Writing about the Vietnam War, Tim O’Brien says, “The war wasn’t all terror and violence. Sometimes things could almost get sweet.” Enter a one-legged Vietnamese boy begging a chocolate bar from a passing GI. “One leg, for Chrissakes,” laughs the soldier named Azar, handing the boy his treat. “Some poor fucker ran out of ammo.” The irony, which introduces a story called “Spin,” helps illustrate why O’Brien’s crushing fictional reminiscences will endure for as long as men go to battle and live to write about it. War’s sweetness is also its black humor, a shield against fear, dread and horror as well as an invitation to boredom, including soldiers tossing around live hand grenades for fun. Here, there are men called Stink and Rat; men who call burned babies “crunchy munchies,” who shake the hands of the dismembered dead.
Time and again, onetime foot soldier O’Brien masters the thrum of Vietnam’s superstitious dimension, making small if macabre details speak for the life and times of American jungle soldiers, grunts and “humpers,” their lives spent imagining they aren’t where they where are, lest paralysis — “the burden of being alive” — set in. Written more than two decades ago but suspended in war’s amber, this burden of aliveness magnetizes its own narrative. “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe,” O’Brien writes. And he repeatedly goes for the stomach.
When a soldier named Ted Lavender is shot dead, his platoon-mates are most stunned by the way he fell down. Like dead weight. The survivors then puff away his remaining dope and raze a nearby village for catharsis. And so it goes, “village to village, without purpose, nothing won or lost,” movement with “no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy.” Petrified of dying, teen soldiers are “even more afraid to show it,” opting instead for mischief at once blasé and Satanic. Lavender adopts a stray puppy that prankster Azar straps to a mine and blows up. Medic Rat tortures a baby water buffalo after a friend is killed. A devout Baptist named Kiowa drowns in a swamp of excrement.
Memories of Vietnam now reside in the distant past, with the literature of Iraq supplying war’s newest old details. What’s not in the past is O’Brien’s insight, which also has a generational dimension. A Harvard-bound 21-year-old summa cum laude student from Minnesota, O’Brien was drafted into a war he loathed but to which he finally capitulated, substituting the known world for something alien. “All I wanted,” he writes, “was to live the life I was born to — a mainstream life — I loved baseball and hamburgers and cherry Cokes.” Instead, he gets the “damp, fungal scent of an empty body bag,” many of them in fact, and is left to forage through a war-world of “absolute moral indifference”
In a warriors-by-choice military, O’Brien’s skeptical intellect, drafted into madness against his will, represents an essential “relic.”