Casualties of War

It’s been a while since I last posted to The Donut Shop Conversations and being Memorial Day, I dug through some old files and found this analysis of Tim O’Brien’s short story The Things They Carried.  If you’ve never read it, I suggest you do so.

An elegantly simple story, The Things They Carried is deceptively profound.  Beginning with a simple premise, author Tim O’Brien elevates the theme of a list to sociopolitical commentary and psychoanalysis.  What’s more, he slips it in through the backdoor.  By detailing what his fellow soldiers carried on their person in to battle, he creates a deeper, more meaningful inventory of what is lost from, or replaced in, their souls.  O’Brien’s title may be The Things They Carried, but his message is the things they lost.

Vietnam defined a generation and profoundly transformed the nation.  To say that the young men and women who fought in the jungles of Southeast Asia lost their innocence would be trite.  They sacrificed their youth upon the altars of corporate colonialism.  And after giving so much for King and Country, many returned to a world that no longer existed.  If the Vietnam War can be defined in a single word, that word would have to be: loss.

In this poignant narrative, written in first person from a point of view that can only come from having been there, Tim O’Brien strips away the Hollywood and video game facade of war to reveal the truth: there are no winners.  Everybody loses something.

Those who fought in the jungles of Vietnam lost many things along the way, but one of the first casualties of war was their patriotism and sense of purpose.  With no measurable improvement or results, death and destruction became routine – just part of the job – like the daily commute:

They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the rivers and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility.  Their principles were in their feet.  Their calculations were biological.  They had no sense of strategy or mission.

In a war with no clear objectives save the daily body quotas, the men are forced to concern themselves with only their survival.  The daily marches, the nightly watches, are all for one end: stay alive long enough to get home.

What they didn’t know then, but soon learned, was that they had also lost the home they knew and dreamed of returning to.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey…In the late afternoon, after a day’s march, he would dig his foxhole, wash his hands under a canteen, unwrap the letters, hold them with the tips of his fingers, and spend the last hour of light pretending.  He would imagine romantic camping trips into the White Mountains in New Hampshire.

At the end of their tour, the freedom bird would fly them out of Vietnam, but it would never take them to the Promised Land.  Once you’ve spent your days killing other human beings, things are never the same again.

They lost a right the rest of us take for granted: the right to live till morning.

Lee Strunk made a funny ghost sound, a kind of moaning, yet very happy, and right then, when Strunk made that high happy moaning sound, when he went Ahhooooo, right then Ted Lavender was shot in the head on his way back from peeing. 

In a world where you can die on your way back from taking a piss behind a bush, every breath becomes the elixir of life.

With every step, every thought, every heartbeat threatening to be their last, some abandoned all pretenses of decorum – dropped along the trail like yesterday’s C-rats.

Sanders wrapped the thumb in toilet paper and handed it across to Norman Bowker.  There was no blood.  Smiling, he kicked the boy’s head, watched the flies scatter, and said. It’s like that old TV show – Paladin.  Have gun, will travel.

The loss of perspective is clear: Paladin never roamed the countryside leaving human road kill in his wake.

Some, like Kiowa, a half-blooded American Indian and son of a Southern Baptist Minister, lost their faith.

Shrugging, Kiowa pulled off his boots. …He tried not to think about Ted Lavender, but then he was thinking how fast it was, no drama, down and dead, and how it was hard to feel anything except surprise.  It seemed un-Christian.  He wished he could find some great sadness, or even anger, but the emotion wasn’t there and he couldn’t make it happen.  Mostly he felt pleased to be alive.  He liked the smell of the New Testament under his cheek, the leather and ink and paper and glue, whatever the chemicals were.

Can the comfort of a familiar object bring solace in a vacuum of faithlessness?  For some, yes.  Some cast off any faith they may have had in favor of superstition.  “Dave Jensen carried a rabbit’s foot.”  Faith is a major casualty in war.  Ultimately, our faith is in humankind, others like us.  We hold out hope that others will perform honorably and with “good faith.”  When lives are taken in an instant, at the whim of these others, our faith is lost – sometimes forever.

They discarded their humanity while they tried to hold on to their compassion:

After the chopper took Lavender away, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross led his men into the village of Than Khe.  They burned everything.  They shot chickens and dogs, they trashed the village well, they called in artillery and watched the wreckage, then they marched for several hours through the hot afternoon, and then at dusk, while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.  He tried not to cry.

Contempt for the enemy must always be generated in order to justify all the death and destruction and in the end, compassion for human life becomes elusive.  In the case of Kiowa and others in the platoon, compassion moves beyond their grasp.

And some things that they wanted to lose, some things they wanted desperately to rid themselves of, they couldn’t shake.  The war had become a cancer in their lives and each village represented a new tumor to be excised and cauterized.  They embraced their contempt and roamed the countryside, Gods of Death, burning and destroying everything in their path.  But every day brought a new tumor, a new lesion, and a new excuse to destroy:

They searched the villages without knowing what to look for, not caring, kicking over jars of rice, frisking children and old men, blowing tunnels, sometimes setting fires and sometimes not, then forming up and moving on to the next village, then other villages, where it would always be the same.

Like feral dogs, they had lost their rational mind but gained a close relationship with their reptilian brain.  Such is the nature of war.  In the end, those who fight it are reduced to animals in the wild.

They are trained to kill and loosed upon the world.  But someday the freedom bird comes to take them and once home again, these feral dogs, these trained killers, these children who have gained a view of themselves that no one should ever see, are asked to simply return to their average lives as if nothing ever happened.  And in the end, we all lose.  O’Brien tells us that once lost, innocence cannot be regained:

He [Lieutenant Cross] was realistic about it.  There was that new hardness in his stomach.  No more fantasies, he told himself.

Like war itself, the theme of O’Brien’s tale is straightforward: it’s not what you carry that counts, but what you lose.  No matter what you take into battle, you leave behind something precious.  O’Brien’s semi-autobiographical tale of men in the grisly business of killing shows us that there are no locks strong enough to guard against the losses that war creates.  And more than any other conflict in American history, Vietnam shaped the nation and the US military – because of what we lost.

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