O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage”

I like several of the stories in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. Although our experience of the war is quite different in some ways, we certainly share enough experiences to make the book a powerful reminder of old feelings and old regrets.

Before I picked up this book, the only thing I’d read by O’Brien was the short story “Speaking of Courage,” a story in the American Lit text I used for many years. It’s the story of a Vietnam Vet who spends a 4th of July driving around a lake in a small town obsessed that he was overcome with fear when he could have saved a friend, even though it’s clear his friend was already “dead” before he gave up trying to save him.

On one level, the story always reminded me of how the three teachers who were Vietnam Vets at Prairie would meet while patrolling the parking lot rather than going to the Veterans Day Assembly, which most often turned into a celebration of “patriotism” rather honoring those who had died. Most Vietnam veterans I know share that sense of “alienation,” whether because their war experiences set them off or because they felt rejected by their country after fighting a war most didn’t want to fight in the first place.

Interestingly enough, the story has been rewritten since its original publication. In a chapter entitled “Notes,” the narrator explains that the original story had been inspired by a long, wandering letter from one of the members of his platoon who wanted O’Brien to tell “his” story. Since there’s a disclaimer on the front page that reads, “This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author’s own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary,” followed by a dedication to people whose names are used as “characters” in the stories the reader may well wonder how much of these stories is really “fiction.”

O’Brien writes:

I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t. Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter, it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse. By telling stories you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.

One of the most compelling qualities of The Things They Carried is precisely this mixture of truth and fiction, the feeling that even if these stories were made up they are absolutely true. It’s the kind of power you feel in Ellison’s The Invisible Man or Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Even when we suspect something’s probably not true in these works, we feel that it should have happened that way.

The Weight of It All

My daughter asked me to read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried a “sequence of award-winning stories about a platoon of young foot soldiers caught up in the madness of the Vietnam War.” If it had been anyone other than my daughter, or perhaps my son, I would have politely refused and gone on with my life, more than willing to ignore this part of my life once again.

I’ve written this blog for so many years I’m unsure exactly what I’ve said about Vietnam, but I go out of my way to avoid looking back at that war, not because I’m ashamed of my actions there but because I have no real way of integrating what I discovered there with my vision of the kind of world I want to live in.

Even when I returned home from Vietnam and spent the next three months unemployed for the only time in my life and with very little desire to start working, I avoided facing any truths I might have uncovered there. Hell, I slept most of the day and stayed awake most of the night, even avoiding those I loved as much as possible.

Later, when students asked about the war, I avoided talking about it except to say that I really didn’t like talking about it, though I readily admitted I was against the war to students as long as we were still fighting there. In later years, I just avoided talking about it altogether, perfectly willing to let it fade into that distant, unexplained phenomena we call “history.” Luckily, most high school history teachers, eager to glorify America’s past, chose not to get that far in history class, so there were few direct questions to face.

I’m about half way through O’Brien’s book, and I’ve been disturbed enough by it to realize that it is a chilling reminder of what it was like to be there. The first story, “The Things They Carried” is almost poetic in its portrayal of the kind of “baggage” that Vietnam veterans carried then, and now.

I appreciate the way O’Brien distinguishes between what various soldiers had to carry, both physically because of rank or position in the platoon, and psychologically because they are, after all, individuals with individual histories and individual responsibilities that all determine to some extent how they react to the same events. Far too many books and movies have intentionally or unintentionally stereotyped the war and those who fought in it.

A better poet than me could probably string together quotes from this story and create a moving, effective portrayal of the burden Vietnam veterans have had to carry, beginning with “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity.”

One of the more moving examples of what they carried can be found in the description of Ted Lavender, whose death is central to this first story:

But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear.

With a few notable exceptions we all shared that “unweighed fear,” and the ones who didn’t share it were the ones who frightened me the most because they seemed to put the rest of us in the greatest danger. The question, of course, is how much that fear weighed, whether it was more than you could bear, and whether it crippled you to the extent that you, like those on the other end of the scale, were a danger to yourself and to those around you.

An even more important thing we all shared, still share to this day:

They shared the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself –Vietnam, the place, the soil — a powdery orange-red dust that covered their boots and fatigues and faces.

Little wonder, then, that

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. …

By and large they carried these things inside, maintaining the mask of composure. They sneered at sick call. They spoke bitterly about guys who had found release by shooting off their toes or fingers. … with only a trace of envy or awe…

Some became stronger from having to carry all that weight, many were simply crushed by the sheer weight of it all, but it’s hard to imagine that there are any Vietnam vets whose lives weren’t burdened by the weight of that war.