Review of Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

Tim O’Brien’s experience equipped him to tell powerful, emotional stories about the soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. This book is a tribute to them. O’Brien’s no-nonsense prose comes through like a lightning flash in the night sky.

“… I detest their blind, thoughtless, automatic acquiescence to it all, their simpleminded patriotism, their prideful ignorance, their love-it-or-leave-it platitudes, how they were sending me off to fight a war they didn’t understand and didn’t want to understand. … the polyestered Kiwanis boys, the merchants and farmers, the pious churchgoers, the chatty housewives, the PTA and the Lions club and the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the fine upstanding gentry out at the country club. They didn’t know Bao Dai from the man in the moon. They didn’t know history. They didn’t know the first thing about Diem’s tyranny, or the nature of Vietnamese nationalism, or the long colonialism of the French… but no matter, it was a war to stop the Communists, plain and simple, which was how they like things, you were a treacherous pussy if you had second thoughts about killing or dying for plain and simple reasons.”

Perhaps, only someone like O’Brien, who had fought in the war, could understand the struggles these soldiers must confront.

“All those eyes on me--the town, the whole universe--and I couldn’t risk the embarrassment. It was as if there were an audience to my life, that swirl of faces along the river, and in my head I could hear people screaming at me. Traitor! they yelled. Turncoat! Pussy! I felt myself blush. I couldn’t tolerate it. I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule.”

What is courage, which is especially important for a soldier? Here, the narrator, in the story “On the Rainy River,” says, “I was a coward. I went to the war.” Could there be a sadder or more powerful statement on courage?

To read the stories in The Things They Carried is to enter the world of these soldiers. And O’Brien is a masterful storyteller.