Over time, Tim O'Brien has used both art and artifice to shape his fictional accounts of Vietnam. Award-winning novels such as Going After Cacciato
and The Things They Carried
offer up a surreal view of the war: a soldier who decides to walk to Paris, leaving only a trail of M&M's in his wake; a young man who imports his high-school girlfriend to his base camp high in the jungled mountains, only to lose her to a shadowy squad of Special Forces Green Berets and to "that mix of unnamed terror and unnamed pleasure" that was Vietnam. O'Brien's first account of the war, however, was written in the raw, unfiltered months following his return from Southeast Asia in 1969. If I Die in a Combat Zone
has all of the eloquence and attention to language and detail that are a mark of the author's work; what is different about it is its straightforward, unembellished depiction of his personal experience of hell.
"When you are ordered to march through areas such as Pinkville--GI slang for Song My, parent village of My Lai ... you do some thinking. You hallucinate. You look ahead a few paces and wonder what your legs will resemble if there is more to the earth in that spot than silicates and nitrogen. Will the pain be unbearable? Will you scream or fall silent? Will you be afraid to look at your own body, afraid of the sight of your own red flesh and white bone? You wonder if the medic remembered his morphine."
O'Brien paints an unvarnished portrait of the infantry soldier's life that is at once mundane and terrifying--the endless days of patrolling punctuated by firefights that end as suddenly and inconclusively as they begin; the mind-numbing brutality of burned villages and trampled rice patties; the terror of tunnels, minefields, and the ever-present threat of death. Powerful as these scenes are, perhaps the most memorable chapter in the book concerns his decision to desert just a few weeks before he was sent to Vietnam. "The AWOL bag was ready to go, but I wasn't.... I burned the letters to my family. I read the others and burned them, too. It was over. I simply couldn't bring myself to flee. Family, the home town, friends, history, tradition, fear, confusion, exile: I could not run." Tim O'Brien went into the war opposing it and came out knowing exactly why. If I Die in a Combat Zone is more than just a memoir of a disastrous war; it is also a meditation on heroism and cowardice, on the mutability of truth and morality in a war zone and, most of all, on the simple, human capacity to endure the unendurable. --Alix Wilber
--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
"O'Brien brilliantly and quietly evokes the foot soldier's daily life in the paddies and foxholes, evokes a blind, blundering war. . . . Tim O'Brien writes with the care and eloquence of someone for whom communication is still a vital possibility. . . . A personal document of aching clarity. . . . A beautiful, painful book."
--The New York Times Book Review
"One of the best, most disturbing, and most powerful books about the shame that was / is Vietnam."
--Minneapolis Star and Tribune