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Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried," released in 20th anniversary edition, renews war's ambiguity

Shout Out

Tim O’Brien’s book of Vietnam war stories, “The Things They Carried,” won mighty praise when it was first published in 1990. Josiah Bunting, writing in The Washington Post, said the tales were “rendered in an authorial tone, with an evocative, quiet precision not equaled in the imaginative literature of the American war in Vietnam.” This week, a 20th anniversary edition hit book stores. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan drag on, O’Brien’s powerful depictions are as real today as ever. Two decades ago, Vietnam inspired writers; today, it’s Iraq and Afghanistan. Of O’Brien’s contribution, Bunting noted : “Novels, memoirs, collections -- all pour forth in a thick stream that does not diminish: acts of exorcism, atonement, reconstruction, epiphany. It will never all be said; but it is difficult to imagine that it will ever be set down more accurately, more usefully, than in these narratives.” Recalling "The Things They Carried," Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, considers war then and now.

By Joseph Peschel

No matter what your stance on the moral and political validity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I would wager that the “only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.” Tim O’Brien wrote that about the psyche of the ordinary soldier at war in “The Things They Carried,” and that applies just as fittingly to the public discussion of today’s so-called “War on Terror” or “Overseas Contingency Operation.”

Published twenty years ago to wide acclaim and a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award, O’Brien’s book returns this week in hardcover, paper, and electronic editions from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. This collection of related short stories remains one of the finest books ever written about the Vietnam War, perhaps about all War.

The stories and vignettes, told mostly through the metafictional Tim O’Brien, depict the lives of the grunts of Alpha Company -- First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Rat Kiley, Kiowa, Norman Bowker, Azar, Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon, and, among others, the fictional Tim O’Brien. These are stories -- and O’Brien, the author, stresses that they are all made up -- of terror, love, and imagination; of courage, fear, and black humor to hide fear.

Cross, the young platoon leader, is fixated on a girl back home, Martha, who doesn’t return his love. Still, he carries a picture of her and fantasizes about her so often that he believes his preoccupation with her led to Lavender’s death. Kiley, the medic, carries morphine, and M&Ms for “especially bad wounds.” He eventually cracks up and shoots a round through his own foot. Curt Lemon, another naïve kid, is blown to pieces by a mine, his parts pulled down from a tree while one of the soldiers sings “Lemon Tree.” Kiowa, a Bible-carrying Baptist who distrusted the white man, dies in the muck of a shit field.

O’Brien, whose real-life namesake served in Vietnam, believes that a nation shouldn’t make war without knowing the reasons why, and paradoxically, considers himself a coward because he went to war. He uses fiction to tell a truth greater than factual reporting.

But don’t expect these stories to instruct in proper human behavior or to encourage virtue. O’Brien writes a “true war story is never moral… If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

If you are certain of your position on the current wars, you may want to reconsider.

By Steven E. Levingston  |  March 24, 2010; 5:30 AM ET
Categories:  Shout Out  | Tags: Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried"  
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