Archive » July 26, 2007
By Shelly Lowenkopf
Having the enviable vantage point of looking over Brian Fagan’s shoulder as he essays his seemingly endless stream of fascinating delving into our and other cultures, I have come to appreciate the concept of the tool kit.
As Fagan renders it, the tool kit is the necessary apparatus of our Stone and Ice Age forebears. Early tool kits included such necessities as the burin, a stone flake which, when struck obliquely, produces a blade-like edge, a precursor of the modern Swiss Army knife, for use in cutting, etching, shaping. Other “tools” might include the then equivalent of fish hooks, projectile points, or then equivalents of needles.
These things carried by Ice- and Stone-Age people, contributed measurably to their survival and, to a significant extent on us, being what and who we are.
It is an easy step from Fagan’s archaeological reconstructions of pure survival of Hunting and Gathering Societies to those who carried territorial grudges into the more aggressive behavior we have come to think of as war. What tool kits did the early ones and, indeed, the later ones carry into battle?
Two of the most dramatic and memorable American accounts of war appeared just under a hundred years apart. The earliest, Stephen Crane’s “The Red Badge of Courage,” (1895) refers to the stain of blood, suffered in battle during what many of us call The War between the States or The Civil War, then carried into yet other battles.
The most recent, Tim O’Brien’s resonant “The Things They Carried,” appeared in 1990, its focus the American presence in Viet Nam.
The major difference between the two works generates from the fact of Crane not having served either in the Union or Confederate States army and thus being a product of the imagination, while O’Brien put in considerable time, writing of first-hand observation.
The comparison side is more bountiful, beginning with the fact that each novel inspires a sense of absolute authenticity in its description of the men involved, their thoughts about home, and the sense of landscape. Each novel is balanced deftly on a fulcrum of irony, each is rendered with a specificity that transcends its time of writing and becomes a metaphor for all wars, each acutely portrays the ache of individuals attempting to hold on to some shred of humanity under conditions where it is quite possible for humanity to emerge at its worst.
Although he has written other books before and since, Tim O’Brien has produced an iconic and unforgettable work in “The Things They Carried.” As he stands now, more or less at the mid-point of a remarkable career, he will be shadowed if not stalked by this remarkable laundry list of human activity during a long siege in which it becomes difficult if not impossible to determine which participants exhibited the greater heroism and empathy.
“The things they [the American soldiers] carried were largely determined by necessity,” O’Brien writes early on. “Among the necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellant, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water. Together, these things weighed between 15 and 20 pounds.”
As I warned, these are laundry list, all of which shed some light on a military presence. O’Brien knows just how far he can go, quickly, with a few deft brush strokes, bringing in individuals we can visualize and root for. “Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Save Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-sized bars of soap he’d stolen on R & R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.”
It is a serious business, getting to know and care about these men because each step of the way is so fraught with the suddenness of the unexpected, and because O’Brien has learned – possibly in this very novel or perhaps in the earlier “Northern Lights” – that it is not necessary to propagandize a war. The war simply is, it exists and within it and all around it, men and boys fight one another while women look on, sometimes from great distances, every bit as impacted as the military.
“To carry something was to hump it, as when Lieutenant Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps. In its intransitive form, to hump meant to walk, or to march, but it implied burdens far beyond the intransitive.”
The enemy is sometimes referred to as Charlie Cong, sometimes as ghosts because of the way they came out at night, and you never really saw him, O’Brien writes, “you just thought you did. Almost magical – appearing, disappearing. He could blend with the land, changing form, becoming trees and grass. He could levitate. He could fly. He could pass through barbed wire and melt away like ice and creep up on you without sound or footsteps.”
How could you fight such an enemy in such a place?
How could the youth, Henry, face such an enemy as he did in “The Red Badge of Courage”?
These wars are serious things for the individuals drawn into them; they become metaphors for a number of things, labels for generations. We can never really be certain of the outcome or the war equivalent of Moore’s Law, which holds that the damage to the psyche of the warring nation and the warrior becomes increasingly excruciating with each new encounter.
Whenever he writes, whether of an extremely cold and hostile climate, a college reunion, or the steamy thick jungles of southeast Asia, Tim O’Brien takes us somewhere in memory from which there is no return. He is so skilled at putting us in the landscape that some of it remains with us. After “The Things They Carried,” our muscles ache from the humping.
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