I’ve just finished reading “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. It was a hard read for me, bringing back many memories. The book is about Vietnam, at least on the surface.
It is actually documenting the change as civilians turn to soldiers, and soldiers changing under combat. And this is what happened to me. (It is also interesting because I have just lately thought that you are what you carry.)
Tim O’Brien was in the platoon and wrote about it as a personal experience, except that he wrote about it almost twenty-five years later. O’Brien had survived Vietnam and went to Harvard after his discharge with the intention to become a writer. So the first curious thing is the title of his book. “The Things They Carried”, it wasn’t, “The Things We Carried”.
From the very beginning he has set a distance between him and the platoon. He writes as if he was completely immersed, until he was wounded for the second time. At that point he was reassigned to support, not out in the field, not out in the boonies. When he meets up with the platoon later, he tries to keep the ‘brotherhood’ of frontline grunts, but he is corrected. He is no longer a grunt, he is outside the brotherhood and no longer under fire. His world is different now. So he could objectively observe and report.
But perhaps there is a suggestion that he never really was part of the platoon.
The book is a hard read for me because it parallels my experience in so many ways. I was drafted and I had to deal with all the changes that was soon to occur. Unlike O’Brien, I was a confirmed pacifist, actively against the war, protesting the draft, marching, waving signs, and laying on train tracks to stop the troops.
Like O’Brien I considered Canada, and compromised by considering going off the grid and disappearing into the Rocky Mountains. Not a very practical decision, so I ending coming back to civilization and the local draft board. O’Brien also allowed himself to be drafted.
It was at this point that our stories diverge slightly. O’Brien knew that he was becoming cannon fodder and that he was going to Vietnam. I thought myself clever, and re-enlisted for an extra year so that I could get trained in a field that would not be involved in direct combat. No Vietnam for me.
I then became a soldier, O’Brien became a soldier. I went to advanced training to become a Fixed Cyphony Repairman. O’Brien went to advanced infantry training to become a grunt. I was assigned to New Jersey for advanced electronics school, and then to the underground Pentagon in Pennsylvania.
After advanced infantry training, O’Brien was immediately assigned to combat in Vietnam. O’Brien was under the command of General Westmoreland, and I repaired Westmoreland’s secret telephone, in his office, while he waited, under the mountain, after the general was promoted to Joint Chiefs of Staff. Weird connection.
By the time O’Brien was discharged, I was still under the mountian at Site R, sometimes officially named ‘Raven Rock’. I thought I had missed Vietnam completely, I had lucked out and found a post stateside for my entire hitch.
I was wrong, I was wrong about a lot of things. My particular job was assigned all over Vietnam in every base. And when the base was about to be over run, I would have been the first to be evacuated because my job title could never be captured.
It took a few years to figure all this out, but I felt fortunate to be in the United States. By now I was actually proud to be a soldier.
And then it all changed for reasons unknown or speculated. With only nine months left in the service I was sent to Korea, along the DMZ. Normally you must have at least thirteen months left, but for me they made an exception.
It was at this point that my experiences swung back to some similarities of O’Brien’s. The DMZ was a combat zone, but not nearly as hot as Vietnam. GIs died but not nearly at the same rate. The NVA were highly trained, the North Koreans were completely crazy.
I was still there when the Vietnam War was officially ended. The message came to us as a Red Rocket Flash, a designation reserved for the beginning of WWIII, and apparently the end of wars. It was a very scary few minutes.
Most of the horrific stories that O’Brien writes about in combat are similar to any place where bullets are flying, it’s simply the quantity that is different.
The hardest part of the book is knowing how we were treated stateside after our return. Unkind words were standard, spitting on the uniform was common. In the airports they could not know that I wasn’t in Vietnam, but I was still labeled a ‘baby killer’.
I got out of the army, and while I was proud of my service, it was quite awhile before that didn’t cause issues. I didn’t write about it much, I leave that to O’Brien and others. But reading about it now, almost forty years later, makes it as real as yesterday.