Friday, May 18, 2012
"Do dreams offer lessons? Do nightmares have themes, do we awaken and analyse them and live our lives and advise others as a result? Can the foot soldier teach anything about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."
Occasionally you come across a book that utterly captivates. You find yourself swept along in a river of prose which elevates writing to a different level. The writing resonates, its message is timeless and you find yourself compelled to read to the last page. "If I die in a Combat Zone" Tim O'Brien's account of his time in the combat zone is just such a book.
The book begins with O'Brien in the field of operations in Vietnam. His unit is out on patrol and comes under attack from snipers. It is apparently the tenth time on that particular day that they’ve been targeted.
In the summer of 1969 and university student Tim O'Brien is conscripted into the American army. After initial training he is assigned to the infantry and becomes a grunt an ordinary foot soldier, a GI. In describing his training O'Brien states that if someone wants to understand what happened in Mai Lai they need to understand Fort Lewis, Washington.
Throughout O'Brien isn’t afraid to castigate his comrades. He graphically describes the life of an American soldier on combat duty in South Vietnam. The army comes across as being lazy, badly motivated with low discipline and terrible morale. While officers, through their incompetence, barely command the respect of the men they're leading. The term lions lead by donkeys first used in a previous war comes to mind.
O'Brien finds himself in Mai Lai a year after the massacre in the area. Along with his fellow combatants he is at a loss as to why the locals are so antagonistic toward their defenders. It is only later that news of the massacre in the area emerges. Tim O'Brien graphically describes the reaction of his superior officers to the massacre. He informs us of the drunken rants of one officer who states the reason the massacre occurred was that due to the nature of the war American soldiers simply did not know who their enemies were. They were taking no chances and acted accordingly.
One of the strengths of the book is O'Brien questioning on what is meant by true courage. According to him the commanding officer of his unit Captain Johansen is the very personification of courage. That courage according to O’Brien is doing the right thing for the right reason. Johansen's replacement is Captain Smith a pompous overbearing commander whose actions lead to the deaths of several members of the unit and his, Smith's, eventual replacement.
As the book comes to the conclusion and O'Brien returns home to Minnesota, he asks, "What kind of war is it that begins and ends that way, with a pretty girl, cushioned seats and magazines?".
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