The Things They Carried

I just finished reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien in the span of three days.  It’s a short book – just 235 pages, but I could hardly put it down.  Utterly riveting reading for me.   The book has been out for a while so I may be later than many of you in reading it.

All I can say is it was an amazing read for me.  I’ve always been somewhat haunted by the Vietnam war.   One vivid memory of my childhood was when a family down the street got the news that their son was killed in Vietnam.   My mom went down and sat with them for a while and came home in tears.  Many of you have much more vivid and immediate memories of the Vietnam war.

I read a lot on Vietnam while I was in college in a class I took on War and American Society — but it is often good to revisit important topics like this  in the second half of one’s life.  The book gave me a chance to reflect a bit more on what the war meant for individuals and for our nation.   While the book is about Vietnam, the writing transcends a particular war and sheds light on all wars.

Reading The Things they Carried helps me as I  think about our entanglements in the middle east – and about our churches and their ministry to combat veterans.     The book increased my gratitude for those who have fought, suffered, sacrificed, and died defending our nation and people of other nations in various conflicts over the course of history.   One of the many unique burdens of the Vietnam combat experience was the lack of a clear distinction between soldiers and civilians.  This blurry line seems to me to be a similar burden in America’s war against terrorism being waged in many different locations around the world.  The scars of this type of warfare add a layer of difficulty to the already unbearable burden of warfare.

 But the book is about more than war – it’s about hope and fear, love and death, courage and cruelty,  and the human quest to make sense of our tenuous existence.  It certainly sets a person longing for some sense of ultimate meaning for life – and the despair of the war experience makes me glad I know Jesus.  Even though death is a powerful enemy, it does not have the final word about the meaning of  human life.  The book also helped me to understand better why the world so desperately needs Jesus.

The title of the book ends up being a central metaphor in the story.  From the detailed description of items in a soldier’s pack the author moves to the heavier burdens that weigh on the soldier’s heart, mind, and soul.   My deepest appreciation goes out to those who have carried burdens like those described in the book that are hard for me to imagine.  Though my life has not been easy — I have certainly been spared the horrors and hardships of combat in the jungles of Vietnam and in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of  Afghanistan.  Yet along with my appreciation — I also offer my sincere prayer that those who have experienced these hardships would not be left to carry the burden alone — that others will come alongside them to ease the burden in various ways — and that ultimately the heaviest burdens could be left at the foot of the cross.  As Jesus said “Come to me all you who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”   We all carry things that can be very hard to bear at times — and our God invites us to bring our burdens to him, again and again, over the course of our lives.

Anyway – just for the pure experience of reading the work of an amazing literary artist – this is a real treasure.  Here are a couple of the reviews and the book absolutely lived up to them:

The Things They Carried is as good as any piece of literature can get – Chicago Sun-Times

This is writing so powerful that it steals your breath – Milwaukee Journal

Rendered with an evocative, quiet precision, not equaled in the imaginative literature of the American war in Vietnam – Washington Post

A book so searing and immediate you can almost hear the choppers in the background… This is prose headed for the nerve center of what was Vietnam. – Boston Globe.

I pasted below one of the reviews from   Amazon that helps explain the book a little – “biomythography” is certainly an appropriate description of the genre.  It’s just not quite like anything I’ve ever read about Vietnam or about any other human experience.

Of course I never know if a book that was so powerful for me will be as powerful for you – but I will appreciate hearing from others of you may have read this book too.

FROM AMAZON.COM:  Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” is a book that transcends the genre of war fiction. Actually, it transcends the genre of fiction in general. Although labeled “a work of fiction” on the title page, the book really combines aspects of memoir, novel, and short story collection. I think you could use Audre Lorde’s term “biomythography” to describe this book. The first-person narrator of this book (named, like the author, Tim O’Brien) is a writer and combat veteran of the Vietnam War. The book actually deals with events before and after the war, in addition to depicting the war itself; the time span covers more than 30 years in the lives of O’Brien and his fellow soldiers. “The Things They Carried” is an intensely “writerly” text. By that I mean that O’Brien and his characters often reflect directly on the activities of storytelling and writing. As a reader, I got the sense that I was being invited into the very process by which the book was created. This is an extraordinary technique, and O’Brien pulls it off brilliantly. This being a war story, there are some truly disturbing, graphic, and violent scenes. But there are also scenes that are haunting, funny, surreal, or ironic. O’Brien depicts a memorable group of soldiers: the guilt-wracked Lieut. Cross; Kiowa, a Native American and devout, Bible-carrying Baptist; the sadistic but playful Azar; and more. While this book is a complete and cohesive work of art, many of its component stories could stand alone as independent pieces of literature (in fact, I first encountered the title story in an anthology). But however you classify it, I consider “The Things They Carried” to be a profoundly moving masterpiece.