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Thoughts: ‘If I Die in a Combat Zone’ by Tim O’Brien

Thoughts: ‘If I Die in a Combat Zone’ by Tim O’Brien post image

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.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Scott June 1, 2010, 11:47 am

    The Things They Carried is the only O’Brien book I’ve read as well, but I remember absolutely loving it. Coincidentally, I just picked up Going After Cacciato at the library. I’ve heard great things about it, so I hope it resonates as powerfully as The Things They Carried did.

    Also – I’m looking forward to hearing what you think about Northern Lights

    • Kim June 2, 2010, 4:30 pm

      Scott: I’ve heard many good things about Going After Cacciato as well. It’s #3 on my list, so I’ll be getting to it sometime this month.

  • Clover June 2, 2010, 5:42 am

    I still have The Things They Carried on my TBR shelves and when I finished with it I have considered reading other books by Tim O’Brien. It’s interesting what you had to say about this one, that there were flashes of greatness but overall not very impactful emotionally. I still think it sounds like a book to read, maybe just not right away.

    • Kim June 2, 2010, 4:31 pm

      Clover: I think this is a book to read, I just think it’s not as great as some of his other books. At this point I’d suggest The Things They Carried first, and trying this one if you turn out to like O’Brien.

  • Lisa June 2, 2010, 10:04 pm

    Too bad the whole book isn’t like that passage you quoted. It made me sit back and take a minute.

    • Kim June 5, 2010, 10:34 am

      Lisa: I know! There were lots of little passages like that which were stunning, but the overall book just didn’t quite hit it. I’m sure O’Brien improves with age though 🙂

  • Ed November 15, 2010, 10:20 am

    This is my favorite of O’Brien’s. Of his fiction, I especially like Going After Cacciato, and The Things they Carried. I’ve read all his books but the latest one and Tomcat in Love. I just think his insights about Vietnam deserve the widest circulation. This one worked best for me because it’s nonfiction.

    • Kim November 15, 2010, 7:12 pm

      Ed: I think this book is an interesting contrast to the other because it is nonfiction. I feel like his books get more emotionally resonant when he starts to move into fiction, which is something I find interesting. Still, I think this book, and all his impressions on Vietnam, are well worth reading.

  • Morgan April 30, 2011, 11:02 am

    i am aware that this book is an anti war book but how would one make that argument, where would you start off? it seems as if further into the book he just did what he had to to stay alive or do you think in the end he was fighting for the war?

    • Kim May 3, 2011, 9:26 am

      Hi Morgan — This sounds to me like an school assignment sort of question, which I’m not comfortable answering. I do think what you’ve suggested is a good place to start though, looking for motivation in his actions near the end of the story and compare them with his attitude at the beginning.

  • Steve October 29, 2012, 1:50 pm

    I enjoyed this book but didn’t find myself as emotionally affected as I thought I would which was perhaps down to O’Brien’s own semi-detachment from the war. To be balanced, I also read The Sorrows of War by Bao Ninh which had a much greater emotional impact for me. It really showed how not just those immediately involved in the fighting but a whole nation can be devasted by war. I highly recommend it when you setup your next reading challenge!