* I’m reposting this from the Read This! blog, the UAFS community literacy program; you can follow my colleagues’ take on Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried at readthisuafs.wordpress.com
I didn’t want to like The Things They Carried.
I didn’t want to dislike it either. In fact, I wanted to read it at pace, brusquely and in a business-like fashion. The Green Berets was the last movie about the Vietnam War I voluntarily watched, and it so traumatized me—I was all of ten or eleven—that I decided that stories about the Vietnam War were a “no go” zone for me. When my professors compared Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to Apocalypse Now, I nodded along, fully resistant to any suggestion that I should actually view this film. I have a low threshold for violence. I jump at loud noises and once told a Navy recruiting officer that I wanted to be a pacifist poet. While I’m fascinated by the affects of war in literature, war literature is something that I’ve unconsciously been able to avoid.
So, I didn’t want to like this novel. I wanted to read The Things They Carried without being affected because of course liking a novel means it has somehow moved you. I didn’t want to be moved by it. The first story disabused me of that notion. Tim O’Brien is a powerful storyteller, using language to draw you into his narrative truths. As with all good storytellers, you cannot walk away from his text without his intended affect. It’s discomfiting actually, because within the first five pages, you realize that you’re in the hands of such a masterful storyteller that any effort you plan on making to not sink into his narrative world is a futile one. O’Brien unhesitatingly brings you along with him.
And then I got to “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong.” The tale is a classic story within a story. O’Brien, our main narrator, steps back to let his friend Rat Kiley tell the story of his experiences at the Song Tra Bong base versus O’Brien’s stories of humping it through the Vietnamese jungle. At first, the simple love of Mark Fossie and Mary Anne Bell is refreshing, a cool drink in the midst of a narrative about the fracturing effects of war. Even Mary Anne’s curiosity about this all male world of war seems innocent enough. After all, she’s brave enough to travel half way around the world and into a war zone for love. Surely, she deserves and needs to understand the environment she now finds herself in.
At first that understanding comes in typical ways. She wants to travel into the neighboring village, understand the local culture, and learn the things that soldiers learn. Smart and energetic, Mary Anne bubbles with curiosity, turning the war into a grand adventure. Her naiveté leaves her exposed, as Rat explains:
“Young, that’s all I said. Like you and me. A girl, that’s the only difference, and I’ll tell you something: it didn’t amount to jack. I mean, when we first got here—all of us—we were real young and innocent, full of romantic bullshit, but we learned pretty damned quick. And so did Mary Anne.” [i]
Untrained, she becomes enamored with the jungle, losing herself in the environment the same way she lost herself in her love for Mark Fossie. Here O’Brien channels Conrad, showing how the colonizer or invading force cannot penetrate into the unknown without being changed. In Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes, Kurtz, the station manager absorbed by the Congo jungle, as deficient in restraint, as hollow. In the end, Kurtz recognizes the horror of the darkness that has engulfed him. As Marlow, the narrator, explains: “Since I had peeped over the edge myself, I understand better the meaning of his stare, that could not see the flame of the candle, but was wide enough to embrace the whole universe, piercing enough to penetrate all the hearts that beat in the darkness.” [ii] Mary Anne willing stares over that edge, losing herself in the excitement of night ambushes with the six Green Berets attached to the base. O’Brien describes it as a drug, an intoxicating blend of pleasure and terror to which Mary Anne succumbs: “Vietnam made her glow in the dark.” [iii]
As Rat narrates the dissolution of Mary Anne, he realizes that he and others at the base were in love with her. She reminds him of the girls back home, innocent, wide-eyed, unburden women. Mary Anne, however, understands the horrors of war and the even more terrifying thread of pleasure in that horror. Of course Rat was in love; how could he not be in love with someone who combined the sweetness of nostalgic memory and the knowledge of what war does?
In the opening vignettes, O’Brien suggests that love is not something that will carry you through war. Or at least unrequited, ephemeral romantic love cannot survive unblemished. You can cling to it, pin your hopes on it as if it were a life raft, but ultimately, even it cannot survive the murkiness of the jungle unscathed. Love might be a luxury a soldier cannot carry, a good too fragile to make it through the horrors of how a body can exit this world and the guilt that remains when that body is not your own. Camaraderie, gallows humor, training, a cool head, these things are light enough to take into the jungle. Love weighs too much.
Mary Anne Bell carries her love into the jungle. She is filled with it when she lands. Moment by moment that love ekes away from her, replaced by obsession, “the horror” that Kurtz sees but cannot escape. This may be what happens to love in war.
[i] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (Boston: Mariner Books, 2009), p. 93.
[ii] Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, Longman Anthology, Vol. 2C (Boston: Longman, 2010), p. 2005.a
[iii] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (Boston: Mariner Books, 2009), p. 108.