By Chet Yarbrough
Narrated by Bryan Cranston
Listening to “The Things They Carried” reminds baby boomers of Edwin Starr’s 1969 anti-Vietnam song, “War”. The reminder is in its refrain, “What is it good for?–“Absolutely nothing.”
The author, Tim O’Brian, is approximately one year older than me. Drafted into the Army in the late 60s, O’Brian went to Vietnam while I served as a medic in the Air Force. O’Brian went to college before the service; I went after. O’Brian considered dodging the draft; I enlisted. Many differences, but the big difference is O’Brian slogged through Vietnam’s jungles and fields, risking injury or death; while I assisted doctors in a small hospital in the Mediterranean, risking nothing. O’Brian is a Vietnam veteran; I am not.
“The Things They Carried” reinforces history’s judgment of Vietnam. Vietnam was an unwinnable war; entered into by the United States with ignorance equal to benighted judgement in Iraq.
On a small-scale, the NCO, to which I reported, knew more about the folly of Vietnam than I did when I requested a transfer to Vietnam.
My request for transfer would not be processed. It became a road not taken. Listening to O’Brian’s story of an inexperienced medic treating him for a combat wound made me wonder how I would have done. Though only O’Brian knows where truth ends and fiction begins, “The Things They Carried” tells many truths about military enlistment.
Young men and women acquire little understanding of what they are to do when they first join the military; knowledge only becomes evident by doing. O’Brian’s story of an inexperienced medic acknowledges how little one knows about the job they are to do when they are assigned to a military post or base.
Imagine, you are a medic on first assignment and it is a combat mission. Your first experience is to stop bleeding from a gushing wound. while under fire. Maybe you will be too afraid to help; maybe you will forget what you were trained to do. Maybe your platoon mate is going to die or be injured for life because of treatments you fail to give or incompetently perform. A few weeks of boot camp and a few weeks of specialist training is little more than rough camping with preparation for a broadly unknown future.
Preparation for combat is not combat. Training to kill someone is not killing. Hearing about someone stepping on a land mine is a vague memory while gathering human body parts is a permanent emotional scar. O’Brian tells and re-tells stories of war like ineradicable memories that haunt his life. It is not cathartic for O’Brian. It is life threatening.
One of my two half-brothers served in the 101st airborne in Vietnam. In truth, we rarely saw each other but he never talked about his Vietnam’ experience. He died at 62 years of age. He was a financially successful business man but now I wonder how much of his life was affected by senseless war—I hear Edwin Starr’s refrain. “The Things They Carried” makes one worry about all war veterans and victims; on both sides of senseless war.