APRIL 30, 2015
ON AN IKEA bookshelf in post-hipster Brooklyn, wedged neatly between historical tomes on the Vietnam War, sits a thin book with a black cover: The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. I pull down the book and open to the title story. Since first reading it as a high school sophomore, I’ve quoted it many times, and referenced it even more. But it’s been a while since I read the story in its entirety.
I sit down to fix that.
Forty years ago this month, Saigon fell. The Republic of Vietnam was no more — only two years after the Paris Peace Accords ostensibly achieved President Nixon’s “Peace with Honor.” In a war chockfull of iconic images, the last evacuation helicopter lifting off the embassy roof proved a final, enduring one.
Yet as historical a moment as that was, few fictional renderings of it have found cultural accomplishment. There’s Miss Saigon, a musical; The Killing Fields, a movie, and a movie mostly about Cambodia; Robert Olen Butler’s 1981 novel The Alleys of Eden, his first. More recent works, like Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters and Thanhha Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again, haven’t shied away, perhaps abetted by time and distance. Yet for a conflict that yielded hundreds of novels and story collections —and at least a dozen truly excellent ones — the denouement to America’s bloody foreign adventure in southeast Asia remains curiously sparse in high literature.
O’Brien was in graduate school when the fall occurred. His 1973 memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home had been positively received, though the renown he has now was still a few years (and books) away. “That end?” O’Brien said in a phone interview, about April 30, 1975. “That end for us, or something like it, seemed inevitable a long time before it actually happened.”
Karl Marlantes, author of the 2010 novel Matterhorn and a Navy Cross recipient for bravery during a bunker assault in Vietnam, echoed that sentiment in his own phone interview. “When we got the news, I was sitting with friends at lunch, in San Francisco,” he said. “And I remember this feeling of enormous sadness. We could’ve gotten to that point 10 years earlier.”
“It was an indelible image of the waste of it all,” O’Brien continued. “The dead, the wounded, the money, the psychic energy and the moral energy […] just everything.”
Perhaps that’s why few literary treatments have adequately represented the Fall of Saigon. What more could be added to that scene, to that overflowing staircase, to those desperate families? Is that why Vietnam War writers, fiction and non, Vietnamese and American, have tended to focus on the villages and the paddies, the patrols and the protests? Good literature finds its vitality in the messy grays of existence. Other than the sky, there wasn’t much gray in Saigon 40 years ago.
Writers play manifold roles representing war in literature: Part chronicler. Part cipher. Part witness-bearer. Part truth-spitter, even when — especially when? — writing fiction. Part propagandist, if Orwell was right about art, or if critics were right about American Sniper. The best writers and works of Vietnam have ensured the large shadow of that war can’t be escaped, let alone forgotten.
To wit, The Things They Carried has been a staple in American classrooms for decades; O’Brien’s work resonated strongly with my generation of Iraq and Afghanistan vets. Even the most hardcore grunt knew it, an oddity in a world not regarded for literary appreciation. (While the antiwar themes in O’Brien’s books aren’t totally congruent with the philosophy and ideologies of an all-volunteer force, Full Metal Jacket was ferociously antiwar too, and no one’s benefited more from that film than Marine recruiters. Call it postmodern appropriation.) A lot of this is generational — the people who taught us high school literature often came of age during Vietnam — and also circumstantial — a 25-page short story is more digestible for teenagers than, say, the 550-page heroic epic that is Matterhorn, or the 700-pages of labyrinthine brilliance in Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke. But mostly it’s because the work is so good that it’s transcended traditional cultural barriers.
Keith Scalia has taught The Things They Carried for 10 years in his Brooklyn high school classroom. He originally began teaching it after losing a friend to an IED in Iraq, but includes it in his curriculum now more for writing craft purposes. In an email, Scalia wrote that “students appreciate [The Things They Carried] because they begin to understand the tangible weight vs. the intangible weight of things […] they begin to reconsider their own priorities.”
Across the country, in San Luis Obispo, California, English teacher Graham Culbertson has seen similar connections made between students and O’Brien’s text. His high schoolers have been intrigued with the idea of a young person “being forcibly ripped out of their controlled environment and placed someplace where morality becomes muddled, social restriction decays, and identity dissolves.” It’s not all noble scholarly pursuit, though. “There’s a strange release valve,” according to Culbertson. “[The stories] let students play in a dangerous world so opposite their own, without having to actually physically experience it.”
For his part, O’Brien is still surprised at the resonance of his work. But 20-plus years after The Things They Carried was published, and 40-plus years after the war it chronicles, he hopes it still makes people ask certain questions, of themselves and of others. “Killing people is a big deal,” he said. “Dying’s a big deal. I can’t think of bigger deals. What about patience? What about thoughtfulness? Is there another way to do this? These questions matter.
“No matter how righteous a war, it’s a terrible, sad and awful thing. Sometimes the reasons are defensible. But most of the time, they’re not.”
After encountering The Things They Carried during my own high school years, I became fixated with Vietnam War literature, each new book and story only revealing how much deeper the subject was. And what a dark, seductive subject. As a millennial — a child of Vietnam protesters, a nephew of a Vietnam vet, a grandchild of two World War II veterans, one a citizen-soldier and the other a career officer — it felt like the key to what’d happened in the American Century, how and where it all went wrong. If there weren’t any answers in the texts of its time, perhaps there might be something resembling an explanation.
Back in my Brooklyn apartment, I’m halfway through O’Brien’s title story. I’ve revisited a number of underlined passages, and marked a few new ones, as well. I’d forgotten how quietly it vacillates between the earnest and the ironic. The spare prose makes it deceptively accessible — a certain tradition in American war writing, from Crane to Hemingway to Salter. Many young writers have aped this style without understanding that it’s really the vast architecture of subtext that gives it potency. And subtext must be earned. In The Things They Carried, it’s not so much the line “All the things a medic must carry, including M&M’s for especially bad wounds” that’s worth emulating, but everything leading up to and behind and packed within the phrase.
I’m also surprised by how PG O’Brien’s story is. This defies my memory of it. There are some references to dope and condoms, an F-bomb here and there. But there’s a pervasive gentleness, something that has a bit to do with Lieutenant Jimmy Cross’s virgin back home and a lot to do with the reactive nature of the infantry platoon nominally on search-and-destroy missions. In comparison, my friend Phil Klay’s Redeployment, a story collection about Iraq, is downright profane. And Vietnam in HD, the History Channel’s 2011 documentary miniseries, seems a savage funhouse mirror of O’Brien’s story. Of course, that’s part of its beauty — it’s lean and rhythmic and self-contained in a way the war it’s about never was.
Then again, obscenity can be a subjective thing. Months ago, a friend of a friend fought her Florida school board to teach The Things They Carried in her 12th-grade classroom. I typed a short note of support, using words like “short-sighted,” “moral ambiguities,” and “imperative.” No decision has yet come down. I’ve since been told that some of the board members and parents “don’t want thinking, informed children. They want children who are safe and clean.”
In the era of an all-volunteer force and one percent of the population serving in uniform, war can be avoided and ignored, whether it’s happening now in the Middle East or it happened decades ago in southeast Asia. “Safe and clean” may be a terrifying parenting strategy, but that doesn’t make these parents wrong about war’s relationship to 21st century-America. War’s an ugly, bothersome abstraction, not just for them and their kids, but for most of the country. Let someone else’s sons and daughters deal with it.
“To put human faces on that abstraction,” O’Brien said over the phone, “it matters.”
Karl Marlantes took a more historical approach about the state of the civilian-military divide, alluding to the Praetorian Guard, then mentioning a soldier he’d met at Fort Bragg preparing to deploy to combat for the seventh time.
“We’re not behaving like a republic,” he said.
The intersection of war and art and culture generally happens in waves. The late ’60s to the mid-’70s saw the first wave of Vietnam literature, nonfiction accounts of varying quality written by journalists and veterans (The best include Jonathan Schell’s The Village of Ben Suc, Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War, Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake, Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night, Susan Sontag’s “Trip to Hanoi,” Seymour Hersh’s My Lai 4 and Ron Glasser’s 365 Days). Then came the early novels, creative nonfiction, and poetry — Robert Stone’s Dog Soldiers (1974), Loyd Little’s Parthian Shot (1975), Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977), Jim Webb’s Fields of Fire (1978), O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978), Gus Hasford’s The Short-Timers (1979), John Del Vecchio’s The 13th Valley (1982), Stephen Wright’s Meditations in Green (1983), Robert Mason’s Chickenhawk (1983), and poetry collections by Yusef Komunyakaa and Bruce Weigl are a few examples of this second wave. (Nearly all the initial Vietnam voices were male and American. Finding literary texts from other perspectives took time — more on that later.)
Marlantes, who worked and reworked Matterhorn for decades, pointed out in his interview that many of these non-journo works shared a common approach. “Early on, it was almost all surrealistic,” he said, mentioning the impact Apocalypse Now had on burgeoning Vietnam writers. “For people who were trying to seriously grapple with the war, they couldn’t quite put it together yet — too much had happened. It was still too fresh.”
Considering surrealism originally emerged from the wreckage of World War I and a world gone mad, there’s probably something to his theory. In contrast, Matterhorn basks in a sort of gritty realism. “I tried very hard to get the details right,” Marlantes said, something indicative of the eventual trajectory of Vietnam-related literature.
In a 1984 essay for The New York Times, book critic Michiko Kakutani traces the literary output of Vietnam to that point, and considers the “typical Bildungroman” quality of many of the works. “They relate the story of a young man, usually identifiable with the author, whose progress from idealism to disillusionment echoes the changes that America itself underwent in the 60’s,” she wrote. Later in the essay, Kakutani explores why there’s been such a literary focus on the micro Vietnam experience, and essentially predicts the Trees of Smokes still decades away: “A large novel that embraces the entire scene, that deals with the military and political complexities of the war, its consequences in public and private lives, as well as its reverberations at home — that novel has yet to be written.”
The mid-to-late ’80s brought a third wave of Vietnam War-related art to American culture, one with more breadth and wider views than its forebears. The societal context of the era is interesting; Reagan’s America was at its peak, and the younger protesters and veterans of Vietnam had become parents, trading out rifles and picket signs for diapers and cartoons. The war had been a great schism across our national consciousness, and though schisms like that can heal and scar over, they never really go away.
Wallace Terry’s oral history Bloods: Black Veterans of the Vietnam War burst upon the book world in 1984, bringing long-disregarded aspects of the war to the forefront. Platoon (1986) and Full Metal Jacket (1987) became instant war film classics. Miss Saigon debuted in 1989. Another soldier-turned-author, Larry Heinemann, won the 1987 National Book Award for Fiction for Paco’s Story, shockingly upsetting Toni Morrison’s Beloved. And Vietnamese authors began finding publication for works about the war from the other side: Truong Nhu Tang’s 1985 A Vietcong Memoir, Le Ly Hayslip’s 1989 memoir When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, and Bao Ninh’s 1990 novel The Sorrow of War are but three examples.
Homefront literature also unfurled during this time. Tobias Wolff’s 1984 novella The Barracks Thief followed a group of paratroopers on Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Olen Butler was beginning to write from the perspective of Vietnamese immigrants living in the American South, stories that would eventually become the Pulitzer Prize-winning collection A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain. And war literature written by women, to include Lynda Van Devanter’s 1983 army nurse memoir Home Before Morning and Jayne Anne Phillips’s 1984 novel Machine Dreams began to finally find publication. The great Joan Didion’s novel Democracy landed shortly thereafter, to much acclaim.
(These works are, of course, only a few of many, and I mention them solely to provide a sampling of the variety and depth of the canon. Oversights are inevitable, and for that I apologize.)
In the midst of this prevalent literary blooming, O’Brien was crafting what would become his masterwork. “The Things They Carried” (the story) was first published by Esquire in 1986. The Things They Carried (the book) came out four years later, collecting stories that’d appeared in publications like Granta and GQ.
Like the various waves of Vietnam literature, O’Brien’s writing evolved over time. His first book, his memoir, has a lyrical fury to it — a bit of rawness that stands out compared to his later technical precision. That lyricism and anger isn’t gone in The Things They Carried, but it’s more restrained, more exact. Further, the dreaminess of Going After Cacciato can still be found in some The Things They Carried stories, but in doses, and powered more by a sort of nostalgic sadness than the overwhelming desire to escape the jungle.
While it’s tempting to try and match O’Brien’s stages as a writer to his country’s reckoning with the Vietnam War, that’s too neat to be anything but a thinkpiece verdict. Instead, when looking at his novels and stories in sequence, it seems that it’s simply the work of a gifted storyteller circling and re-circling a topic and idea until he gets it right, exactly right, just as he’d envisioned it in his head some far-gone day decades before.
Forty years after the Fall of Saigon, I finish rereading “The Things They Carried” in my apartment. The nucleus of the story occurs in a tidy paragraph just past the halfway point — “Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe. They burned everything.”
Other than the continual grind of humping through the jungle, and a short scene of burning letters, that’s the extent of agency exhibited. The story has both nothing and everything to do with the village of Than Khe, and also nothing and everything to do with the fallen soldier Lavender.
That duality isn’t what makes me immediately reread the story again, though. It’s the use of repetition, the way O’Brien keeps coming back to the same moments and memories, assaulting them from different angles. The infantry platoon in “The Things They Carried” may be (mostly) reactive in its pages, but its author certainly isn’t.
All these years later, the annals of Vietnam War lit continues to grow and expand. Just this spring, two new novels were released, Quan Barry’s She Weeps Each Time You’re Born and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, very different books following very different Vietnamese protagonists. The Sympathizer even opens during the Fall of Saigon, lending further credence to the idea that no subject is beyond fiction, given enough time and distance.
The question endures, though: does any of it make a difference? Storytelling itself is its own purpose, and a worthy one, but writers of conflict tend to have more pragmatic ambitions for their work.
After receiving the 2012 Dayton Peace Prize, O’Brien lamented spending much of his professional life being labeled a war writer. He’d been seeking peace in his works, he believed. During our interview, I asked him to clarify what he meant by that.
“I’m not a war writer,” he said. “I’m a person writing about war with the objective of making people think twice about it.”
While that might seem like semantics to some, I get it. War is not a descriptor to be stuck on a person. War is a subject — one of the most destructive, and self-destructive, human endeavors.
When asked if he’d hoped his work could effect change, O’Brien paraphrased a Kurt Vonnegut line. “I could no more write an antiwar book than I could an anti-glacier book,” he said. “You have to be honest about yourself and your experiences and your work, and then do your best.” Still though, I heard disappointment in his voice as he connected Vietnam with the brushfire wars of today. “All these years later, it feels like we’ve gotten nowhere,” he said.
Then he laughed, long and deep. “But the alternative is to give up. That, I haven’t been willing to do yet.”