Tuesday, March 30, 2021

If I Die in a Combat Zone, by Tim O'Brien

This 1975 memoir, companion to O’Brien’s masterful novel The Things They Carried, tells of a young man drafted, inducted, prepared to flee to Sweden but, in the end, going through combat training then shipping out to Vietnam. 

Most of the chapters are short and vivid, such as “Step Carefully” which describes types of land mines and other explosive devices used abundantly by both sides, and the types of injuries they tend to inflict. He writes about what an anti-war thinker and philosopher sees and does, and learns about himself and our species, in situations of kill and be killed: “We walked to other villages, and the phantom Forty-Eighth Viet Cong Battalion walked with us. When a booby-trapped artillery round blew two popular soldiers into a hedgerow, men put their fists into the faces of the nearest Vietnamese, two frightened women living in the guilty hamlet, and when the troops were through with them, they hacked off chunks of thick black hair. The men were crying, doing this. An officer used his pistol, hammering it against a prisoner’s skull. 
     Scraps of our friends were dropped in plastic body bags. Jet fighters were called in. The hamlet was leveled, and napalm was used… But Chip and Tom were on the way to Graves Registration in Chu Lai, and they were dead, and it was hard to be filled with pity.” 

What army-grunt story would be complete without a demonstration of lethal stupidity? Alpha Company, in which O’Brien serves, has been stuck in a terrible place. “Tracks” (large army vehicles designed for transport through mud) have been ordered in for support, but crossing a rice paddy, they hit mines. The company’s new officer, blustering and ignorant, orders his men out of the Tracks. The paddy mud is knee-deep, the water thigh-deep. The grunts don’t realize, as they pile out and struggle to move, that the drivers’ strategy under bombardment is to back up. Behind the vehicles, the grunts in the Tracks’ path cannot get out of the way. 

O’Brien meets one courageous officer and a lot of noisy fools, and writes about courage as only a soldier trying to stay alive in a world determined to kill him, can. Morality is the first casualty in a combat zone, though hardly the last. To philosophize is a luxury, only available after survival has been assured. The constant risk of maiming and death leaves no space in which a warrior can act bravely: only reaction, fed by fear and panic, is possible.