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5 Lessons Learned From "The Things They Carried"

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

More a series of short stories than a novel, The Things They Carried chronicles the life of a platoon in Vietnam, detailing their emotions, their dark  humor, and their deaths. Jumping in time from Vietnam to the present like a realistic Slaughterhouse-Five, an old soldier named Tim O’Brien narrates his tales; parts are true and parts are untrue. Parts are depressingly sad, and parts are beautiful. In short, it is the quintessential war memoir.

And unlike other classics--which are too damn long (Moby Dick), impenetrable (Ulysses), or French (Remembrance of Things Past)--I’d recommend this book to anyone. (Most people who write sentences like the previous one usually come off as crazed enthusiasts peddling religious tracts a la Atlas Shrugged, Battlefield Earth or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I’m not a fanatic, at least I hope I'm not.)

What is important is not that the book is excellent, but why it is excellent. Put another way, why is O’Brien’s The Things They Carried so much better than the current crop of post 9/11 war memoirs which I clearly hold in low esteem?

1. Well, it's not really a memoir - The Things They Carried is a memoir, but on the front page O’Brien labels the book, “a work of fiction.” By fictionalizing his experience, O’Brien gains the freedom to describe how he felt instead of what actually happened. He understands the difference between "what happened from what seemed to happen."

In a speech, O'Brien explains why he fictionalized his story of his summer before he went off to war, “If I were to tell you the literal truth of what happened to me in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight, all I could tell you was that I played golf, and I worried about getting drafted. But that's a crappy story. Isn't it? It doesn't - it doesn't open any door to what I was feeling in the summer of nineteen sixty-eight.”

2. He doesn’t hold grudges - Nathaniel Ficks hates the Captain he serves under, Anthony Swofford despises everyone who isn’t a Marine, Clint Van Winkle hates the war protesters he comes home to, and Craig Mullaney fights with his Major. At times, these books read like childish vendettas against people who had wronged the authors.

A famous author once told me say he didn’t like a fellow writer because she, “didn’t love her characters.” O’Brien loves everyone of his characters, from the crazy medic who loses it to the nervous medic who causes O’Brien's butt to literally start rotting. O’Brien loves every character in the book, including the Vietnamese boy he kills.

3. The book feels honest - Going into this memoir project, I had a litmus test of certain things a writer, if they are being intellectually honest, would include in their books.  O'Brien nailed one of those on the head: killing animals. Specifically, killing puppies. Sure enough, a fellow soldier Azar blows up a puppy strapped to a land mine. O'Brien didn't shy away from the ugly truth. (One war memoir I read, The War I Always Wanted, has a fantastic description of a horse in the middle Operation Anaconda.)

O'Brien's book also feels factually accurate. Save the story "Love Song of Song Tra Bong," everything feels like it could have happened, and nothing is over the top.

4. It isn't political - The Things They Carried doesn't discuss why America went to war, which is shocking compared to how political most discussions of Vietnam, then and now. Most of the war memoirs I've read so far have done a good job of ignoring this as well, but politics seep in from time to time.

The authors feel a need to explain why they went to war (9/11), and why it is ok to kill another person. O'Brien explains why he went to war. He was too scared and ashamed not to.

5. It isn't macho - I get it. Recon marines are amazing. And so are Navy Seals. And Army Rangers. O'Brien doesn't waste time trying to impress us.

In the future, probably to wrap up this series, I'll write a post on what to do and what not to when writing a war memoir.

four comments

Do we need to include a full disclosure even if we are recommending books? In my blog I have also recommended few good books, do I need to include disclosure considering the books I recommend are bestsellers? :-)

Walter – Unfortunately it looks like we do. From what we have read on Problogger and other blogging sites, the new media regulations require full disclosure when recommending a book or product or even linking to one.

Yeah, I think you do, if you are an affiliate of Amazon’s.

I actually think it is a good thing. I’m able to give our readers a way to support us, and explain why we have the links to amazon.

Anyways, I just found you site Walter, and it seems really good and I’m looking forward to reading it. Cheers!

I’ve recently begun reading this book. It’s gripping. Number 3 above, I really agree with. It feels authentic. Like I’m listening to a soldier recollect. There’s a chaotic line of thought that he follows. It nears rambling, like a solider just talking about he’s experience, but it always returns to a concrete thought or topic. He takes you somewhere with his fictional experience.

I previously wrote that that I was unsure that this sort of fictional memoir would do justice to the landscape of war stories when there’s a wealth of true stories, both glorifying and vilifying. To be honest, I’m still unsure of the fictional memoir. However, thus far I’m entertained.