Wednesday, October 26, 2022

If I Die In a Combat Zone by Tim O'Brien

The full title of this book may actually be If I Die In a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, but it's usually cited as just the first phrase. Author Tim O'Brien never made it to the Russian Front - for multiple reasons, but primarily because, so far, there hasn't been one - so none of us need to worry about the problematic next line of that chant.

I mostly know that chant from the Screaming Blue Messiahs song "Someone to Talk To." Mid-80s post-punk from a bunch of then-middle-aged Brits is not the usual way to learn US GI slang, but I've always taken what I can get. And the attitude and energy of the SBM is not a million miles away from that of the Vietnam-era GI, drafted and sent to a foreign country to "kill gooks" and survive as best he could for a one-year term.

I'm no expert on military service. The threatened war of my generation - the jungle war in Latin America we all half-expected at any time - never happened, and I never came any closer to a uniform than worrying about it. But I have a sense that one-year term is unusual: don't soldiers usually get stuck in for longer? I expect there are some major works about that one-year term, and what it meant for the war itself, and for the men fighting it.

Anyway, If I Die In a Combat Zone was Tim O'Brien's memoir of his year in the 'Nam. That year was 1969-70; he was drafted soon after graduating college in the spring of 1968, but the gears of war sometimes grind slowly, so he didn't end up in Basic until that fall and didn't get sent overseas until even later. But it doesn't matter when it started: every GI got a year in-country.

Unless they got killed earlier, of course. That was always a possibility.

This was O'Brien's first book, published in 1975. He was already on his way to being a respected literary novelist and professor of literature by that point, but O'Brien is the kind of "literary" that meant "uses exactly the right words, and sweats over them." Combat Zone is made up of mostly short chapters, about times and moments and days, mostly of his time in Vietnam but with some background on his life and especially the summer when he knew he would be drafted and agonized about running away to Canada or Sweden to avoid it.

Spoiler: he didn't. The fact that this book exists at all tells you that.

O'Brien didn't die in a combat zone - but a lot of other soldiers did. And O'Brien and his fellow GIs - he was with the 23rd Infantry, mostly slogging around between villages in the region Americans called "Pinkville" - left a lot of Vietnamese bodies behind them, as well. Combat Zone does not shy away from talking about the ways that men die, or kill - though it doesn't revel in it, either. If anything, Combat Zone is a series of thoughts about what it is to fight a war, and how a grunt-level soldier can think about what he does, and what his nation does.

O'Brien is a taut, precise writer, even this far back in his career. Combat Zone is a lean, tight book. I've seen it called one of the best, or maybe the best, memoir by a soldier of the Vietnam war - I don't have enough personal reading experience to validate that, but it's strong enough, and resonant enough, that praise that high does make sense. O'Brien also was in the area of the My Lai massacre, though he arrived a year later, so there's some wider concerns about the war and the American way of fighting it that resonates throughout.

America doesn't fight wars like this anymore, for mostly obvious we-lost-this-one reasons. But the lessons are still true, and O'Brien's insights still as valid, as they were in 1975. I'd especially want anyone eager to send US troops off to invade or "liberate" anywhere in the world to read this book, and books like it, before they talk so loud.

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