The Things They Carried, by Tim O'Brien
reviewed by NC Weil
This book has won many accolades, as short pieces and as a whole. It deserves them all. But I'm afraid to recommend it to my sons, who are in their twenties. Its juxtapositions of life and death, of ghoul humor and matter-of-fact insanity, are so raw, I fear my young men will fall in love with war.
In today's paper in 2010 there's a story about the 5th Stryker Brigade in Afghanistan - five soldiers are being tried for murder-for-sport and corpse desecration. In their cruelty I see the young men of this story - nineteen years old, just been drafted and dropped into Hell. They do callous things to survive, to differentiate themselves from the slaughter they must daily encounter. They do them to push back the fear that stalks every waking second and hunts them in their fitful sleep. They distance themselves from the meat they want not to be. By pushing each other to shows of indifference, and joking about what would otherwise make them incapable of what they are required to do, they survive - or die.
What is the worst death: to be flung in shreds into the treetops so your mates have to climb up and gather your fragments? To be sucked down in a flooded field of mud and shit in the driving rain, so your buddies have to foul themselves finding you, digging you out to send your corpse home? To be shot taking a piss on a lovely morning?
Or is it the death of your own self, your civilian carelessness and ease? Is it the pretty girl smuggled in by her boyfriend, who takes to war with an addict's intensity, joining the Green Berets so she can melt into the jungle and come back with human-body-part trophies, dead to ordinary life? Every story in this book could be made up. Every story is too real to be disbelieved.
It's about how we look at the world, how we draw the lines between ourselves and the emptiness surrounding our little sparks. By layering fact and experience, it's about how we can force death to a draw, play the game out longer, relish another morning of not being dead yet. Heartbeats and friends are all we have.