Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Things We Carry (A Book and a Memory)

In the winter of 1990-91, I was a senior in college, getting ready to graduate, and in love with a soldier. It had been an on-again, off-again relationship that began again in the fall, shortly before Iraq invaded Kuwait and the United States declared war. Like so many other military intelligence officers, he was deployed overseas in the first real war of my life.

I remember that time in the way one tucks something in their heart so deeply that it becomes not a faded memory but remains as alive and emotional each day as it was then.

There were months that fall of letters, envelopes numbered so we would know which came first, as the mail between us seemed to always come in small floods with droughts in between. I went on with school, my classes and activities changed only by the small on-campus protests and heated discussions about war over oil.

He, on the other hand, sat in the desert, waiting. Months of waiting that walked the line between intense boredom and the looming fear of imminent fighting. They waited, our troops, in the sand for months for the right time to attack. For the time when negotiations wore out. For the equipment to arrive, to fail as the sand crept into its crevices, and then be cleaned to working order again. His letters and tapes were filled with stories of funny things he and his buddies did to keep busy, to entertain themselves, but underscored by the idea that it was likely a great many of them would not make it back.

That was before the war, when no one knew. When Vietnam rose like a shadow over them as the model of what war had become. When the Iraqi troops yelled loudly and waved threats wildly, and we believed them all.

And then, one cold January day, the waiting ended.

Before texting and smartphones and wireless and seemingly instantaneous information access, the word about the first attacks came by word of mouth. It spread like a wildfire, at first, loud cries of the bombs and missiles falling, but soon settled into something like a hush as we all gathered where we could, in the dark of dorm or fraternity TV lounges and the student union and local bars. In darkened room filled past-standing-room-only, we watched as every station played the live news feed of the air strikes. The dark of the sky, the wail of the sirens, the fireworks of anti-aircraft ammunition screaming through the sky at our planes.

It was days that we sat like this, huddled together, classes forgotten, watching the war unfold in front of our eyes as it happened. The letters stopped for a while - I had no idea where my soldier was, not even in which of the three countries that our military was spread over. Secrecy kept them safe.

Eventually, we drifted back into the too-bright sunlight, back to class and activities and life because we had to, a little less than normal, still wondering how many men and women would make it home, and how many would come in body bags.

When I sat this week to read my newest book, The Things They Carried (by Tim O'Brien), this is the scene I kept sweeping back to. Different war, and yet so much the same.  It is not just that O'Brien writes with something akin to poetry in his memoir, or that his writing makes me want to stop and underline and dog-ear and commit to memory pieces of thoughts and stories he shares. It is that, deep inside, it feels much like a story I lived - not exactly in the story but alongside of. It is, what I think agents and editors call, Resonance.

There's a beauty in the title that probably first drew me to this book, even before I knew what it was. O'Brien doesn't disappoint. His first chapter, titled like the book, begins this way:

"First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack."

I love that O'Brien continues in this vein, the mundane objects and philosophical things they carried laid out in their separate sections:

"The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, 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."

And then this:

"They carried the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infection. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts... They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery... They carried the land itself."

The book itself, like war, is not neatly laid out. It is not a clean, beginning-to end tale, but more a cathartic release for the writer. I identified so personally when he stopped in the middle of describing one incident to say this:

"I feel guilty sometimes. Forty-three years old and I'm still writing war stories... I should forget. But the thing about remembering is that you don't forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present... as a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come to you. That's the real obsession. All those stories."

and then later this:

"Forty-three years and the war occurred half a life-time ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story."

and also this:

"In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way." 

I don't know if this book resonates so deeply with me because I feel a connection with it - both as one who came close enough to reach out and touch war, and as a writer. The language itself and the stories he tells, the characters that seem so well delineated, the pieces of his own heart that he reveals, are enough, I think, to make any reader fall in love with this book.


  1. Very nice post. The world stood still those first few days of Gulf I. AFN (Armed Forces Network) Europe turned over its entire programming to CNN, for which I was grateful. We were all glued to the TV. And we were very proud of our armed forces.

  2. Like Stephen I remember watching CNN for hours during that time. Sounds like a fascinating book. I've always been interested in the human pysche during war time this sounds like a good book to pick up.

  3. I remember sitting home when my husband was deployed, never know if I"d hear from him (just before current Iraq war - 1999. He got out of the military MONTHS before 9/11
    In the four years Heather and I have been close friends, her husband has been deployed for two. Once in Afghanistan, once in Iraq. It's stressful, no one can fully appreciate or understand unless they've lived it.

    This book is on my list of things I really want to read, but I know it'll be emotionally draining - I'm waiting for summer when there's sunlight rejuvenating me during the day.

    There are a lot of military bases up here, a third of the people I go to church with have a spouse in the military - the rotations of overseas duty is constant. I wouldn't change my experience or my husband's for anything, but I definitely don't want to re-live it.

  4. The passages you pulled out were amongst those I so deeply underlined, read again and again and again as a teenager, and reading them here just now made me feel the same jittery jangly sense of truth I pulled from them then.

    I was a freshman in high school during the first Gulf War and got caught up in a school-wide fervor of putting up yellow ribbons, and my father, a Vietnam veteran, was enraged by this. It was one of the first real fights I remember having with him, and I remember how shocked and scared I was to come up against this mass of fury and distrust and disappointment that he felt for our government, our military, and America's place in the world.

    He died two years later, before I was really old enough to fully understand him, or even try to discuss this with him.

    I think sometimes this is partly why O'Brien's book became so important to me -- it felt like a part of him I never got to know.

  5. Beautiful writing, Heidi. I honestly have not read any war stories beyond WW2. I would be the 'any reader to fall in love with this book.' I'll let you know!

  6. This was amazing, I want to know the rest of the story about your soldier.

  7. When I write about WWII, it's like I am there because it was part of my grandparents and my dad's lives.

    Any story about a soldier or his family resonates with me...Several of my buddies from HS went to war and returned. One kiddo (19) we knew didn't. He died in a landmine field in the first Gulf War.

    I have a wall in my home that is dedicated to family and friends that have served both America and England in any war. I want anyone who comes into my house to know that we respect veterans.

  8. I first read "The Things They Carried" in college. It is one of the great short stories. I enjoyed this post, Heidi!

  9. Thanks Jessica! I seem to be the last to have read it, but I'm so glad I did!