On Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried
The war wasn’t all terror and violence. Sometimes things could almost get sweet. For instance, I remember a little boy with a plastic leg. I remember how he hopped over to Azar and asked for a chocolate bar—“GI number one,” the kid said—and Azar laughed and handed over the chocolate. When the boy hopped away, Azar clucked his tongue and said, “War’s a bitch.” He shook his head sadly. “One leg, for Chrissake. Some poor fucker ran out of ammo.”
—from The Things They Carried
Imagine the censor’s horror in the sixties and seventies: journalists running amok in the trenches, hitching rides into combat on the backs of convoys, snapping photos of Vietnam casualties. In a war that measured its victory in Viet Cong bodies, photographs became a tangible unit for American loss—limbless GIs, an assembly line of coffins—these images made it home from Vietnam when our soldiers did not.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a montage of graphic scenes: “Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree”; “The day Azar strapped the puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device”; “Kiowa sinking into the deep mulch of a shit field.” Like the photographs, O’Brien provides a more substantive reality that has no heroes or valor. Men die from boredom, error, and fear. They persist out of cowardice. Violence occurs almost accidently, without warning, and for the sake of itself. “You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil,” he writes. A “true” war story must shock the conscience.
Because footage of dead American soldiers was such an important vehicle for Vietnam’s anti-war movement, in 1991, during the first Gulf War, the Pentagon banned media coverage of flag-draped coffins returning home. The military argued that the ban protected “the privacy and dignity of the families,” while critics contested that it censored the human cost of war. In 2009, the policy was reversed with one condition: the family of the deceased must give consent. Of the 4,000 troops that have died in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have only seen a handful of coffins and corpses, and our empathy has suffered for it.
The Things They Carried has been challenged because of profanity three times. At high schools in Pennsylvania (retained), Mississippi (banned), and Illinois (retained); in 2001, 2003, and 2007, respectively; the years we declared war on Afghanistan and Iraq and the year General David Petraeus asked for and received an additional 20,000 troops to fight in Iraq. A decade after its publication, and almost three decades after our war ended in Vietnam, O’Brien’s book was challenged for the very first time.
When my 9th grade English class read The Things They Carried, our discussion did not include its history. We didn’t ask ourselves who might challenge the book and why. Enlistment was not part of our reality—I don’t think a service academy ever set foot in our Brooklyn Heights private school—and none of my high school classmates have since joined the war. It’s only now, after returning to O’Brien, that I realize his censor has a human face: a school director and reverend in Pennridge, PA., a grandparent in Lucedale, MS., and a foster mother in Arlington Heights, IL.
Like the photographs that returned home from the front, like O’Brien’s depiction of Vietnam, the controversy behind his book provides a more substantive reality: human motive is more complicated than demographics might suggest. What motivates a high school parent to challenge a book has less to do with politics, perhaps, and more to do with the human heart.
To permit a book, to read a book, is not enough. We must engage with its history. Ask who challenges a text and for what reasons. When we read a book, let’s read with a mind for its censors: what is that thing inside The Things They Carried that stirs a parent’s need to protect?
The Illinois mother lost her fight to ban O’Brien, but she succeeded in energizing her community. 1,000 people participated in what became a five-hour book-banning debate. Let’s take care not to censor the censor. Let’s be grateful for the chance to defend our favorite books. And never take for granted our freedom to read them. O’Brien’s reality has no winning side, no singular truth—instead, the trenches are steeped in antonyms. Balanced by opposing forces. One harmonious, human breath.