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 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 of 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.