O’Brien was there. He knows what the men in Alpha Company carried on their backs, and to some extent, in their hearts. He knows the exact weight of each piece of equipment, and who carried what — the weight of their boots, the weight of their entrenching tools, the weight of their weaponry, the weight of their rain ponchos — which served the dual purposes of sheltering them from the rain, and, eventually, wrapping their bodies for the chopper. The weight that could not be calculated was that of their emotional baggage — baggage they brought with them, baggage they collected along the way, and baggage they brought home with them if they survived — baggage they carried under a “mask of composure”.
The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good-luck pebble. Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot. Norman Bowker, otherwise a very gentle person, carried a thumb that had been presented to him as a gift by Mitchell Sanders. The thumb was dark brown, rubbery to the touch, and weighed 4 onces at most. It had been cut from a VC corpse, a boy of fifteen or sixteen. They’d found him at the bottom of an irrigation ditch, badly burned, flies in his mouth and eyes. The boy wore black shorts and sandals. At the time of his death he had been carrying a pouch of rice, a rifle, and three magazines of ammunition.
They were kids mostly, fighting a war they didn’t understand, in a country they didn’t know, for a cause they didn’t believe in. Henry Dobbins was always looking for “the moral” in every event or story; he carried his girlfriend’s pantyhose “wrapped around his neck as a comforter”. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried “a compass, maps, code books, binoculars. . . and the responsibility for the lives of his men”. He also carried a picture of the girl he hoped was his girlfriend, although he knew when she signed her letters “Love,” it was only form. Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books”. “Mitchell Sanders. . . carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. . . Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament. . . Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope” and the author, Tim O’Brien, carried a secret which went home with him and was never revealed until some twenty years later: “[He] was a coward. [He] went to war.”
O’Brien tells gritty, poignant, tragic, funny, and terrifying stories — shaking hands with corpses, trick or treating in a village in ‘Nam wearing nothing but boots, body paint, and a weird mask, fainting before the army dentist started his work, waking up screaming with a leech on your tongue, popping tranquilizers just to get through the day. Or the night. He tells of the aftermath, of survivors, and of those who made it through the war only to not make it through peace. Today we call it post-traumatic stress disorder. Are his stories true? He says,
In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of the truth itself, therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.
Often in a war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again.
His stories are “a truth” — perhaps one of many truths. O’Brien explores his own experiences of the baggage of Alpha Company in a way that brings the war home to a world that tried to ignore it. It is illuminating and horrifying and heart-rending. It is possibly the only truth of the Vietnam war that will ever be experienced by those who were not there. * * * * *
The Things They Carried and other books by Tim O’Brien are available at Amazon.