Taken as a pair, this collection of shorts and O’Brien’s raw-as-fuck memoir If I Die In A Combat Zone (1973) are some of the best and most important literature about war ever written for me. These stories are meta-fictional to the nth degree; he says they are fictional and yet dedicates the book to some of the characters in them, for example. The title story is a masterpiece, much of which is given over to listing the equipment that the grunts had to lug around Vietnam with them, almost always specifying how much each item weighs. Added to the catalogue of equipment is a list of metaphysical baggage: “He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.” A list of weapons blends the physical and the metaphysical, ending with “They carried all they could bear, and then some, including a silent awe for the terrible power of the things they carried.” Death is ever-present and happens suddenly, without fanfare.
….just boom, then down – not like in the movies where the dead guys rolls around and does fancy spins and goes ass over teakettle – not like that, Kiowa said, the poor bastard just flat-fuck fell. Boom. Down. Nothing else.
It’s nothing more than a simple fact of life, brushed aside with the cynicism and black humour that the men use to keep themselves sane. If you’ve never read him before I’d urge you to seek this out – he’s a phenomenally gifted writer and you can only marvel at the fortitude of the man to endure what he did and be able to write about it so well in the aftermath. His surreal, National Book Award-winning Vietnam novel Going After Cacciato is well worth tracking down too. An honourable mention is due here to Bosnian writer Faruk Šehić. I’d have loved to include something from his brilliant collection about the Balkan wars of the 90s, Under Pressure, but I figured one war story would be enough, and it had to be this one.
In The Things They Carried, Houghton Mifflin, 1990