Reportage

If I Die in a Combat Zone..

Tim O’Brien’s classic portrayal of the Vietnam War…

timb“If I die in a combat zone, box me up and ship me home”..so goes the title of Tim O’Brien’s 1973 account of his experiences spent fighting in Vietnam. It is a fitting title for a book detailing the author’s attitude to the war, an opinion closely shared with his close friend in combat, ‘Erik’ who shares his love of culture, politics and hatred of any form of conflict.

A true account written by a celebrated author on the subject, O’Brien takes us on a tour of his early days in Worthington, Minnesota with a brief but brilliant account of his final days driving around his home town before the day of his draft. It is classic small town America stuff; proud father, worried mother, friends indifferent to his departure. He sets himself apart from the ‘jocks’, and his cerebral take on the war and those who orchestrated it clearly set him apart from the rest of his fellow ‘grunts’. O’Brien and Erik set out to question and resist the government and its war machine, encountering significant hostility in the form of their commanding officers. A brief fling with the idea of deserting ensues before finally, they leave the training base and head for Vietnam.

Arriving in Chu Lai in 1969, O’Brien is given a whirlwind course in grenade-throwing, mine sweeping and jungle warfare before being sent to join Alpha Company of the 46th Infantry. What ensues is a validation of what we, on the outside have all come to realise about the war in Vietnam and more especially those drafted to fight in it. None, it would seem, could understand why they were there. O’Brien touches upon the difference between those who had made a career from joining the army, the ‘lifers’ and the ‘grunts’ shoved out on patrols, digging trenches and carrying the body bags. There are countless news reels showing disgruntled young soldiers complaining about their lot whilst the lifers sit back and take charge from the rear. In the end, the experience of Vietnam, as horrific as it was, signaled the beginning of a new era in questioning hostile action and sending young men into deathly combat situations for reasons beyond the comprehension of the wider public.

This is perfectly illustrated by O’Brien when he is ordered to meet the company Chaplain shortly before leaving for duty. The Chaplain, O’Brien is told is used ‘to weed out the pussies’ and the ensuing conversation is remarkable in the Chaplain’s misplaced sense of faith and justice in favour of the American war machine. A true encounter and symptomatic of the ignorance of so many of the figureheads in the American church.

O’Brien’s arrival in Vietnam is met with an attack on his temporary base, he touches upon the lack of respect and discipline many of the seasoned soldiers showed towards their officers. He describes the endless days of boredom, drinking, drug taking and sexual liaisons which was commonplace throughout the war. The conversations are often dark and revelatory. How it must have felt at such a young age to be told that your particular posting was ‘hell on earth’, surrounded by fellow soldiers counting down the days to leaving, filling voids with scams and vices. In this memoir O’Brien gives us an honest account of a dishonest war. It sets the tone for his highly praised fictional work on Vietnam and the veterans who fought there. If you want to read a book on the life of a soldier you could do a lot worse than read this.

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