If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien

I read the previous book (Confessions of a Serial Alibi) within two days. This one, although quite a lot shorter, hasn’t been as easy to get through. There’s a lot to absorb and consider. It’s not the kind of book that can be rushed. Parts of it need to be savoured – enjoying the language and way it enhances descriptions of O’Brien’s experiences – while other parts require reflection, to think about the consequences of what has just been read.

Written from the author’s experience, it is an account of the absurdity and incongruities of an unjust war in Vietnam. A war motivated by ideology and political ambition.

O’Brien writes about the moral struggle when faced with the prospect of being drafted, and how escape to Canada would bring shame on his family and community.

He also considers the ramifications of desertion after the chance for dodging the draft has been missed.

And then there’s the basic training intended to prepare new recruits for what will be faced when they are deployed to Vietnam.

The obsession with (cadence call) singing while marching during training was surely intended to inoculate them to the absurdities ahead, and seems to be a unique, comic feature of American military life made familiar around the world  through many army-based films and TV series.
The examples of this in O’Brien’s book would be laughable if not for the crude misogyny and racism, reflecting the boy’s own patriotic machismo being instilled into young recruits, desensitising their consciences in preparation for the brutalities and atrocities ahead.

On arrival in Vietnam the drafted recruits are welcomed with warnings they are prone to be killed or maimed.

After being given that spiel they are offered a potential life and limb saving option: to “re-up” – basically to sign up to extend their military service to three years, on the “promise” of being given a:

“nice, safe, rear job. You get some on the job training, the works. You get a skill. You sleep in a bed… So. You lose a little time to Uncle Sam. Big deal. You save your ass…

And there’s the experience of endless jungle patrols, raids on often deserted villages; monotonous and pointless manoeuvres in a foreign country for reasons unknown, and probably reasons better NOT known.

…no one in Alpha Company knows or cares about the cause purpose of their war; it is about “dinks and slopes”, and the idea is simply to kill them or avoid them. Except that in Alpha you don’t kill a man, you “waste” him.

Finally there’s the conscience-numbing, empathy-eroding effect of combat, with friends being killed and excessive retaliation resulting in villages being napalmed, and innocent villagers, including children and babies being “wasted”.

And feeling no pity afterwards.

O’Brien’s book has the authenticity of being written by someone with personal experience, and experience is what he conveys: the feelings, the emotions (or lack of) the wrestling with conscience (or lack of) – how war affects and changes a man according to that experience and according to the situation in which he finds himself.

Humanity can easily be suppressed, and yet equally that humanity can resurface in quieter times, when there’s opportunity for reflection on what has been done.

She had been shot once. The bullet tore through her green uniform and into her buttock and went out through her groin. She lay on her side, sprawled against a paddy dike. She never opened her eyes…

…”I wish I could help her.” The man who shot her knelt down…

… The man who shot her peered into her face. He asked if she could be given some shade…

…The man who shot her stroked her hair. Two other soldiers and a medic stood beside her, fanning her and waving at the flies…

…The man who shot her held his canteen to her lips and she drank some Kool-Aid.

Then she twisted her head from side to side. She pulled her legs up to her chest and rocked, her whole body swaying. The man who shot her poured a trickle of water onto her forehead.

Soon she stopped swaying.