“A true war story is never moral,” writes Tim O’Brien in his book The Things They Carried. Indeed, if there ever was a hard lesson learned by the United States, its citizens and, most importantly, the soldiers during the Vietnam War, it was that war was without morals, no matter how Hollywood depicted it. The stories that came out of the war, therefore, could teach no uplifting lesson nor create heroes without being a complete farce.
O’Brien’s collection of short stories about his war experience that became The Things They Carried has no unifying purpose, no gallant protagonist, and no respect for the fall-back traits of a ‘war novel’; he simply tells his story as he knew it. Whether his stories of war and its aftermath are factual realities makes no difference. But when thinking about what effects the Vietnam War had on its veterans after they returned home, one must first understand how it affected them even before they arrived in the dense, sweaty jungles of Vietnam.
To the millions of young American men in the late 1960s, a draft notice seemed imminent. Some readily accepted their conscription as a patriotic duty; others vocally and violently protested it. But all of them—the doves and hawks alike—feared it in some way. The teenage Tim O’Brien was no different. However, in his youth and naïveté, believed that “if the stakes ever became high enough… [he] would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside [him] over the years…in preparation for that day when the [courage] account must be drawn down.” It is a common belief among young men, which for O’Brien, sadly, did not hold up.
In the chapter “On the Rainy River,” O’Brien describes in fascinating detail the deepest and darkest secret he had kept completely to himself until he wrote it down. He received his draft notice in the summer of 1968, during the height of the Tet Offensive, and was thrown into a moral and psychological whirlwind; should he flee to Canada or resign to his conscription? “It was a kind of schizophrenia. A moral split. I couldn’t make up my mind. I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile.” Already, before he had picked up a gun and shot at another human being, he was at war with himself.
He lists off every reason why he thinks he shouldn’t have to go to war: he was too smart, too compassionate; he hated camping out and the sight of blood. Though, in reality, the secret account of courage he thought he had was short on funds. This becomes evident when he decides to bolt for the border, eventually making it to a small motel in the wilderness directly across a lake from Canada. He stays there for nearly a week with the innkeeper, stuck in his very own purgatory.
He gets the chance to jump from a boat and swim to the Canadian shore, to live a life of physical freedom but moral handicap. But he can’t do it. “[It was] a moral freeze. I couldn’t decide, I couldn’t act, I couldn’t comport myself with even a pretense of modest human dignity.” He tries to force himself to jump, but the thought of embarrassment overtakes him. He would go to war.
O’Brien acknowledges up front that he waited so long to tell this story simply because of the embarrassment of not being able to act heroically when it mattered. It was a coming-of-age moment in his life, which reflected the same process the country would go through during its decade long engagement with Vietnam. The classic heroics and sturdy platitudes of World War II—that America was inherently good and right and honorable—faltered because of Vietnam. O’Brien’s personal crisis, a crisis of moral confliction rather than simple cowardice, embodied every other fighting man’s.
The Things They Carried could be considered a post-modern novel. There is not one main character that the reader follows throughout the book, nor a single narrative arc that connects each character and each plot point, and no chapter is necessarily dependent on another. It is important to consider this style of writing because the way O’Brien chooses to write about Vietnam reveals how he values and what he feels about his Vietnam experience.
Writing about his pre-war life, O’Brien stays more or less on a clear, singular path. But when he describes the war itself, the writing structure becomes disjointed, like fragments of memory mashed together. In this way, the content informs the structure. His pre-war days were smooth and straight. Then, he enters Vietnam, and his life’s structure and path are blown off course. Once he leaves Vietnam and continues his life, things slow down and take form again, but not without bumps in the road.
With that idea in mind, the stories from the war zone make more sense. Everything O’Brien knew as an ordinary young man was scrambled in with the chaos of Vietnam. The personal crisis he fought through before he became a soldier was nothing compared to the deeper dilemmas that soldiers experience. He describes his reaction to killing a man: “I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty.” He didn’t weep softly or have a nervous breakdown after killing the man; he wasn’t so mentally disturbed that he couldn’t function as a soldier; he simply slips into a vast, unquantifiable gray area.
Within this gray area, what really happens becomes jumbled with what seems to happen. This is why, O’Brien explains, war stories should never be trusted with the truth. “The angles of vision are skewed…there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” Because of this dichotomy, O’Brien admits to a loss of firm, absolute truth in war stories and, consequently, the war itself: “Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate…and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.”
The veterans carried this feeling with them from the swamps of Vietnam all the way back home to America. This disillusionment with the old ways—the eternal truths taken for granted—defined the era. The lives the soldiers lived before the war, before their draft notices, was black-and-white, but no more. The overwhelming ambiguity of war became the controlled chaos of civilian life. O’Brien writes about Norman Bowker, his comrade in the war, who returned home and found that his life had no particular purpose. Bowker drove aimlessly around a lake as if he was caught on a broken record. He was idling, literally and figuratively, between his former life as a soldier and his uncertain future. He wrote O’Brien to describe the feeling: “[T]here’s no place to go… My life, I mean. It’s almost like I got killed over in Nam.” Whatever part of him Bowker felt was killed in Vietnam was soon joined with the rest of him; he hanged himself a few years after returning home.
O’Brien had a different post-war experience. He wasn’t driven to suicide, but the over-whelming ambiguity he described stayed with him. When he returned to Vietnam with his daughter about twenty years after the war, he visited the place where his best friend Kiowa died —the one event that haunted him and that he blamed himself for. He waded into a lake and dropped Kiowa’s moccasins in the place he thought was where Kiowa died. He was trying to find some sort of emotional solace, and found it: “In a way, maybe, I’d gone under with Kiowa, and now after two decades I’d finally worked my way out.” O’Brien found the peace Norman Bowker and many other Vietnam veterans could not find.
The pre- and post-war experience of Vietnam veterans like Tim O’Brien and Norman Bowker were intrinsically linked by the war itself. Like a magnet, Vietnam pulled those young men away from their home, willingly or not, to battle; likewise, Vietnam in the theoretical—the lifelong physical and mental battle scars—kept its unbending and unseen hold on the young men as they returned home. They, along with the rest of the country, would not be able to shake off the uneasiness of the times. Everyone from the shores of Maine to the streets of Los Angeles, in a way, carried the same weight O’Brien and Bowker and countless other veterans carried through the “ghostly fog, thick and permanent” that was Vietnam.