Book review: The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien

They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. They crawled into tunnels and walked point and advanced under fire. Each morning, despite the unknowns, they made their legs move. They endured. They kept humping. They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall… It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.

The Things They Carried: Chapter 1

The Things They Carried was first recommended to me by a colleague who had recently binged watched the ten-part Ken Burns documentary series The Vietnam War. And upon reading the first page, I was immediately hooked.

The Vietnam War was a crazy war. It was a war built on a shaky premise (Domino Theory) and kicked off by an even shakier catalyst (the Gulf of Tonkin ‘incident’). It was a war where roughly 20% of American servicemen were habitual heroin users. It was a war where the United States decided to literally blow up neighbouring Laos with the equivalent of a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes for 9 years straight. It was a war that poisoned domestic society like Agent Orange on Indochinese foliage. Say what you will about our troubling times, but at least we’re not living in the world of 1968 with all its global protests, mass riots, political assassinations, Tet Offensives and My Lai Massacres.

With The Things They Carried, its author Tim O’Brien (himself a veteran of the war) has written a fantastic, compact book about the extremes of human experience that he witnessed during that conflict. Think non-linear narratives; think the fragility of memory; and think the haunting conflicts—both external and internal—that change the human soul forever. It waxes poetically about not only the harsh and haggard world of grunts on patrol but also explores their civilian lives before the war and their transfigured codas as returned veterans. There’s gallows humour and military superstition; tall tales and platoon mischief; a failed attempt to dodge the draft by fleeing to Canada; a meditation on the life on a killed Viet Cong fighter; and a preposterous Apocalypse Now style story about a young woman swallowed by the primal forces of the jungle.

Its focus on the people that lived it is restlessly intimate. It’s a book that is also deceptively presented a collection of short stories. In actuality, it’s a novel whose power comes entirely from being read linearly from cover-to-cover. The stories are often corrected, deconstructed or even outright debunked immediately after they are told. This deliberate fluidity of the narrative allows the book to come across as vulnerable and painfully human. The book frequently pauses to reflect on what constitutes authenticity in war literature, on what it means to tell a ‘true’ wartime story. Uncertainty is its essential condition. This element reminded me of Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five where World War 2 veteran Billy Pilgrim is ‘unstuck in time’. Here, however, O’Brien goes a step further with his narrator being unstuck in perspective, unstuck in truth.

If any of that sounds fascinating to you, then I highly recommend you check it out.

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