Tim O’Brien is best known as the writer of “The Things They Carried” and “In the Lake of the Woods” — two works of fiction about the Vietnam War and its aftermath that can be safely counted among the most accomplished, affecting, important, troubling and pleasurable documents of the 20th century.
The foundation for those books was laid in Vietnam itself, where he began writing his first book, “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home,” a memoir, in the last hour or two of daylight, from the foxhole he had dug to keep himself alive, a story he recounts in an interview bundled with the newly released 40th anniversary audiobook edition of the memoir. By the end of his tour, he had accumulated, by his count, 30 or 40 handwritten pages, which represented the beginning of a lifelong reckoning with what O’Brien now calls “that terrible decision”: “What do you do when you get a draft notice and you think a war is wrong? And I struggled with that for months prior to my being inducted into the army, and I’m still struggling with it, 40 years later.”
The memoir is narrated by Dan John Miller in a pitch-perfect young man’s voice, alternately chatty and confiding, and a little lubricated, like a friend telling tall tales at a bar to forestall pain. The story proceeds in short chapters that alternate in-the-middle-of-the-action scene-making with reflective chapters that interrogate everything: the war, the draft, the politicians, the culture of the Army, the act of occupation, the act of killing, the idea of courage, and, most of all, O’Brien himself.
For listeners acquainted with O’Brien’s later work, it is interesting to watch him write his way into his material. In “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” O’Brien is asking, in effect: What is the story of the Vietnam War? What does it mean? What does it tell us about human behavior? By “The Things They Carried” and “In the Lake of the Woods,” O’Brien is asking questions like: How do we know that the stories we’re telling ourselves about the war are the true stories? What makes the story true? How much of the story can we even know? What good does it do to have the true story if people are going to keep making the same terrible choices in the future, anyway? What are the consequences of the past for the people who must live with them in the present and the future?
This moral reckoning continues into the present. When the audiobook interviewer asks O’Brien what he thinks of “If I Die in a Combat Zone” now, his thoughts reveal a preoccupation that goes beyond a literary assessment. He’s thinking about war in the abstract, and recent American engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan in particular.
“The wars are so similar,” O’Brien says, “mine and the wars we’re going through now. In both cases: Guerrilla wars, who’s your friend, who’s your enemy, no uniforms, no front, no rear, land mines blowing us up, all the frustrations and bitterness that infects a soldier when you can’t find an enemy. An enemy can find you, but you can’t find the enemy. As a consequence, you come home without that sense of price, that sense of sacrifice that my dad felt coming home from WWII. It’s much more ambiguous now, much more confusing.”
At the end of “If I Die in a Combat Zone,” a younger O’Brien, speaking on the airplane that will take him home from the war, made a tentative stab at understanding what he’d just experienced. “You add things up,” he wrote. “You lost a friend to the war, and you gained a friend. You compromised one principle and fulfilled another. You learned, as old men tell it in front of a courthouse, that war is not all bad; it may not make a man of you, but it teaches you that manhood is not something to scoff at; some stories of valor are true; dead bodies are heavy, and it’s better not to touch them; fear is paralysis, but it is better to be afraid than to move out to die ...”
The listener can hear the new veteran straining to make the best of the experience, but even this early, hours from the war, O’Brien couldn’t embrace the uncomplicated versions of the stories we tell ourselves about country, courage and valor.
“The best you could say about Vietnam,” O’Brien says, now, “was that certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons, which is to say the bodies were for sure and the orphans and the widows and the maimed. There was no dispute about that, but there was much dispute about the rectitude of the war. Smart people in pinstripes couldn’t make up their minds about whether the war was right or wrong. The whole country was divided. And it seemed to me as a young man facing that draft notice that it’s not a great idea to go out killing people unless the country is pretty sure it’s the right thing to do, and our country was not sure.”
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