Tim O’Brien is a combat soldier, teacher, author, and survivor of the Vietnam war. His writing resonates with my feelings and experiences of that time in History. I served in the Army between 1967 and 1969 and although, being a woman, I was not shuttled off to the war zone I can share my exposure with those who did.
As I took a brief look at blurbs from some of O’Brien’s works It was easy to build an emotional timeline of the many who went to war. I remembered that I lived with some of them before they left. There were happy times as we experienced the usual frivolities of youth ignoring or perhaps denying its inevitability. We were aware of what was to come but as O’Brien wrote, it wasn’t real. Even as they prepared to deploy, they still had that look of naivete that was destined to be crushed and replaced with a loss of innocence.
This was a time of American Pride vs Conscientious objectors. There was never a right or wrong, just duty and honor. But then, it was over without any fanfare and with the realization that nothing had been resolved. The stench of death like a veil covered all of them. Some like Tim O’Brien carried it with them but was still able to manage the memories by sharing his experiences and living as close a normal life as possible in spite of the memories.
A series of stories, ’The Things They Carried’ was written in such a way as to capture all sides of the war. By using fictitious characters, O’Brien told about the soldiers and what they carried with them, from their tools of war, to their views and experiences in Vietnam, and the realizations that there was no rhyme nor reason for the death and suffering that surrounded them. Individuals in the platoon were identified by their weapons, their function, their background, and their involvement in the war. O’Brien artistically paints a picture in our minds that we might remember and perhaps retell. It hints to the truth without forcing his reality on us. We can sympathize and even understand their plight whether we accept what was or was not.
O’Brien mentions the emotional after shock, which I feel, is the major issue he was trying to convey. All veterans bring and carry with them the psychological ramifications of what they faced but if we can bring ourselves to accept and respect them for their service as well as supporting their return to some form of normalcy they too, like O’Brien, can find an outlet to relieve the shock.
I believe that O’Brien’s purpose in sharing his story ‘The things they carried’ as well as allowing us to look into his pre and post Vietnam life can serve as an inspiration to others. We need to support our veterans and see them all as heroes who endured and came home. They did not invent the war. Many did not sanction it. But all who served did so in spite of their views.
In retrospect, If I were to write a sequel to his book ‘The Things They Carried’ I would want to write about the things they couldn’t let go, or perhaps I could call it unshedable baggage. I might write about the living casualties that never completely came home. I could write about the loss we experienced post war by those who could not move forward. I might want to tell you about a young girl who never got to know how great her father could have been and who would never understand why one day, many years after the war, her dad took his life.
Tim O’Brien’s writing brings forth these feelings in me by painting an emotional picture of real people in a war that was a classic fail in so many ways. It makes me wonder how some of the soldiers in his platoon fared. Do they, like O’Brien, refuse to let it rise to the surface in order to go forward? I know some, my brother in law for instance, never speaks of it at all. I also think about all those that came home after past and present encounters and although many of us may never understand it we can still say “God Bless all Veterans” and always thank them for their service.