In this interview O’Brien discusses the unsummarizable nature of his novel The Things They Carried. The book eludes categorization as a memoir or a work of fiction, as it uses fictitious events to describe real sentiments and thoughts in the author’s life. I found particularly interesting how O’Brien carefully weaves a character bearing his name and many of his traits and experiences as a means of divulging his own opinions without writing an autobiography. This technique creates a powerful trust between the reader and writer, as the memoir-esque nature establishes authenticity.
Looking back, I feel that the novel should be classified as fiction. Though O’Brien recounts experiences that parallel his own, it would be unfair to allow his made-up events pass as reality, regardless of the moral or informative “truth” they bear. Despite this, O’Brien’s writing technique establishes a bond with the reader that mirrors the role of a storyteller. As a lesson to future generations about war, The Things They Carried would not be nearly as powerful were it not for this connection between author and audience.
I have a hot dog for a pet,
The only kind my folks let me get
He does smell sort of bad
He absolutely never gets the sofa wet
We have a butcher for a vet
The strangest vet you ever met
Guess we’re the weirdest family yet
To have a hot dog for a pet
– Shel Silverstein
This has been my go-to poem for over a decade. In elementary school I presented this, from memory, to my second grade class; in the fifth grade, I wrote a short story about a boy that had a pineapple as a pet. Though it may not be particularly deep or symbolic, this poem was a standout favorite of mine, the most heavily-dog-eared page of all of my Shel Silverstein books. Though my intellectual appreciation of poetry and literature has grown, I’ll always enjoy silly, heartwarming poems like this.
“Why did they have to mix their women into everything? Between us and everything we wanted to change in the world they placed a woman: socially, politically, economically. Why, goddammit, why did they insist upon confusing the class struggle with the ass struggle, debasing both us and them- all human motives?”
-Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
At first glance, this passage made me laugh–after all, much of the novel is infused with this type of clever, understated humor. The narrator, at this point, is frustrated by The Brotherhood’s use of women to distract him and weaken his authority in New York. More importantly, however, Ellison reminds the reader of politicians’ and leaders’ humanity. Though the narrator is noble, he is equally susceptible to primal urges, such as infatuation and sex. In pursuing his goals of transforming the black community in New York, he must avoid allowing his human qualities to interfere, which is no easy task.
Under perpetual siege by North Vietnamese guerilla fighters, the 2nd battalion of the 501st infantry found no refuge in their remote jungle clearing encampment. Medic George Banda, during a routine night watch, was ambushed by a group of enemy combatants, and shot in the side of the head. He fought off the first wave of attackers alone, and then retreated to cover to hide from the burning white phosphorous raining from above. As the assault continued, Banda began acting as a medic–his actual role, not a foot soldier–and treated those wounded around him. His bullet wound was painful and spurred blood from a severed artery on his temple, but he recognized that it was not immediately life-threatening. Banda sprinted nearly a hundred yards to a pile of debris to rescue his friend Ed, who had been critically injured, dodging countless rounds being fired from the insidious jungle surrounding him, and dragged him up a hill to safety. Air support for the battalion did not arrive for hours, and George had to administer first aid to the best of his ability with severely limited supplies. Ed passed away as the evacuation helicopters appeared on the horizon.
I have never been a supporter of any war, and stories like these are precisely why. Such carnage and suffering, with each death–each loss of life–having such a negligible effect on the overall outcome. George Banda acted heroically, risking his life to perform his duty and save as many lives as possible. Yet the cruel irony is that he returned shots against the North Vietnamese, participating in the same killing they were exacting on his friends. In such a situation, on that scale, there is no moral high ground. Both sides are fighting for what they think is right (or simply following orders), yet they brutally slay other human beings to achieve a political objective. That being said, I have nothing but respect for Mr. Banda. He put his life on the line so that another might live; that is the noblest of any possible human action. Reading Banda’s explanation for his bravery brought a tear to my eye. He explains, “I’m bleeding to death… But I couldn’t leave Ed. He was my friend.”
It’s just a shame to know that others on the opposite side were experiencing the same thing at the hand of our military. I recognize that war might be seen as necessary under some circumstances, but that does not mean that I will support it. Instead, I’ll support the humans involved with and affected by it. Because life matters more than any political objective.
Link to George Banda’s oral history