Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 23, 2008

The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

things-they-carriedWhat a contrast with Fly Away Peter!  The writer warns that if one doesn’t like crude, unpleasant truths about war, then one shouldn’t send men away to fight it because that’s how war is. I suppose that, as a Vietnam veteran, he has a right to say it, but I disliked his book intensely.

There’s no dignity in it.  Though the books I’ve read about WW1 and WW2 contain raw truths that convey the horror of war in many ways, I’m not aware of any book from those wars that celebrates flippancy, black humour or contempt for the dead as this one does. Did the men in the trenches make jokes about their mates dying, in order to cope?  Did they mock their dead enemies with macabre ceremony, shaking their limp hands and offering fruit to ‘keep up their vitamin C intake?’ Did they write about the horror of a real individual’s death while his family was still alive to be distressed by the description?  Was the Vietnam war so much more dreadful than trench warfare that it justifies such ghastly behaviour to their mates, and to the dead?

I don’t think so.  Often the men of WW1 and WW2 lied to protect the bereaved from the awful truth.  They said that their mates died instantly, never knowing what hit them.  They said they were brave, never a blubbering mess of fear.  They said they were mates who looked out for each other and they concealed cowardice, betrayal and dishonour.  I think they did this to dignify their service, and the service of others, even if the reality of it was different, because they felt that their mates deserved respect.

Vietnam vets like this one want to share the hateful things they did to evoke our pity and guilt.  In his world view, all of us, are complicit in this matter, and therefore he thinks he can justify telling us all of it, especially the unpleasant parts.  People like him would blame the folks back home for the torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib torture, instead of taking responsibility for it.   But rather than do that, O’Brien blends fact and fiction, always blurring the two so that we do not really know what happened, because, he says, there is no truth in war.

Well maybe, maybe not.  The Vietnam war was the least justifiable of all the wars I know about, and its combatants just have to wear that.  The men of WW1 had to wear the truth that theirs was a stupid war, wasteful of millions of lives and the blight of a generation.  That generation bore this appalling knowledge with quiet dignity but the Vietnam vets don’t.  They bleat about being silenced, not recognising that silence would earn our respect while revealing atrocities doesn’t, and especially not when there seems to be little empathy for the sufferings of the enemy. These vets are sour and bitter because they lost the war and didn’t get a victory parade.  They want their suffering acknowledged, especially when they were conscripts.

Well, I think there’s something rather adolescent about this belief that a dignified silence is tantamount to betrayal.  As we grow older, we all realise that there are many things better left unsaid, but this author seems to take a perverse pride in revealing how an ugly culture devoid of heroism was the norm in Vietnam.  It seems to me that vets like this one not only want counselling and compensation but they also want everyone else to wallow in their guilt and shame.

In Vietnam last year, everywhere I went there must have been bodies under my feet, and yet there were few memorials.  Every Vietnamese man of my generation must have been a soldier on one side or the other, but I cannot imagine those grave, dignified men ever wanting to write stuff like this.

The Things They Carried was shortlisted for the Pulitzer, and the wikipedia entry says that it is considered to be the most significant work of fiction to come out of the Vietnam War. Goodness knows what the rest of it is like….

PS 1.10.09 Oh dear, I’ve just discovered that most of what I’ve written above betrays my woeful ignorance of postmodernism.  The Things They Carried is an example of postmodernist literature, and I have unwittingly identified some of its key characteristics (e.g. black humour i.e. treating serious subjects as a joke), undermining the narrator, metafiction .  See the Wikipedia article about Postmodernism in Literature and scroll down to metafiction.

Mea culpa?  No, not  really.  It says something about a book if we ought to read an encyclopedia article about philosophical theories before reading it.  Maybe it should come with a little warning somewhere on the cover for general readers like me who blunder in out of their depth:  Take care! Postmodernism within!  Read Wikipedia first!

It just shows you how much we have come to rely on bookcover designs to signpost the kind of book it is.   The book I borrowed from the library didn’t look ‘literary’ like the cover I’ve pasted here on this post.  It looked like an ordinary memoir of the Vietnam War which I’m researching for the book I’m writing…

This book is included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.


  1. […] Irish ( The Bell Jar )11. Lisa Hill (The Plot Against America)12. Lisa Hill (The Hours)13. Lisa Hill (The Things They Carried)14. Wendy (The Robber […]


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