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Friday, December 13, 2013

Reread: The Things They Carried

I first read The Things They Carried right after high school. As a soon to be conscript, the book struck a deep chord in me in a way none of the books that were assigned in school as "literature" ever did. The book was so raw, so filled with reality while acknowledging that some stories cannot be told correctly, no matter how many times the author circles back to his material, that it spoke to me in a way that no mere novel could provide. Over the years, I've given away so many copies of the book that I've lost count, and over several moves, I've never managed to recover any of my personal copies. When the Amazon Matchbook program listed this book for me at $2.99, I jumped on it so that I could have my very own copy, which cannot be given away or lost as long as Amazon stays around.

Many books lose their power over you as you age. The intensity of emotion that I had as a youth has no parallel in me today, but this book brings back those memories in ways that even reading my own writing from 20 years ago cannot. O'Brien brings home the nastiness of being a soldier in South East Asia, where even the weather and climate will bury you despite all the technology at your disposal (though remembering that the war was fought in the 60s, there wasn't actually that much technology).

What strikes me the hardest this time around, however, is the lack of fulfillment you sense in O'Brien throughout the novel. It's palpable in the way he retells the stories over and over again, sometimes from a different angle, sometimes in the same way but in a different context, and other times to make a completely different point. Together, the stories in this book form a mosaic that lets you get at the essence of the truth in O'Brien's past and his trauma, and explains why 20 years later, he is still telling these stories.

One of the big differences between the USA of today and the USA of Vietnam is that since switching to an all-volunteer army, the gulf between the elite and the soldiers who fight on behalf of the country are wider than before. As a result, books like this are more important than ever. I highly recommend this book, but more importantly, if you're a US citizen or green card holder, you need to read this book:
‘’If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.’’

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