If I Die in a Combat Zone – Tim O’ Brien, 1973
By far Tim O’ Brien’s best Vietnam book, this small but powerful read captures perfectly the profile of American youth at war. The author is an intelligent and self-examining writer and combines a wide spectrum of moral and political musings, personal recollections and shocking battle scenes to build a complete picture of the horror of frontline service in Vietnam.
Before O’ Brien’s award winning and more surreal literary works Going After Cacciato and The Things They Carried came this raw, more direct work. O’ Brien wrote If I Die in a Combat Zone (aff) just after returning from his one-year tour in Vietnam and recounts an intensely personal story of life as an unwilling and fearful grunt tramping the paddy fields and jungle tracks of wartorn Vietnam.
At the outset of If I Die, we hear about the author’s somewhat privileged childhood, growing up with all the baseball, root beer and junior high escapades. All of it seems as familiar as American pie until the Vietnam draft notice arrives and the author’s conversations turn to conscience, God, patriotism and war. O’ Brien candidly talks us through his initial ideas of rebellion against the army, against the war and thoughts of running to Canada, all of which are swept away in the end: “By noon the next day our hands were in the air, even the tough guys…we said the words and we were soldiers.”
The style of this read involves a lot of stream-of-consciousness stuff and the writing is so immediate it transports you to the author’s side in the bush: “Eyes sweep the ride paddy. Don’t walk there, too soft. Not there, dangerous, mines…protect the legs, no chances, watch for the fucking snipers, watch for ambushes and punji pits.”
There’s a passage in the book reminiscent of Full Metal Jacket, describing the brutalising tactics of boot camp where recruits are dehumanised into killing machines – O’Brien is a thinking man and talks us through all his little coping mechanisms and unseen acts of defiance. A plan for desertion is planned, letters are written and preparations made but ultimately the author finds himself too cowardly to be a coward.
O’Brien is an expert in characterization – platoon leader Mad Mark, the green beret in charge of his unit, barrels out of the page with his shotgun-wielding, trash talking, ear-cutting insanity. The author describes his first lieutenant not as hysterical, but rather as belonging to that breed of men that were “insanely calm…He never showed fear…an ideal leader of men in the field.”
This book isn’t only great in its depictions of the GIs at rest and at war – there’s also a lot of musing on the rights and wrongs of the conflict from O’Brien’s perspective. In one section of the book he recounts meeting a North Vietnamese student at college the summer before the draft and how they spoke for hours on the rights and wrongs of American action in southeast Asia, on democracy, totalitarianism and stability.
O’Brien is a humanist and moralist in his writing, an aspect which makes a reading of this book really affecting. One very moving chapter describes how the troop shoot an attractive female NVA soldier; how the men who only moments before shot her down now stroked her hair and batted away the hordes of flies, whispering tenderly to her as she died. This book is full of the casual murders and atrocities of war, the daily My Lai’s and the shocking complacency of battle troops, their senses dulled to compassion and common humanity.
This is a book full of dread and horror – although O ‘Brien is undoubtedly a master story teller this is a true thinking man who disagreed with the war from the start and makes this clear as he takes us through the paddy fields, foxholes and dark overheated Vietcong tunnels. This is a full-frontal account from behind the rifle of an infantryman and goes into the head in terrific agonizing detail of how it is to tramp along on point, wondering what it will feel like to have your legs blown off by a landmine.
This work is small in size but packs an incredible punch and somehow captures the whole combat experience of Vietnam within its pages. O’Brien finds episodes from his tour to represent every aspect of this dreadful war: brutal combat, shocking atrocity, insane troop leaders, merciless killing and the shirking of moral responsibility. If I Die in a Combat Zone (aff) is a thoughtful and magnificently well written work, but delivers a short sharp shock to any reader ignorant of the realities of fighting in Nam.