Tag Archives: soldiers

Book Review: The Things They Carried

In all honesty, I’m not sure know how this book escaped my notice for so long. But it did. Somehow. I first ran across it several weeks ago, at Costco (of all places). Even though I didn’t know quite what to expect, I picked up a copy… and it turned out to be one of the finest war books I’ve ever read.

With that in mind, I find myself in a difficult place. A reviewer for the Dallas Morning News sums it up perfectly: “In trying to review a book as precious as The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, there is a nightmare fear of saying the wrong thing – of not getting the book’s wonder across to you fairly – and of sounding merely zealous, fanatical, and hence to be dismissed. If I can’t get you to go out and buy this book, then I’ve failed you.”

No pressure, right?

A finalist for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize, The Things They Carried is not a novel, nor a memoir, nor a short story collection: it is, instead, an exquisite combination of all three. Through this unique but effective merging of fact and fiction, the author paints a picture of his life (and the lives of his fellow soldiers) before, during, and after the Vietnam war. And what a picture it is.

War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead. (p. 76)

O’Brien’s book is less a straight-up battle account and more a meditation – a meditation on courage and cowardice, life and death, imagination, memory, the nature of war, and ultimately, the power and potency of storytelling. Like a fabric, it’s an interweaving of the beautiful with the obscene, the graphic with the poignant, the disturbing with the surreal.

And in the end, the thread that holds it all together is the writing: raw and honest and vivid and forceful and poetic. Spilling over with emotion, without a hint of sentimentality. O’Brien sets pen to paper with a complete mastery of language, and the result will haunt your mind, pierce your heart, and pummel your gut. It will even, on occasion, make you laugh. Just consider this passage, one of the most creative pieces of descriptive writing I’ve ever come across:

For Rat Kiley, I think, facts were formed by sensation, not the other way around, and when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute, and then multiplying by maybe. (p. 86)

In my opinion, The Things They Carried is not only a must-read for lovers of war literature, but also for those (like myself) who wish to study the art of writing.

At one point, O’Brien pauses to remind the reader that “a true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” This book does that. Violence is graphic. Language is harsh. And some of the imagery is singularly nightmarish. So if there’s one warning I would give to potential readers, it would be this: prepare to be jarred out of your comfort zone.

But it’s worth it. Believe me, it’s worth it.

Because the Other Guys Needed Him

“Private Carlson felt a sudden blow and sharp pain in his right knee. It felt like someone had taken a knife and held it to his knee and then driven it in with a sledgehammer. He glanced down to see blood rapidly staining his pants. He said a prayer and kept shooting. He had been wildly scared for longer than he had ever felt that way in his life, and now he thought he might literally die of fright. His heart banged in his chest and he found it hard to breathe. His head was filled with the sounds of shooting and explosions and visions of his friends, one by one, going down, and blood splashed everywhere oily and sticky with its dank, coppery smell and he figured, This is it for me. And then, at that moment of maximum terror, he felt it all abruptly, inexplicably fall away. One second he was paralyzed with fear and pain and the next… he had stopped caring about himself.

He would think about this a lot later, and the best he could explain it was, his own life no longer mattered. All that did matter were his buddies, his brothers, that they not get hurt, that they not get killed. These men around him, some of whom he had only known for months, were more important to him than life itself. It was like when Telscher ran out on the road to pull Joyce back in. Carlson understood that now, and it was heroic, but it also wasn’t heroic. At a certain level he knew Telscher had made no choice, just as he was not choosing to be unafraid. It just happened to him, like he passed through a barrier. He had to keep fighting, because the other guys needed him.”

~ Mark Bowden, Black Hawk Down (p. 120)

Book Review: Band of Brothers

In Band of Brothers, veteran historian Stephen Ambrose tells the story of E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne – one of the most successful light infantry units to fight in the European theater during World War II.

Formed in July 1942 and inactivated in November 1945, “Easy” Company saw its first action when it parachuted into France on the morning of D-Day. It participated in “Operation Market Garden” in Holland, and went on to play a crucial role in the Battle of the Bulge by holding the perimeter around Bastogne. It was also the first company to reach Hitler’s “Eagle’s Nest” in Berchtesgaden, Germany.

Over the course of its 3-year service in the field, Easy took 150 percent casualities. It was a company that considered the Purple Heart not a decoration, but a badge of office.

With assiduous attention to detail and a compelling style, Ambrose traces the fortunes of the men in this brave unit who fought, bled, went hungry, froze, and died – for their country and for each other. We follow them through training and into combat and onto victory. To quote another reviewer, “In these pages, the reader can vicariously walk with the men of E Company, suffer and laugh with them.” And as we read, we can’t help but fiercely admire them.

Ambrose writes of Easy,

The company had been born in July 1942 at Toccoa. Its existence essentially came to an end almost exactly three years later… In those three years the men had seen more, endured more, and contributed more than most men can see, endure, or contribute in a lifetime.

They thought the Army was boring, unfeeling, and chicken, and they hated it. They found combat to be ugliness, destruction, and death, and hated it. Anything was better than the blood and carnage, the grime and filth, the impossible demands made on the body – anything, that is, except letting down their buddies.

They also found in combat the closest brotherhood they ever knew. They found selflessness. They found they could love the other guy in their foxhole more than themselves. They found that in war, men who loved life would give their lives for them.

The sacrificial actions of these men – and of soldiers in general – reflect the very essence of John 15:13: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Such love is rare. Amid the rampant egotism of modern culture, it is even rarer.

One of the things I most appreciated about the book is how Ambrose gives the reader the big picture without ever compromising the small one. The account he shares is a very personal one, showcasing ordinary guys in extraordinary situations. We never lose sight of the fact that, however big the war was, the men who fought it were real men – not just pieces on a chess board being moved from place to place by generals and statesmen.

Suffice it to say, I loved Band of Brothers. And when I tell you to go read this book, I mean, go read this book. Don’t just add it to your wish list and hope you’ll get to it sometime: seek it out and get your hands on a copy the next time you’re in the library or the bookstore.

It’s a story of honor and sacrifice and courage in the face of unspeakable odds. It’s a story of great men, of heroes. It’s a story simply too powerful to be missed.

Now go read it.