing he is carrying” and becomes a new warrior.
A much longer passage tells a strange story of one man who manages to have his stateside girlfriend flown to the battle zone. Clearly, we are in the realm of magical realism here, but the girlfriend serves as a stand-in for all the people, especially women, who were left behind. What would happen if they were deployed to ‘Nam? This woman, Mary Ann, slowly becomes transfixed by the war. She dives right into the land and the people. At first, I thought O’Brien was leading toward a feminist conversation about what would happen if women were deployed to the combat zone. Would they embrace the situation, learn more, and dialogue with the people, possibly leading to a less violent resolution? But that is not at all where he was going. Instead, Mary Ann embraces the gods of war, diving into the bloodiest aspects of the conflict and making a permanent transition to a sort of warrior jungle cat goddess. She is a symbol of both the transformation the men undergo in country, and of the idealized Penelope at home.
This sort of clearly fictional digression is a hallmark of the style O’Brien uses throughout the book. He consciously plays with the line between fact and fiction to the point where I was unaware of the fictional nature of the book until I was well into it. The author expressly discusses the divide in a metatextual way. He talks about the choices he is making and does so in detail. For example, O’Brien expressly calls out his own decision to accentuate the natural counterpoint between a clean lake in Iowa and a deadly, flooded field of shit in Vietnam. In one passage about war stories, he says that a story that is literally false holds greater truth than a factual one. That is a profound idea and one that cuts to the heart of not only literature but religion. It is probably the one aspect of this novel that elevates it to the status it has.
O’Brien’s book has become a part of what all Americans carry in regard to the Vietnam War. I noticed a number of details that have been taken on by films made in the years after the book debuted. Forrest Gump, a good movie made from a mediocre book, was enriched by many of the images and events of The Things They Carried. The description of monsoon rains bouncing up from the ground, soldiers sleeping back-to-back, tunnel rat missions, and a wound in the buttocks all feature in both book and film. I don’t think that is an accident. Sadly, films feature much more heavily in the common perception of historical events than either reality or literature.
But this book is part of a pattern of misperception in the Vietnam War that I have seen in nearly every work of fiction that deals with it. According to fiction, the war was characterized by grunts slogging through the jungles and rice paddies until suddenly being attacked by the Viet Cong. I studied the war as part of my master’s thesis, and it quickly dawned on me that in reality, most soldiers served, and most casualties occurred, on the front lines with the North Vietnamese army. I don’t know why we have this sampling error. Movies about the Vietnam War should mainly involve large units exchanging fire across the DMZ, but we almost never see this. I don’t know whether this is because of the stunning visuals of the Vietnamese rainforest and delta, or because an unconventional fight highlights the confusion of combat to serve an anti-war narrative, but it is certainly inaccurate and over-represented. In my dalliance with military history, I noticed that this is a common phenomenon. The historical memory of a war is often out of synch with reality because people are trying to tell a story about the war.
As I have said though, O’Brien isn’t saying anything about the Vietnam War in particular. His story could be set in any war. The point is about the hardships of warfare, a fact completely divorced from geopolitics. It didn’t matter to a soldier caught in the Battle of the Bulge or starving on Guadalcanal that the Second World War would one day have an image as a “good war”. He was cold, he was hungry, he faced death, he saw friends die. That happens in all wars. No book written from the perspective of someone “in the shit” can be anything but anti-war. It doesn’t matter why the war is being fought. It is all bad, and that is the end of the conversation.