True-to-Life Combat

Tales of the Vietnam War told without popular myths

SOME years ago a man I knew completed the manuscript of a novel based on his experiences in Vietnam. The story was pretty much standard-issue war novel, all about young men losing their innocence, their minds, and their lives, filled with depressing and ultimately purposeless violence. He went to one of the major publishers with it. After four months he got a letter saying they appreciated the opportunity he had given them to read it but that they didn't see it as a publishable work. If he wanted to stop by the office, however, the editor who had read it would be willing to talk to him about what she felt were the book's failings.

Dutifully, and because fledgling authors clutch at straws, he went in. The editor was a young woman who had been in elementary school during the years of the war. She carefully explained that the problem she had with the book was that the main characters didn't seem to act the way she thought soldiers acted. They weren't close to one another. She said she thought that soldiers were extremely close because they ... well, like, you know, faced death and all.

The author, not wanting to argue, agreed that sometimes soldiers became very close because of shared danger. But it was his experience that the army was actually a fundamentally lonely place, and men who were there by reason of the draft tended to regard it as a prison.

Yes, she said, but that didn't really seem like what she thought the army was like.

At this point, my friend realized that whatever had really happened in Vietnam was immaterial. People not involved in a war have a concept derived from movies and television, and they assume it's the real thing. He agreed that she had a point and said he would try a rewrite.

Which brings us to Tim O'Brien's books. In the face of what America has been led to believe about the war, O'Brien has been able to remain true to his memory. His stories never forget the utter hopelessness and loneliness of the fighting. It was hot work, sweaty and stultifying. It was vast periods of boredom punctuated by moments of white terror. American soldiers were lied to and bossed around by the conniving and the stupid.

Making people sit still and read such unpleasant reminders takes a certain cleverness. ``The Things They Carried,'' the first story in this collection of interrelated pieces, is beguiling in its detail.

The reader is trapped by curiosity. The details add up, rounding out a picture of the overburdened American soldier, weighed down by all the equipment the Pentagon has decided he needs - gargantuan radios and grenades and rifles and steel helmets and rockets and machine guns and cans of food - slogging through equatorial heat looking for people he didn't know enough to hate for the purpose of killing them.

But there's more than just materiel. O'Brien's soldiers carry bits of home: memories, letters, mistaken ideas, hints of tunes, and love affairs frozen for the duration of the war.

O'Brien has no flambouyant heroes. Back while Pat Buchannan and Dan Quayle were living their versions of the war, O'Brien and his fellow soldiers were up to their knees in rice paddies, hauling 23-pound M60s and 10-pound belts of linked ammunition and claymore mines counting the hot and endless days until they could go home to a country that thought they were war criminals.

The hatred and sorrow O'Brien feels in retrospect is on every page, and not all of it is for the usual targets - a sizable portion is reserved for himself. I've read nothing in all of the war's literature to compare with his vignette, ``The Man I Killed,'' for gripping self-loathing and regret, the kind that heals very slowly.

The stories are linked in an inexact way. Some take place in Vietnam, some back in the United States, some are during the war, and some years after. But O'Brien, who won the National Book Award in 1979 for ``Going After Cacciato,'' has twisted them together like the rags of an escape line. It's fair to say that he has written of nothing else, and it is hard to imagine him ever writing of anything else. He is a prisoner of war in a way, and it is fortunate for him that he can write well enough about it to get published.

If he deserves credit for anything, it is keeping an unvarnished version of the war alive in spite of the vast wash of nonsense that has spewed out of Hollywood and the networks.

After a few weeks of the freshly scrubbed and coifed yuppie warriors of ``China Beach,'' you could almost regard the war as not such an unpleasant thing. All problems are solved in time for the final credits. And this is hardly overstating the degree to which the popular version of the war, and war in general, has deviated with time.

Layne Heath's ``CW2,'' just published (William and Morrow), takes the Tom Clancy approach, worshipful of ordnance and tough guys. And Danielle Steel's current ``Letter from 'Nam'' (Dell) is the worst thing ever. The further the war recedes, the less one has to worry about the facts.

``The Things They Carried'' is a necessary book in American literature. With O'Brien's other work, it remains possibly the most accurate and most durable narrative of the war.

General criticism has been laudatory. ``The Things They Carried'' has been ranked with ``All Quiet on the Western Front'' and ``The Red Badge of Courage.'' I'd say it's still early for such rankings, but all signs point that way.

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