The story of a war must be a large story, no? From the Iliad to War and Peace, from Wings to Apocalypse Now, those who have tried to present a coherent narrative of armed conflict have invariably found their accounts bursting at the seams. And even after the final page, we are frequently left with the uneasy sense that only a small microcosm of reality has managed to step forth from the battlefield and testify. So much remains mute, buried, forgotten.
And the Vietnam War, which respected no boundaries — whether in Southeast Asia or back on the home front — presents special challenges to the teller of tales. Where do you draw the line? The Tet Offensive? The genocide in Cambodia? The Kent State shootings? The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to Henry Kissinger? The military action on the ground provides just the opening spiral in the widening concentric circles that still twist and turn, in varying ways, even today. Put bluntly, a book that tries to grapple with ‘Nam is unlikely to be a compact one.
Unless its author is Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried belongs on any short list of great war fiction, and is one of the most compelling books yet written about the Vietnam experience. Yet O’Brien has given us the exact opposite of War and Peace. And I’m not simply talking about the length of the work (a scant 233 pages). The very substance of this book operates on a micro-scale. On the second page, O’Brien even offers up a list:
….P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.
In many instances, the items are small enough to fit into a pocket. And for good reason — because O’Brien is describing the little things the soldiers brought with them on their missions. Often O’Brien specifies the weight, since everything here has a price — and one that is measured more in ounces carried than dollars spent. This litany of the little, which takes up the opening 25 pages of The Things They Carried, could serve as a case study for wannabe writers on the disproportionate power of the telling detail in narrative fiction.