For my second book this semester, I read The Things They Carried, mostly because it focuses on the Vietnam War, just as my poet did. This is a great book that describes the horror and trauma of war without holding back on the more grotesque details. Within the book, Tim O’Brien mixes together personal experiences and fiction to teach readers how it felt to participate as a soldier and to live with his memories over all these years.
The first lesson demonstrated in the first half is simple: war is hell. O’Brien doesn’t try to make any character likable, and at the end of the book, I did n’t walk away really rooting for anyone. In fact, almost all of the soldiers are cruel, impassive, racist, sexist, or a disturbing mixture of all. The war has changed them, and they greet death with a kind of immature mockery; some of the most horrible deaths are simply shrugged off, or even laughed about, with an almost childish delight. When people explode into various pieces, characters gawk and give a little chuckle, or talk about the “irony” of their situation. But deep inside, he describes how this slowly tugs at them, and many dark suicides occur during or after the war. I was shocked by how morbid the book could become; not only did he describe death and loss during the war, but even during his childhood, and as a discharged adult.
He also describes the patriotism that comes with war as absurd and uninformed. After learning that he would be shipped out (much to his surprise), O’Brien states, “I detested their bling, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simpleminded patriotism…how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand…They didn’t know Bao Dai from the man in the moon…the nature of Vietnamese nationalism, or the long colonialism of the French…” (43). O’Brien feels like people take views on wars without being informed; they immediately just support their country. The Vietnam War was an example of this; the US didn’t really have a reason to be there, and U.S. citizens didn’t know anything about Vietnamese culture, history, and land.