Now, war ended, all I am left with are simple, unprofound scraps of truth. Men die. Fear hurts and humiliates. It is hard to be brave. It is hard to know what bravery is. Dead human beings are heavy and awkward to carry, things smell different in Vietnam, soldiers are dreamers, drill sergeants are boors, some men thought the war was proper and others didn’t and most didn’t care. Is that the stuff for a morality lesson, even for a theme?
Do dreams offer lessons? Do nightmares have themes, do we waken and analyze them and live our lives and advice others as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.
That quote is from page 23 of Tim O’Brien’s 1975 memoir about his time serving as a foot soldier in Vietnam, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. Of all O’Brien’s extensive canon, this is the only book labeled as memoir, a fact I find really interesting.
I read this book as part of my personal challenge to read the entire works of Tim O’Brien this summer. I’d previously read The Things They Carried, a novel, in high school and remember being struck by the idea of truth in storytelling. The Things They Carried is a novel, meaning things in it did not happen exactly as O’Brien wrote. But what my class discussed is whether the feeling of the book, what it made us understand on some emotional level about what it was like to be there, was probably true, and that it’s sometimes ok to bend the facts in fiction to get at a larger truth of some kind.
If I Die in a Combat Zone doesn’t battle with that question in the same way. As a memoir, there’s a certain presumption of truth, that O’Brien is telling what happened with little narrative embellishment or changing fundamental facts in service of the story.
I thought that this might make If I Die in a Combat Zone more emotionally resonant for me. I tend to prefer nonfiction, in general, because when it resonates it hits more because I know it’s actually true. But for some reason this wasn’t the case — I enjoyed reading this book but it didn’t impact me the way I expected.
There could be a number of reasons for this. I read the book over a long period and when I had a lot of other things happening in life — work, freelancing, packing, and being sick. I don’t think I got to immerse myself in it the way I would have wanted to.
But I also think the book has some limitations. A lot of it covers O’Brien’s time getting into the army, in training, deciding whether to abandon or not, and then finally getting to Vietnam. Those sections, while good, don’t carry the same weight reading about being at war actually does.
Overall, If I Die in a Combat Zone was a good book, but it wasn’t a Great Book. It was good to read, emotional and well written, but it wasn’t life-changing. However, passages like the one I quoted — so smart and haunted and beautiful — show these glimmers of greatness, these beginnings of searching and understanding, that I cannot wait to explore in my next Tim O’Brien, Northern Lights.