Apropos of Memorial Day Weekend, I finished The Things They Carried. I have been discussing the book as I read it with a friend at work who was a Marine in Vietnam. It is really a collection of short stories, most taking place in Vietnam during the American War. One story is about a vet in his hometown for 4th of July. Another is about the author taking his ten year old daughter to Vietnam to revisit places with great meaning for him.
One thing that struck me was the cruelty of certain acts. People took out their rage and anguish on animals and sometimes people who could not fight back. Practical jokes could have horrible consequences. These soldiers went from bored to terrified in a few seconds time. They wanted to be brave, but when the time came, could they live up to their role models and ideals?
I have to remember most of these guys were nineteen or twenty years old, the same age as my son is now. Many of them did not want to go to Vietnam. They interrupted their college studies, left behind girl friends and family. Most of them returned from Vietnam changed in many ways, some of them negative. They grew up fast in a violent way, trying to survive the environment and encounters with the people they saw as the enemy. They returned to a society that was unwelcoming and unappreciative of their service. Many of these vets today are homeless or sunk in alcoholism and or drug abuse.
I read the book because my children read it in school. I was in elementary school through high school during the Vietnam War. I have traveled to Vietnam three times as an adult, scouting and leading adventure travel trips. This book gave me a whole new perspective on the war and its American participants. I look forward to reading some of O’Brien’s other books.