Vietnam is still with us in the sense that for some people how you view that war is a defining indicator of who you are. I did not go to Vietnam, and I was active in the anti-war movement in Albany, NY where I was living at the time, although I never joined in those protesters who harassed returning soldiers. That was wrong for a thousand reasons, starting with the fact that most of those soldiers were draftees and had not asked to go.
Had I been drafted I would have faced the dilemma a young Tim O’Brien did in 1966––go in or go to Canada. I understand why some chose the latter, and I can’t say what I would have done, but I get O’Brien’s decision. Sometimes you have to face what fate sends your way.
The thing our leaders didn’t understand back then about Vietnam and about the threat of communism which was their motivation for jumping into Nam after the French pulled out, was that nationalism was and is a stronger driver of people’s behavior than any political ideology. Nationalism comes down to ethnic identity and ultimately to family.
We lost the war in Vietnam. We pulled out, but that loss did not result in the dominos of other countries falling across Southeast Asia and beyond. In fact, as in China, communism in Vietnam has been tempered from within by leaders who had to come to grips with the truth that neither communism nor socialism are workable blueprints for human societies.
In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien shares with us a sense of what it was like to be an American grunt––one of those guys who were thrown into the midst of a conflict in which one’s past experience about how things were done and happened––the laws of nature and of human behavior––that one had learned up to that point no longer applied.
I’m sure even if he wrote a thousand stories about his personal experience in Nam, about how that experience impacted his life, and about the stories he heard from others, I’m sure Tim would tell you he hadn’t quite got it down, that there was more to be told, and that words cannot express the truth of that experience.
For me and for his readers, however, Tim’s telling is like opening a raw wound, letting us smell and taste and feel the ache of that wound, the fear, the hopes and dreams of every soldier who was sent there and came back a different person in a thousand ways. Hopefully for generations to come people will read The Things They Carried and know just a tiny bit about the world they live in and who they are and who they might someday become, because leaders don’t always make the right decisions.