Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


This book has been on my reading list for a while - I can’t remember exactly when I put it on there, but it is considered a classic of its genre. 


In trying to understand my parents’ generation, and how they got to where they are, I have been wrestling with the meaning of the Vietnam War, which I think was THE event in their lives that most colored how they view politics. Even more so than the Civil Rights Movement, which I think was the event that most colored how my grandparents’ generation of white people viewed things. (That is not in any way a compliment.) 


For my parents’ generation, Vietnam was the event that hung over their heads as young people - my dad missed the draft by just a few weeks - and then became the lens through which they viewed so many things thereafter. Vietnam was what ruined the reputation of the US Government for many of them. If the government couldn’t be trusted to tell the truth about war, then could it be trusted for anything? (In my parents’ case, this was a factor in their deep distrust of government, and it is hard to blame them.) 


But also, because Vietnam was part of the great Cold War - a proxy war between the USSR and the US - Cold War politics is still the lens that all politics runs through for Boomers. All politics is at some level the “good christian capitalist Americans” versus the “evil atheist communists” - and I do mean everything from environmentalism to the basic social safety net other first world countries take for granted to race relations. Ergo, universal health care is the start of the slippery slope toward the Gulags (never mind our world-leading incarceration rate…), teaching about race means reeducation camps for white people, climate change scientists are a conspiracy to end the American way of life in favor of communisms….and the list goes on. 


One more way Vietnam looms over Boomer politics: for the most part, they took the wrong lesson from the disaster. 


Here is the narrative I was raised on: The United States lost the Vietnam war because we weren’t committed to it enough. We didn’t send enough troops, stay long enough, and god damn it, WIN THE WAR. Thus, the betrayal of our veterans was that we didn’t support them as heroes and give them the resources to actually win. 


That narrative led us into the debacles of my own lifetime: 20 years of war in Afghanistan that collapsed as soon as we withdrew, a war in Iraq that led to the rise of ISIS rather than peace. We learned nothing from Vietnam, and thus once again got involved in morally indefensible wars, based on lies, and full of the arrogance that this time we will really light the mofos up and win this with shock and awe.


As Tim O’Brien, Vietnam veteran and writer compellingly demonstrates with The Things They Carried, fiction (but only barely) based on his experiences in the war, this was absolutely the wrong lesson. 


What we should have learned was this: Never get involved in another country’s civil war. Communism looked attractive to most of the third world because Western Capitalism was really just exploitation and imperialism to them. Also, the United States was an apartheid country at the time, so why the hell would brown-skinned people trust us? Wars without actual military objectives at their core cannot be won in any meaningful sense by military actions. Putting humans in the morally impossible situations we put our soldiers in will inevitably lead to atrocities. 


I could add more, but these are the ones that come to mind from the book. 


The Things They Carried is a collection of related short stories and vignettes about “Alpha Company,” his version of the unit in which he served. A dozen or so characters populate the stories, including the author himself (more or less - how accurate it is is not clear.) The events recounted are pretty horrifying, although no different from thousands of other true (or mostly true) accounts of the war from tens of thousands of veterans. 


There is a lot of intentional repetition in the stories, words and phrases and descriptions that loop back exactly like the traumatic memories described do. It is effective, but often really brutal, particularly for someone like me who hates violence and gore and at times just wanted it to stop. Probably so did O’Brien, which is why he wrote it so effectively. 


I won’t try to recap any of it, but did want to mention some particularly moving ideas and passages. 


The opening story isn’t so much a story, but a description of the things - tangible items and emotional baggage - that the soldiers carried with them. This serves as an introduction to the characters as well. It is a highly effective and compelling opening to the book, and excellent writing. 


Another thing that really stood out was O’Brien’s insistence that he was not brave, but a coward. He considered dodging the draft - fleeing to Canada, or even going to jail. But in the end, he was too cowardly do do what he knew was right. He knew the war was immoral. He knew it was senseless. But he was too afraid of disappointing his parents, of disappointing his family, friends, hometown, and countrymen. And so he went to war, and killed people, and it was as stupid and immoral and senseless as he expected. 


I get this, I understand this. In a less deadly way, I did the same thing. In retrospect, I should have pushed back against my parents, I should have sacrificed what I had to in order to get a normal college education, I should have taken action far sooner to make it clear that my wife would not be treated as she was by my family. Should have, should have, should have. But I didn’t have the guts to disappoint them, until there was nothing left but to just admit I had disappointed them all along no matter what I did. 


I mentioned earlier the point that atrocities in Vietnam were inevitable under the circumstances, I and I think O’Brien makes a strongly compelling case for this and why it was that way. Vietnam - like most of these proxy wars - lacked actual military objectives. Unlike, say, World War Two, the last morally defensible war the US was involved in, you couldn’t just destroy an official army, then sign a peace treaty, and go on with things. Instead, you had competing bands of revolutionaries and freedom fighters and ordinary people not happy about centuries of brutal rule by the French. As O’Brien notes later in an essay (see below) - he found out later that the Viet Cong didn’t even consider the US soldiers to be their primary opponents - we were just interlopers in a broader conflict that we didn’t even understand, let alone acknowledge. 


So, give a bunch of soldiers - very young men pressed into service, with no idea of what they were doing - a situation in which they have few clear objectives, an enemy that cannot even be defined, let alone seen and engaged under the usual rules of war, miserable conditions, poor planning, and the threat of unseen death at any moment. And then, is anyone surprised when they commit atrocities? 


This audiobook edition contains the book itself, narrated by Bryan Cranston, who does an excellent job; and also a long essay/memoir entitled “The Vietnam in Me,” written in 1994 about the author’s trip back to Vietnam, read by the author himself. The essay hits a lot of the same notes as the book, but is a lot more political and philosophical and not just descriptive. O’Brien reads the essay well, I must say. It was a solid addition to the book (and also about an hour and a half of disc time, so it isn’t short.) 


I think I’ll end with a final observation: the conservative Boomer narrative about Vietnam is that we wronged our Vietnam veterans by failing to welcome them back as heroes. This is bullshit. 


We wronged our Vietnam veterans by asking them to do morally indefensible things, and witness things no one should ever have to witness. 


The damage was done when we sent them in to an immoral war, asked them to murder citizens of another country in order to preserve Western hegemony, and then failed to give them meaningful treatment for what was, at its core, a moral injury


Lying and telling them they were heroes would not have helped, and probably would have made the injury even worse. 


They knew, and we know, and have always known, that the Vietnam War was morally indefensible. We asked our soldiers to do evil, and false praise and adulation will not fix that. We needed to apologize for using them and their lives as a tool for Empire.


As usual, the poets and musicians of the time were the prophets that were hated in their time for telling the truth. 


Got in a little hometown jam

So they put a rifle in my hand

Sent me off to a foreign land

To go and kill the yellow man


And then Ronald Reagan, the quintessential Boomer hero (although he was Silent Generation), somehow thought this song was about patriotism and rah rah ‘Murica and let’s go bomb the shit out of someone. 


O' beautiful, for spacious skies

But now those skies are threatening

They're beating plowshares into swords

For this tired old man that we elected king

Armchair warriors often fail

And we've been poisoned by these fairy tales

The lawyers clean up all details

Since daddy had to lie…


Still holds true today, doesn’t it?


Weaving down the American highway

Through the litter and the wreckage and the cultural junk

Bloated with entitlement, loaded on propaganda

Now we're driving dazed and drunk

Been down the road to Damascus, the road to Mandalay

Met the ghost of Caesar on the Appian way

He said, "It's hard to stop this binging once you get a taste

But the road to empire is a bloody stupid waste"

Behold the bitten apple, the power of the tools

But all the knowledge in the world is of no use to fools

And it's a long road out of Eden


The road to Empire is indeed a bloody goddamn waste. And always has been. 


Since 1945, the United States military has been involved in five major conflicts and dozens of small ones, and in none of the result been anything that looks like a “victory.” Sure, we blew shit up and killed people. But none of these places we fought seem better off afterward, and often they are worse. As Tacitus put it, They make a wasteland and call it peace.” It’s not just us, of course - Russia is currently doing the same thing, and both the US and the USSR spent decades fucking up other countries in a mutual dick-measuring contest. Those tired old men, acting as armchair warriors and playing with the lives of the youth. 


As I move through any city in the United States, I see sidewalks and overpasses and greenbelts filled with an increasing number of unhoused persons, a shockingly high percentage of which are veterans suffering from mental illness, substance addiction, and poverty. It is no secret that our nation has failed its veterans in so many ways. Solving a “wicked problem” like this is a huge challenge, with no simple, easy, or obvious solutions - and no magic bullets. 


But something to consider: the simplest, easiest, and most obvious solution to the problem of post-war trauma is to stop causing the trauma. Cleaning up after the damage is always going to be more difficult and less effective than preventing the damage in the first place. 


And the way to minimize the damage is to stop sending soldiers into morally indefensible combat with no clear military objectives. Stop getting involved in wars that cannot (and honestly should not) be winnable. Physical trauma can increasingly be ameliorated, but psychological trauma - particularly moral trauma - is not fixable. The inevitable toll will the kinds of mental illness and substance addiction - self medication - that we see. 


Whatever you believe about the theoretical existence of a “just war” - I believe there are a very limited number of circumstances in which such a war exists, and even then only on one side, never both or all - it is pretty obvious that most wars, including all of those the US has entered since 1945, do not fall into that category. 


The veterans of World War Two, whatever other damage they suffered, did not have to come home having been part of a morally indefensible war. Hitler was evil. He needed to be stopped. Arguably, the moral tradeoff was the mother of all Trolley Problems. If a war were ever justified, it was the one to stop Hitler. 


And yes, I know that so many of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation were convinced that stopping communism in the third world was a moral good. But they also failed to do their homework and gain an understanding of why communism was so attractive to so many. And that would have required the kind of honest admission of the global catastrophe known as colonialism - a conversation that far too many are willing to even consider having. And so, they choose delusion and denialism about a pivotal - perhaps the pivotal event in their own lifetimes. 


We lost Vietnam on the battlefield. We lost it badly. But we really lost Vietnam in 1862 with the Treaty of Saigon. Or was it in 1787 when the French missionaries first decided to interfere in local politics? Or maybe when the Jesuits arrived in the 1600s and started the process of cultural imperialism? And in that case, perhaps we should say we lost the war in the 1400s, when the Catholic Church blessed the European conquest, enslavement, and colonization of indigenous peoples around the world in the name of “Christ and Civilization.” 


The road to Empire indeed. 


Like another book about another senseless war, All Quiet on the Western Front, this book is a powerful use of storytelling to show warfare in all its ugliness and evil - and even more so, in its stupidity and pointlessness. Perhaps the authors of the Vietnam War never read that book. Or maybe, like my parents’ generation, read it but drew the wrong lesson. 


The thing is, reality doesn’t give a damn about your ideology. It doesn’t give a damn about your politics. It doesn’t give a damn about your religion. We can see what happens when reality is ignored, and a war fought on the basis of ideology, rather than reality. Vietnam is Exhibit A for that principle. It is a war that was always going to be lost, was in fact lost, damaged those who fought it, and then poisoned decades of political discourse here in the US. 


O’Brien spreads the blame for this very broadly, as he thinks senseless war is a social problem, not a mistake by a few people. Just like the mass cowardice of people like him, who knew the war was wrong, but felt powerless to go against the flow wasn’t so much an individual sin on his part, but a symptom of a greater social disease in American society. Whether we ever learn from this mistake and show some willingness to treat the disease, rather than remain in ideological denial remains to be seen. 


The Things They Carried is not an easy book to read or listen to. But it is a powerful one. 


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