There aren't many war stories. There are plenty of anti-war stories, the war-is-hell books that focus on the bleak parts, the personal stories, the atrocities. There are stories that glorify war, the ones like The Iliad that maintain a veneer of sorrow for war's destructive force while praising the nobility of warriors. But not many stories are just about war.
The Things They Carried is one of them. Tim O'Brien served in Vietnam as a private, drafted despite his hinted-at leftist leanings, humping pounds of equipment and weaponry from one part of the jungle to the other. He tells stories about what he saw there, or rather, what he could've seen there, because as he says there's a truth that isn't fact-truth, and that's what he aims for.
He doesn't whine, wallow in self-pity, try to understand why he was in Nam, why anyone was in Nam, or why he ended up at a base camp from a wound that went untended too long. He doesn't ask whether the U. S. should've entered the war. He tells the story of his failed draft dodge, running to Canada alone in late June. This isn't a complaint, an accusation, or a vindication.
It's a war story. O'Brien calls it fiction because not everything actually happened, at least the way he records it. But it's not fiction, it's too real for fiction, and when he describes the boredom of war, the fear of combat, the irrational love of the fear of combat, we realize that separating the "real" from the "not real" is beside the point.
Tim O'Brien is among the great American writers. Never settling for poetry or realism alone, he combines both in a series of disjointed but intimately connected stories about the men of Alpha Company. In the process he shows us not just how men behave in war, but how war—and writing about war—is just another metaphor for understanding life.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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