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on February 8, 2001
I was first introduced to this book as part of a U.S. & Vietnam History course in college. The other novel the course required was The Quiet American by Graham Greene. Tim O'Brien's book is every bit as good as Greene's, and all the more timely.
As a former soldier, and a veteran of Desert Storm, whose father avoided the draft during the Vietnam War, the book taught me that no matter what other people say about the war, no matter what I learn, I can never make any value judgements on an individual level. I was not there, and for better or worse, I am only a specator.
I am currently re-reading the book, which I often use in teaching my creative writing class. I share the story-chapter, "Style" every year with my students. I also find the book essential to learn about the nature of fiction, which O'Brien challenges with every page of this book.
For anyone looking for a book to read on the Vietnam experience, this book makes my short list every time. Not only of "Vietnam" books, but of any book worth reading. This book is simply essential.
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on April 15, 2016
It’s called a novel, but it reads like a collection of war stories and essays about being an American soldier in the Vietnam War. That’s not a criticism. In fact, it’s part of the brilliance of this book. If it were thoroughly plotted, it might not feel so authentic. As war is disjointed, so is O’Brien’s book. Some of the chapters are tiny and some are lengthy. Some read more like essays than fiction, and others are clearly fictitious.

When I say that “some are clearly fictitious,” there’s always a doubt that it might just be a true story--because war is just that absurd. An example that springs to mind is one of the most engaging pieces in the work. It’s called “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong,” and it’s about a wholesome, young girlfriend to one of the soldiers who [improbably] comes to live in the camp. The girl acclimates to the war, and soon she is going out on patrol--not with the ordinary infantry soldiers, but during the night with the Green Berets. Perhaps the moral is that some people are made for war, and it’s never who you’d suspect. As I describe it, the premise may sound ridiculous, but the way O’Brien presents it as a story told by a Rat Kiley--a fellow infantryman known to exaggerate—it feels as though there is something very true, no matter how fictitious the story might be. Before one reads “Sweetheart of Song Tra Bong” one has been primed by a chapter entitled “How to Tell a True War Story,” which tells one that truth and falsehood aren’t so clear in the bizarre world of war.

There are a couple chapters outside the period during which O’Brien (the character, who may or may not be the same as the author) is actively in an infantry unit. One early chapter describes his near attempt at draft dodging, and another talks of his time stationed at the rear after being injured. Both of these chapters offer an interesting twist in the scheme of the book overall. We find O’Brien to be a fairly typical infantry soldier, and it seems hard to reconcile this with his floating in a canoe and narrowly deciding not to make a swim for the Canadian shoreline. However, what is odder still is realizing how distraught he is to be pulled out of his unit, particularly when he realizes that he has become an outsider and the [then rookie] medic who botched his treatment is now in the in-group. This is one of the many unusual aspects of combatant psychology that comes into play in the book, along with O’Brien’s description of how devastating it was to kill.

There are 21 chapters to the book. As I said, they run a gamut, but at all times keep one reading. It’s the shortest of the Vietnam novels I’ve read—I think. When I think of works like “Matterhorn” and “The 13th Valley,” there seems to be something hard to convey concisely about the Vietnam War, but O’Brien nails it with his unconventional novel. O’Brien also uses repetition masterfully. This can be seen in the title chapter “The Things They Carried,” which describes the many things carried by an infantry soldier—both the physical items they carried on patrol and the psychological and emotional things they carried after the war. It’s a risky approach that pays off well.

I’d recommend this book for anyone—at least anyone who can stomach war stories.
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on March 19, 2014
This is a brilliant and sensitive book about Vietnam. Although I wasn’t there, I served in the military during that period, safely stateside, and was glad to not go to a war that was so difficult to explain and justify. Nevertheless, I felt a sense of guilt for no other reason than that my peers were fighting and dying there. I have talked to others who stayed out of harm’s way while otherwise serving, and the same feeling was at least lurking in their psyche. Perhaps as a result, and having lived through a time when the country was torn apart by this distant conflict, I avoided the books and films that came out soon after the conflict ended. But as time passed, it became easier and appropriate to examine the experiences of those who were actually engaged in this misguided war.

A couple of years ago I read “The Matterhorn”. Like this book, it is a novel, but one obviously based on the experience of the author who served in Vietnam. I found The Matterhorn quite compelling, and the recollection that sticks in my mind was of the terrible physical hardship, and the complete exhaustion of the troops. There was much more to the book, but that is what stayed with me. I found quite a different viewpoint in The Things They Carried.

The book begins reciting the physical things that the troops carried- guns and boots and ponchos and rations and a myriad of supplies that necessarily weighted them down on their days and nights in the field. But it quickly became obvious that the title did not really refer to these tangible objects but instead to the emotional burdens that were much more weighty.

For the author, dealing with such emotional burdens begins as he grapples with a decision to obey the draft or go to Canada. There is a wonderful chapter about his stay in a cabin near the Canadian border where, along with the aged proprietor, he contemplates his decision. He decides against leaving the country, but not out of an internal patriotism, but instead from a sense of shame if he failed to report. He did not want to disappoint his family and friends, and this fear of shame was much more compelling than the fear of war. Indeed, he would go to war and kill and maybe die, because he was embarrassed not to.

This sense of shame, or embarrassment, also transferred to the battlefield. In fact, of all the things the soldiers carried, the most compelling was the fear of blushing. Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to. Their acts of bravery were not a product of courage or valor, but from the fact that they were too frightened to be thought of as cowards. They also battled with the desire to be a good man in the midst of all the evil, to find justice amidst the dying. But war, whatever it is, is never moral-it does not instruct nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing what they have always done. War is hell, but it is also terror and adventure and courage and discovery. The author also notes that war is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling, war is drudgery. War makes you a man, war makes you dead. It can also be a rush, one may never feel more alive than when he’s almost dead.
Amidst all the emotions, the book must also recount the grisly details of that combat, but it always seemed to me a story of emotion. And just as these men–actually boys– carried the shame of a judgmental society as their propulsion to fight and die, they acquired and returned with great burdens of guilt. This guilt was the thing they carried home, along with memories that they could not put out of their minds. These are probably the same memories that soldiers have always brought back, but those returning from Vietnam were perhaps the first to gradually discuss and try to deal with this emotional burden.

The book tells a difficult and instructive story. It again raises questions and issue that were discussed at the time but have faded with other memories of those times. The author’s thoughts are timelessly pertinent:

That you don’t make war without knowing why. That Vietnam seemed wrong to him because certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons. And that when a nation goes to war it must have reasonable confidence in the justice and imperative of its cause, because you can’t fix your mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead.

Simple expectations when young lives are at stake.
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on December 8, 2015
It was sort of helpful that I had read 'July July' and 'If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home' before I read this book. Born in 1951 with a draft number of 98, I would certainly have been drafted if Congress had not extended the II-S college deferments for those graduating from high school in 1970 (like me). We were the last class to keep our deferments. By the time I got out of college (spring 1974), the draft and the war were over.

I am not sure I can add much to laudatory remarks already written for this book. The one aspect I did notice was that early in the book, Mr. O'Brien details the actual equipment that the soldiers carried. As the book moved forward, without saying as much, he started to detail the mental and emotional weight that the soldiers had to carry.

Vietnam, in my view, was designed to feed the endless appetite of the Military-Industrial Complex. As such, half a million men were left in-country with no clear idea of just what they were supposed to do and certainly no cogent plan as how to defeat an enemy. That changed a little when Westmoreland left and Abrams took over; it was, however, something of a fool's errand, except that guys kept getting killed.

I never served in the military, but felt a keen identification with those whose lives were disrupted by the draft. It was not clear until late spring 1971 that I would be able to stay in school, and I was quite sure that were I shipped to a combat zone, I would not come home in one piece (metaphorically at least).

Even purposeful warfare takes a huge toll on the surviving participants. Mr. O'Brien points this out about as well as any author I have read.
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on March 10, 2014
I bought and read this book with a great deal of interest because I was a combat infantry soldier in Vietnam from March 1969 to January 1970 with the 4th Infantry Division. I also read many of the reviews which were all great and talked about the authors writing style being one of the best. I will agree the author has an excellent writing style that holds the readers interest and makes the book interesting.
That said I think the fiction in this book really doesn’t depict the life of an Infantry Soldier in Vietnam very well and certainly didn’t depict what I went through. We did 30 day search and destroy missions along the Cambodian and Laotian borders and we fought exclusively NVA soldiers. So yes our wars were a little different but there were parts of this book where the description of what was going on indicated a lack of military discipline that I never saw while I was in Vietnam.
On a mission no one would play games like throwing a live smoke grenade back and forth to see who chickened out first because it would have given your units position away which is stupid. We fought a lot of battles and killed lots of enemy soldiers and we never sat around talking to dead so0ldiers and making stupid statements to them. We went about our business and moved out when the battle was over after getting our killed and wounded taken care of.
I’m sure some percentage of US combat soldiers didn’t like the thought of killing people and maybe had problems accepting that it was part of their life. I have a problem with his premise that soldiers couldn’t deal with the killing and kept having problems dealing with it. You were in a situation where the enemy was doing their best to kill you so it’s hard for me to envision why I would have a problem hunting and killing them.
I was a Sargent and a Squad leader and then a Platoon staff Sargent and the soldiers discipline to following our field Standard Operating Procedures (SOP) was easy to sell because it saved lives and the men knew that. What we carried was really heavy and it took a while to get into full Vietnam combat shape but you needed it all if you were to survive in Vietnam.
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on May 13, 2015
Not your typical Vietnam book, if you are looking for specific battles or units this is not your book. I compare this to the movie the Deer Hunter, about Vietnam War but about the PEOPLE. The stories were incredible, from the girlfriend brought over from the states to the fellow getting buried in the field. This was one of the few books I did not even realize I was done, I was looking for more chapters and stories. I served in the army reserves during this time period and was not in Vietnam. I realize the book is fiction but I am sure it is based on the authors time served in Vietnam. I have seen Tim O'Brien interviewed on tv about Vietnam and he is very impressive. I highly recommend this book. My daughter recommended the book to me from her friend, I hesitated to listen to her about the book. This book is excellent.
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on January 7, 2017
I flew fighters over North Vietnam in 1966 and never knew about this part of the war. Years later, like the last 15, I've been passionate about reconciling my experiences of being back at the bar in 4 hours, if you didn't get shot down and spent 7 years as a pow, with the grunts reality. The guys on the ground, in the rice patties with no mission other than to kill gooks. Tim O'Brien's book is top notch. There are others that should be read also and part of my personal therapy has been to read them. This is a very fine start. If you find your way to this book you'll find your way to the others also.
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on December 22, 2010
This year, I taught this text to my 10th graders. While I was teaching it, I shared passages with my boyfriend in Iraq. He served as a medic in one of the first deployments out after 9/11, a time before body armor and regular supply routes.

He was so absolutely moved and stunned that someone could put the indescribable experience of war into words. He asked me to send him a copy of this book. Then he asked me to send copies for some of his soldiers. Today he asked me for copies for his brother (also in Iraq) and his unit.

We have been able to talk about his experiences in a way he has been unable to share for over three years. He is healing. I cannot tell you how profound that statement is. PTSD is such a pervasive, difficult condition. We know so little and therapy is based on an imperfect science. But a few days with this text have done more to help him heal than years of counseling and medicine.

For anyone who has been in combat (real combat) this book is an incredible gift. Soldiers will treasure this book for generations to come.
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on December 29, 2015
O'Brien turned the war into an almost poetic emotional overstated, overcomplicated literary journey. My war was not deep but an overwhelming journey through fear, sadness, boredom and terror not lending itself to images painted in the way this book portrayed it. I feel pride in doing what I thought was right and grateful to have known the very young men I served with, and sadness for those who did not come home. It was hard to read this book but the strains on my soul do not relate to the war the way this book told the story. Maybe we were too young to understand anything but it's lonely terrifying uncomplicated and patriotic effort to do what we thought was right and it can not be changed into what this book describes. At least not for me. The real story is more isolated, uncomplicated and personal. I t was hard and this book tried to turn it into a Charley Rose made for TV story in search of recognition and reward. A reality turned fiction that serves a need but tells you little about Viet Nam the way it was lived. Three stars for a well written distortion.
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on January 31, 2017
The reason I liked this book is that not only it explores recollections of the author's past but you slowly realize that those stories may not be real but mesh of what happened and what could have happened, O'Brien's own body becomes also someone else's. And it doesn't matter. The author guides the reader on this trip and then analyzes that process, almost having a conversation with you about the art of writing things true and things imagined. You realize that this is also something the soldiers carried, the need to create fantasies to survive the horror, the boredom and surrealism of war.
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