I’m approximately a third of the way through “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. It is on track to be one of the finest works of literature I’ve ever read. I find myself tearing up almost every night I read it. I don’t believe there is any objective measure of one’s favorite novel. Books carry different meanings depending on the perspectives and experiences of the reader. For any one reader, these perspectives change over time, and even with circumstances. For example, reading “Catch-22” was a very powerful moment in my life. It exposed the inanity of authority and the world in general in a way that wouldn’t have affected me as much as it did if it had come before or after High School.
“The Things They Carried” comes at a similar moment. I have, by in large, lucked out. The country went to war again, but it didn’t draft. In all likelihood, if the country did start up the draft, I would now be considered too old. However, if I was of a similar age during the Vietnam era, I might have found myself in similar circumstances to Tim O’Brien, participating in a war I didn’t agree with, against an enemy that I didn’t truly understand, in a country I had no interest in ever visiting. O’Brien talks about the dark humor, animal cruelty, and basic inhumanity of the war. I can’t help but draw parallels to U.S. soldiers blowing up a cat in Iraq and the other stories I’ve previously explored. There is a moral imperative to end the occupation of Iraq similar to the way we did in Vietnam. I am not ignorant of the repercussions of such an action. However, as one of the fortunate ones, there is a duty I have to those of the past, who found themselves in similar circumstances, but unlike Tim O’Brien, didn’t make it back. I also have a duty to the present, to the soldiers that go, not because they agree, but rather because they are told.
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If a the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
– “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien (pgs 68-69)
The protected must be at least as strong as the protectors we send into the heart of darkness. Irrational fear must not guide our actions, otherwise we are no better barbarians, practicing human sacrifice to appease our imagined and violent God.