Friday, November 28, 2014

Banned Book #2: "The Things They Carried"

by Pa Rock

This year I drew up a list of ten “banned” books that I intend to read before Banned Books Week rolls around again next October.   The first book that I was able to check off the list was Joseph Heller’s masterpiece, Catch-22, which looks at the business and horror of the Second World War from a farcical perspective.  I finished the second book yesterday.  The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien examines the Vietnam War from a much more serious, personal, and darker point of view.

O’Brien’s book is a collection of stories from his time and experiences as a foot-soldier in Vietnam in the late 1960’s, and they are peopled with the those who suffered that hell alongside of him.  The tales are focused loosely on some of the things that soldiers carried with them during their long forays into the mountains, jungles, and swamps of Vietnam.    He talks of things like guns, ammunition, and other necessities such as food, medical supplies, and field radios.  But the author also focuses pictures of girlfriends, letters from home, Christmas cookies, a New Testament, and even one guy’s penchant for wearing his girlfriend’s pantyhose around his neck as a good-luck talisman.  The things they carried were integral parts of their stories.

Tim O’Brien was a fresh college graduate in the summer of 1968, home for a few months before heading off to Harvard where he had a full-ride scholarship for graduate school.  Things were looking good for the kid from a small Minnesota prairie town – right up until that fateful day in June when he got his draft notice.  Some of this book describes O’Brien’s personal struggles as he had to decide between disappointing himself and going off to the war in Asia – or disappointing family and friends by fleeing to Canada.  At one point he made it to within a short swim of the Canadian border before opting to return home and meet society’s expectations.

All of O’Brien’s tales have a focus on death, from the slow death of innocence to the sudden impact of a bullet to the head.     One of the more grotesque stories tells of the night his platoon camped in a low field near a river.  The locals told them it was a “bad” place, but the young lieutenant in charge of the platoon followed orders and set his platoon up there for the night.  And it rained that night, and rained and rained.  Soon the river overflowed and it suddenly became evident that the field had served for generations as the village's outdoor bathroom.  The young soldiers were quickly being covered with water, mud, and human excrement.  A sudden artillery onslaught capped off their horrible night.  One young soldier, an American Indian and devout Baptist (the one who carried a New Testament) was wounded in the incident, and several of his comrades watched in helpless horror as he slipped beneath the surface of the lake of shit and disappeared.

O’Brien also revisits (multiple times) his killing of a young Vietnamese man with a hand grenade..  He imagines the life the young man had endured, and the future that he was to be denied.  O’Brien’s version of the young Vietnamese soldier bore a stark resemblance to the author himself.  He also remembers in vivid detail receiving his own wounds and the shock that set in as the platoon's new medic couldn't summon the courage to crawl over through the gunfire and assist him.

Another story that I particularly liked was about a young man who figured out a way to bring his seventeen-year-old girlfriend over from the states.  The couple lived together in the field on what was to have been a conjugal visit of two or three weeks.  But the girl became consumed with the war, learning how to take care of weapons and interact with the locals.  She gradually moved in with an independent squad of Green Berets and began going on extended operations and ambushes with them – eventually disappearing into the countryside and the war.  The story is a very poignant retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness – or Apocalypse Now for you non-readers.

The Things They Carried is an excellent war narrative, one that leaves the reader with a profound sense of what it actually felt like to have trudged through the damp and dangerous awfulness that was Vietnam during the war.  It tells lots of very hard truth, and for that reason some regard it as dangerous, a book they feel obligated to keep others from reading.

Tim O’Brien is one of the very best American writers., living or deceased – and he certainly proves his skills with The Things They Carried.    Instead of being banned, his works should be required reading – at least for those aspiring to learn the craft of writing.  O’Brien is a master writer, and this book is nothing less than a masterpiece.  

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