I read O’Brien’s book (The Things They Carried – 1990) of fictional short stories on the Vietnam War because my son Owen’s grade 11 IB English class will be reading it this year. The book is commonly read in high school English classes and is one of the preeminent books of the Vietnam War. I watched the classic Vietnam War movies like Platoon and Apocalypse Now and visited Ho Chi Minh City in June of 2017. I started watching Ken Burn and Lynn Novick’s The Vietnam War PBS series. (I should watch the entire series.) Tim O’Brien fought in Vietnam and the stories are based on his experiences and what he heard from fellow soldiers. The details of the stories ring true.
O’Brien’s prose flows easily and many of the stories have memorable lines. The short stories make it a good book to read before bed, one does not need to keep track of complex plot lines. He is a bit older than me, but grew up in small town Minnesota and I can relate to his perspective. The title comes from the first story, a description of the physical and emotional things soldiers carry in their backpacks while on patrol.
The book reinforced many of the themes of war literature. Humans are rarely put in life and death situations and this danger forms close bonds between soldiers. Many of the soldiers are just kids, 18 and 19 years old and the differences between small town America and the rainforests of Vietnam are huge. Just the shock of travelling outside the American midwest and placed in south east Asia would be shocking enough, but add a war and I can see why veterans struggle with PTSD. Another theme is the indifference of the “folks back home” felt by returning veterans. The story of Norman Bowker’s drive around the lake while remembering the death of his friend in a mortar attack really emphasized how returning veterans must feel. Sadly, this continues today with soldiers coming back from Iran and Afghanistan.
I also liked the story “On the Rainy River”. The story is set in the summer after the author is drafted and learns he is heading to Vietnam. He wavers between escaping to Canada or reporting to basic training. O’Brien feels he is a coward by not fleeing and living up to the expectations of his family and friends in his small town. Oh, the value of age and perspective. I am curious to see what class discussions and assignments Owen brings home his in English class.