This is a powerful book, written two decades ago, about the Viet Nam War. The things the soldiers carried with them were varied and symbolic. As well as the necessities to fight the war, they carried the love for their families in their hearts, their memories, their photos and letters, their fears, their reasons for going to war and their reasons for wishing they were not there. The nightmarish existence was unending. The purpose seemed disjointed and unfocused. Many of the incidents that O'Brien wrote about were based on reality, a reality that was so hard to swallow that it was better to think of it as pure fiction. For me the main points of the book were the wasted effort it was to go to war and the way in which the war stayed with the soldier when he returned. The memories could not be washed away or wished away. The loss could not be recovered.
Surely there has to be a better way to solve conflicts than the mass destruction of the men and women of our future. What does it really accomplish? Men in high places make decisions and young lives are lost because of their need for power or because of some misunderstanding. Most of the soldiers were frightened, (Who wouldn't be?) and those that weren't, usually were not totally strung together. They enjoyed the excitement and the danger a bit too much. They often seemed cruel in nature. A soldier had to harden himself in order to survive and continue in the face of such mass loss and pain, emotional and physical. Often, in order to do this, the men created a system to cope with the horror around them by making light of their tragic circumstances, flying in the face of it somehow to make it less tragic, less real.
Death and destruction are not normal aspects of our daily lives and yet they were forced to deal with it everyday, the filth, the fighting, the killing, the death all around them, never knowing which of them would suddenly be the next to die, to kill another, to disappear without a trace, or how they would react in a crisis. Would they be brave or weak? (What is the meaning of being brave or weak? Who decides?) Then when it was over, they were expected to forget the horror and return to normal life. However, they continued to bear the scars of that horror forever. "It was another thing they carried with them." So, even after the war, some survived and some did not.
The Viet Nam War was a war without respect, a blight on our history and a sad commentary about the population that blamed the brave men and women who fought for them and died so that they might enjoy their freedoms. I have always felt that the soldiers were treated unfairly when they returned. I have friends permanently traumatized by that war who should have been honored for their service to their country but they came home maimed, mentally and physically to an America that resented them, that vilified them and made them feel ashamed. This book provides an insight into how the soldiers felt, as they fought, as they tried to survive and it will help us to understand why those who survived needed our support, not our disrespect. We owe them an apology but it will never be enough for what they lost.