by Joseph Shieber
I’ve finally gotten around to reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.
One aspect of the book that makes it so great is the way that O’Brien makes the challenge of the ineffability of his – and his comrades’ – war experiences part of the book itself. For example, he writes:
In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness. In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.
Reading the book in this way reminded me of the brilliant poem by James Fenton, “A German Requiem” (from The Memory of War and Children in Exile, Penguin, 1983).
Here’s what I wrote about it in a previous blog:
For anyone who has spent time in Germany, even now, so many years after the Second World War, there is a simple and poignant eloquence to the passages that deal with the fact that, “when so many had died, so many and at such speed,/ There were no cities waiting for the victims./ They unscrewed the name-plates from the shattered doorways/ And carried them away with the coffins./ So the squares and parks were filled with the eloquence of young cemeteries.”
However, the elements of the poem that resonate with me most … are the … lines dealing with the almost impossible task of remembering, and with the way in which survivors — or those who seek to bear witness for the survivors — are often implicated in the silence of those who stood by while the unspeakable occurred and whose guilt at their inaction impels them to forget.
These are the lines from Fenton’s poem that I had in mind:
It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.
And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.
You will find out that you are not alone in the enterprise.
But come. Grief must have its term? Guilt too, then.
And it seems there is no limit to the resourcefulness of recollection.
So that a man might say and think:
When the world was at its darkest,
When the black wings passed over the rooftops
(And who can divine His purposes?) even then
There was always, always a fire in this hearth.
You see this cupboard? A priest-hole!
And in that lumber-room whole generations have been housed and fed.
Oh, if I were to begin, if I were to begin to tell you
The half, the quarter, a mere smattering of what we went through!
His wife nods, and a secret smile,
Like a breeze with enough strength to carry one dry leaf
Over two pavingstones, passes from chair to chair.
Even the enquirer is charmed.
He forgets to pursue the point.
It is not what he wants to know.
It is what he wants not to know.
It is not what they say.
It is what they do not say.
The challenge faced by both O’Brien and Fenton is the challenge of describing loss. In Fenton’s poem, it’s the loss of the virtually unimaginable numbers of people exterminated by the machinery of death constructed by the Nazi state. In O’Brien’s novel, it’s the experiences that the soldiers try to recapture through their stories.
Those experiences, however, are ephemeral. Once they pass, all that is left are the stories – stories whose tellers are struggling to recapture the richness and repleteness, the horror and the beauty of the experiences themselves. In telling those stories, they are trying to do justice to an experience whose meaning, it seems, keeps changing and getting rediscovered with each retelling.
As O’Brien writes, “in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow.”
I say that “all that is left are the stories,” but that’s not quite true. The title of the book, The Things They Carried, is intended in part as a metaphor – the soldiers’ stories and experiences are things they carry with them, both in country in Vietnam and home to the United States. However, it’s also literal: the physical burden of the things they carry is bound up in the experience of what it was like to be a soldier in Vietnam – and the description of that burden goes a long way to helping O’Brien evoke that experience.
In the first chapter of the book, also titled “The Things They Carried,” these are some of the earliest sentences:
The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these items weighed between 12 and 18 pounds, depending upon a man’s habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers.
On their feet they carried jungle boots—2.1 pounds—and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl’s foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother’s distrust of the white man, his grandfather’s old hunting hatchet. Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost 2 pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away.
Purely on the level of craft, note everything that O’Brien accomplishes with these sentences. Note the deft way in which he begins to paint pictures of the individual soldiers’ personalities by highlighting the idiosyncratic items each of them carried. Note the way that he details the weight of each item, a strategy that not only makes the reader mindful of the fact that the soldiers were carrying all of this weight as they trudged through the landscape, but also signals to the reader, this really happened, this was real. Note the way that O’Brien introduces the specter of death so matter-of-factly as part of the list – not warranting even its own sentence, but rather appended to a description of Ted Lavender and the tranquilizers he carried. Finally, note that by beginning the book with a description of the literal things he and his fellow soldiers carried, O’Brien takes the reader on a journey from the material, concrete trappings of those wartime experiences to the ephemeral, will-o’-the-wisp memories and stories of those experiences themselves.
I’m reading The Things They Carried to prepare for a discussion of the book. There’s something about the book, however, that resists discussion. Perhaps the very ineffability that forms one of the central themes of the book also contributes to the challenge of talking about the book.
As O’Brien writes, “In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.’”