Sunday, June 24, 2012

The Things They Carried

I have just finished reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. If you aren't familiar with the story, it's a collection of stories (some true, some based on true stories) from Vietnam during the war. This post won't be a book review, so if you're looking for that, I'd google it. This book had a profound effect on me, but not for the reasons that a lot of people find war stories profound.

Many members of my family have served during war time. Both of my grandfathers were in the Navy in WWII and both my father and step-father were in Vietnam. My father was in the Air Force and in all the time I knew him he never said anything about his experiences in the war. My step-dad was a Marine and played in the President's personal band, but spent a good deal of time in Vietnam and shared a few stories of his time there. I didn't go into the book with them in mind-I picked it up on recommendation of a friend. Early into the story, however, I began to place my dad in the story. NB: for the rest of this post, I'll only be referring to my father as opposed to my step-father.

The book begins by describing the specific weight of each item of a soldier's pack. Boots, ponchos, weapons, rations, articles of clothing. He weighs items specific to individual soldiers-one carried moccasins and a New Testament. One carried a pack of letters from a girl, one carried his father's expectations. War is heavy. Literally and figuratively. Early on, the author describes his own experience with the draft and how he wrestled with the idea of going off to war, particularly this war. Part of the weight lies in the fact that, unlike WWII, there wasn't a clear enemy, a clear reason to war. Many of the same people being drafted to war did not at all agree with or at all support their government, or even trust their government. And really, was the government of that time to be trusted? Concurrently, the Civil Rights movement was happening. Assassinations, riots, protest lyrics, hippies. This was the volitive soil that produced these young men going off to war at their country's mandate. This was the war my father went off to. My dad wasn't in Alpha Company, but it's easy to read him into the story.

One of the things that really struck me and made the book profound to me was the realization that I was born less than ten years after my father returned home. My brother less than five. In some small way Vietnam is a part of my story. For my dad, Vietnam was still a very fresh and raw wound when my brother and I were born. Seven years (really four, my brother was born in 1976) is a remarkably short period of time to readjust to civilian life, get a job, get married, start a family. My father had always been a very inward, silent person. It's a safe bet that he never talked about his experiences with anyone and likely struggled with what he had seen alone. I've written about my father before in an effort to process my relationship with him and his alcoholism. I can begin to understand what life looked like through his eyes upon returning home after war. I can better imagine the things he saw and emotions he felt. I can't ever fully relate because I've never been in combat. I can't know what it was like knowing while you are dying that your cancer was caused in great part because of Agent Orange (never mind the bitter feeling he must have felt having been drafted to fight a war and survive only to be killed slowly over the next 23 years). I can't say that I'm glad my father became an alcoholic, but I sure think I can understand his position. Understanding leads to forgiveness. I have always loved my father. The time we had together was good. However, I wrestle a lot with my identity and fears of abandonment because of the choices he made. But understanding leads to forgiveness. The book offered me a new perspective and a good deal more understanding.

Lastly, war stories need to be told. They need to be told for the profit (not monetary) of the teller and for the profit of the audience. These stories belong to all of us. Whether one agrees with whatever war happens to be taking place at the time or not, there are men, boys barely of age, offering their lives in exchange for ours. For this reason, their stories are ours and should be told and received with grace and gratitude.