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In , Tim O Brien S Going After Cacciato A Novel About The Vietnam War Won The National Book Award In This, His Second Work Of Fiction About Vietnam, O Brien S Unique Artistic Vision Is Again Clearly Demonstrated Neither A Novel Nor A Short Story Collection, It Is An Arc Of Fictional Episodes, Taking Place In The Childhoods Of Its Characters, In The Jungles Of Vietnam And Back Home In America Two Decades Later Admired Tim O Brien s writing since I first read Going after Cacciato several years ago that book has long been one of my favorites The Things They Carried is a different kind of book, but it shares with Going after Cacciato a powerful sense of how it feels for a soldier to be at war O Brien doesn t debate the merits of the Vietnam War, but thoughtfully speaks about the burdens, hopes and fears the soldiers in Alpha Company bore thus the title of the book In many cases, these burdens didn t end when soldiers returned Writes O Brien, You don t have to be in Nam to be in Nam There are no pitched battles described, but O Brien still makes you feel the connection to his fellow soldiers and their unenviable situation Tough to describe, but there is something about how O Brien writes and thinks which makes you know that there is a person with a conscience writing this book I had the opportunity to meet O Brien at a conference in July and got the same feeling from him The Things They Carried is highly recommended It was in the spring of 2006 and I was on patrol in Kirkuk Iraq with a unit in the 101st Airborne I had my full battle rattle on helmet, body armor, vest with extra magazines, M4 We were in the Kurdish part of the city and it was a beautiful day in the bazaar I came to love the Kurdish people, they were hardworking and resilient Many people don t know this but a percentage of Kurdish folks are red headed No kidding, fair skin like me and RED hair It was the kind of day where in the back of our mind we were maybe vigilant than necessary because the threat of anything bad seemed so far away so therefore we needed to be on the guard But for the most part, it was a quiet day and people were out shopping and enjoying the day.I was on the sidewalk and looking at the goods on display Huge bags of nuts and seeds, fabric, plastic toys, a little bit of everything A mother was walking with her little boy, he looked about 2 or 3, with a cute brown outfit that was tailored to fit him, perhaps homemade I noticed her looking at some goods and he saw something across the street and like little boys the world over, took off past me and headed into the street.I am a father of three boys and at that time they were 16, 13 and 6 and I thought about them everyday if not hourly My wife and I had been chasing healthy and happy, mischievous boys for years and if I was hyper vigilant for bad guys, I was even sensitive to children getting loose.As natural as if I were on the sidewalk in Middle Tennessee, I reached down and caught him, said something incomprehensible to him like whoa little man, don t loose momma and I smiled at his mother and she smiled at me and then in that moment, I was not an armed soldier occupying her city and we spoke the same language and we were neighbors keeping a little boy out of the street.That was ten years ago and so much happened over there, but I will always remember that moment because it was an instance of unconditional and timeless humanity during wartime The reality was and is that labels like soldier and enemy and foreign national do little to assuage the inherent and complicated humanity that we all bring with us and share between us.What Tim O Brien accomplished in The Things They Carried, his 1990 collection of short stories and essays about his experiences in Vietnam two decades earlier, is to demonstrate that even in the middle of a horrific war experience, that the soldiers and residents of that country were fundamentally and undeniably all human and capable of experiencing the wide scope of human emotion amidst wartime, and further that the very lethal nature of war made the emotions vivid and alive.Whereas all of my brothers in arms and I volunteered, O Brien and his fellow soldiers were mainly drafted and were thus accidental warriors because of conscription Here were young men who did not want to be there, for the most part, but O Brien takes an expansionist and objective stance and reveals that some people did find their place there and learned things about themselves they would not have otherwise discovered but for that martial experience.Poignant, touching, endearing, heartbreaking, terrifying, saddening, maddening, O Brien has succinctly stated what so many have before tried to and failed He has formed a voice from this wilderness of human experience and has documented for us all a glimpse into moments of humanity during wartime. I first bought The Things They Carried at the Bruised Apple, a used bookstore and coffee shop in downtown Peekskill, New York, back in 1991 when I was fifteen years old By the time I graduated from high school a few years later I d read it so often that the pages, already brittle, were nearly worn through, entire sections underlined in pencil Loaned out and lost to a college crush years ago, a dear friend bought me a replacement copy awhile back signed to me by Tim O Brien himself This new copy is not quite as loveworn, but still it is cherished.The beauty of this book lies not necessarily in the war stories at its center, but rather in the undulating, overlapping entanglements that are people s lives, in the act of using storytelling as a means of recapturing our histories, bringing the many facets of our so often fragmented selves forward into the present day The lyrical poetry of O Brien s writing combined with the brutality of Vietnam imagery is truly a shock, traumatizing yet powerfully beautiful in its way, and the force of language itself is a revelation.As O Brien writes, The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. These connected stories are about young men in their late teens and early twenties doing their best to carry the weight of a brutal war on their shoulders, along with dozens of pounds of field kit and weaponry They carry so much weight it is hard to even imagine how they could walk the miles they did, crossing rivers, muddy streams, up hills and down into valleys, somehow placing one foot in front of the other while their eyes and ears scan for danger.The equipment is not all they carry Some carry guilt, some carry cowardice, some carry aggression, some carry courage, some carry fear, some carry righteousness, some carry hatred, and some carry doubt Of all the feelings they carry, the weight of futility has to be the hardest to bear Maybe futility isn t the right word They carry with them the knowledge that where they are and what they are doing is all the choice they have Short of doing damage to themselves to be airlifted out of there, they all carry the weight of being stuck.These stories don t stop with the horror and macabre humour of being part of a platoon of young men in war There is also a story about what one of them experienced after the war His need to talk about it and his inability to do so His recognition that he needs purposeful work versus his doubt that any such thing exists any.Tim O Brien s writing is exceptional With one sentence he can cut to the heart of an event Occasionally he uses repetition of a scene or sequence that made me feel I was there, living it, then re living the shock of it, trying to find the sense in it.This book does not go into the politics of war and does not mention the hawks sitting behind huge desks with lovely scenery outside their windows, busy directing traffic regardless of what the cost in human lives may be So, I won t go into it, either.This book is about being in the thick of the traffic driving blind in a night so dark there is no difference between eyes open and eyes closed It is about not knowing if you have enough gas, if a tire will blow, if the vehicle will overheat, if it will be blown up into the trees or bogged down and sunk in a field of sewage It is about being one of many little vehicles with two legs and heavy burdens to carry and not knowing if you will ever see home again This was a Traveling Sisters Group read with Brenda, Diane, JanB, Marialyce, and Nikki This was a great choice for a Group read and discussion and I enjoyed it a lot For reviews of this book as well as many others, visit the Sisters blog at