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

“The Things They Carried” is a fairly brutal short story collection of life of a platoon of soldiers during the Vietnam War. As most people know, this war polarized America (and some other countries) for a variety of reasons, and although it’s been more than 60 years since it happened, it still has ripple effects on the U.S. today.

“…to generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true…The only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.”

Each chapter (or short story, I suppose) is from the same PoV of this omniscient narrator who is looking back at his memories from his time in the field, and trying to make sense of them. He writes of the chaos of an unclear war in a far-off country, with untrained young men (boys, really) all in it together. The rain, the muck, the mud he describes is everywhere, it seems, and this could be seen as representative of the sodden political mess that had sucked the U.S. down into this unwinnable situation.

Also, as most readers (or movie viewers) will already be aware of, the trope of the PTSD Vietnam soldier returning home with a kitbag full of problems has been well used. So – all this to say that I wasn’t expecting to be surprised that much when I picked this book up. The trope was recognizable, the writing was strong, but I don’t really see why all the critics had a cow about this when it was first published in 1990. It wasn’t as though this was the first work of fiction to address U.S. soldiers returning from the unpopular war, so I am not that clear just why this work was heralded with such glory as it was.

O’Brien did have Vietnam War experience, having been deployed as infantry with the U.S. Army from February 1969 to March 1970 (after just graduated with honors from college). From here, he went on to become a reporter for the WaPo, and after his short stories were published widely, he ended up being the University Endowed Chair for Creative Writing for Texas State University.  (I am certain that other things happened between WaPo and TSU, but don’t know the details.) So – he knows his stuff.

At the same time, I do think that he was very wrapped up in being “clever” in how he structured his writing and his metaphors were a bit heavy-handed in places. (OK. I get it. You don’t have to go on about X. ) But his characters do do a good job of portraying the utter fear and lunacy that strikes young people (men, in this case) when they are asked to do unimaginable things.

It’s a hard-hitting book; there is no doubt about that. It’s a well written book; no doubt about that either. And perhaps this is just me, but I think fiction about the damaged veterans from Vietnam has been done. What new stories can come out of that now that haven’t already been done? (However, a particularly cynical Me would ask if there actually are any new stories in the world that haven’t already been done in one way or another? But that’s a post for another time.)

So – good writing. Just a topic that’s been over-done (although props to the vets who survived through that whole experience and more recent combat situations. Thank you for your service, and more power to you.)

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