If I Die in a Combat Zone, by Tim O’Brien

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Tim O’Brien’s book was published in 1973, while the Vietnam War was still going on, with some sections appearing in magazines earlier still.  That must have given sales a boost as it was devoured by anxious young men waiting for conscription, to find out what they might expect once they were in country.  It is not a romanticised and heightened Apocalypse Now memoir, though it was clearly an influence on Full Metal Jacket, but is a candid account of what it is like to be an infantryman far from home fighting a war which he considers pointless and morally indefensible.

O’Brien’s time in Vietnam is juxtaposed with details of growing up in a very dull part of Minnesota, from where you might expect eager young men to emigrate in droves to something better.  Clearly the paddy fields of Vietnam are not it.  We then follow him through basic and advanced infantry training, during which time he formulates a plan to desert and flee to Sweden via Canada.  He gets quite a way with it until abandoning it at the last moment for lack of courage, the known – however horrific – less scary than the unknown.

So he goes off to Vietnam, and describes the mix of action and boredom that is war, the stress of the constant fear of attack, of mines and snipers, mortar bombardments at night, and the overriding desire for a transfer to a safe area.  After eight months with Alpha Company, he manages to secure a rear job as a clerk.  The book concludes with him flying back to Minnesota, which may still have seemed dull and “uncaring”, but at least was safer than Vietnam.

This is definitely not an attempt to justify the American presence in terms of the Red Menace or the domino theory, nor is it a Hanoi Jane-view of imperialist aggression.  O’Brien sees the conflict in individualistic terms, guys dying or being maimed by mines, innocent peasants dying because they might give aid to the enemy, or just because they were convenient targets for G.I.s’ frustrations.  He talks about Hemmingway but not geopolitical factors in South-East Asia.

My Lai, where O’Brien found himself a year after the massacre, and a thousand injustices great and small perpetrated on the Vietnamese, form a red thread running through the book.  He seems to suggest at one point that in similar circumstances he would have acted the same: “I was not at My Lai when the massacre occurred … But if a man can squirm in a meadow, he can shoot children.  Neither are examples of courage.”

O’Brien’s view of his fellow grunts is mixed.  He must have stood out as better educated, well read and travelled, than the average foot soldier – the book is peppered with literary quotations, Plato, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound – and he is not impressed with the general level of intelligence displayed by his fellow conscripts.  They must have loved him.  The quality of the officers varies enormously as well, from those who are boorish and foolhardy to those who want to keep their men safe, to the extent of inventing fictitious night actions.

Philosophical musings on courage occupy much of O’Brien’s time.  He talks of “wise courage”, which requires insight, and looking around him it’s not something he sees in great quantities.  If there are no external reasons to fight, such as political conviction, the impulse must come from within, he feels.  He does not see courage within the men with whom he fights because they do not reflect on their situation, and courage has to be an act of awareness with a foundation of wisdom, and be accompanied by love and justice.

O’Brien decides that he is not a hero either.  Yet despite this narrow conception of courage, he seems to have been brave just by enduring and not going mad, or shooting his foot, but he writes about doubts too, how courage can come second to self-preservation, and can only be determined when fear would have caused a different action, how boredom is prized because it means that there is no danger.  He contemplates the fine line between courage and cowardice.  Would it have been more courageous to have opposed the war, rather than acquiescing in becoming part of its mechanism?

He was probably one of the very few American combatants to have met a North Vietnamese soldier in a non-hostile situation, in Prague when he was studying in 1967 and was introduced to a Vietnamese man who told him, at the end of a lengthy conversation on the rights and wrongs of the war, that he was a lieutenant in the North Vietnamese Army, and hoped they would never meet again.

Given the way O’Brien articulates his doubts throughout the book, you end up wondering why he didn’t stay in Prague, or go to Canada, or anywhere a draft card would not have reached him.  Many Americans did without the benefit of a meditation on the meaning of true courage.  But he was in Minnesota for the call, did his tour, and produced a minor classic of war literature, albeit one that now seems overfamiliar from the work of photographers like Don McCullin and Tim Page, and especially from the films.

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