I read this for the 2014 War Challenge with a Twist at the reading challenge blog War Through the Generations
The Things They Carried – Tim O’Brien
War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
Tim O'Brien writes about a war in which soldiers who were sent to war bring both fear and hope. They also carry weapons, ammunition, rations, maintenance tools M-16s, grenades, water, ponchos, cans of sterno and beer, trip flares, board games, English-Vietnamese dictionaries, the Holy Scriptures, nail clippers, letters and photographs, moccasins and tomahawks, cowardice and shameful memories of rage. No to mention a girlfriend's pantyhose wrapped around the neck as an amulet for luck.
O’Brian’s point is that the art of fiction uses stories to point to larger truths. War stories start with getting a gunshot wound to the buttocks or the death of a friend from drowning in a field used as the village toilet. Or grabbing the chance to swim naked in a river, because it’s so fricking hot, and ending up shot and killed. O’Brian is a great storyteller, showing us the content is meaningful even if just made up.
After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil--everything. All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of your living self--your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. There is a kind of largeness to it, a kind of godliness. Though it's odd, you're never more alive than when you're almost dead. You recognize what's valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what's best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not
I’ve not read much fictioin about the Vietnam war. Only Body Count by William T. Huggett, which is unjustly forgotten, and Fields of Fire by James Webb come to my mind, as fictionalized memoirs. For their realistic detail and focus on the USMC, I think they are still worth reading. But The Things They Carried has literary merit different from the stories full of details about small-unit tactics, weapons, and gear.