IF I DIE IN A COMBAT ZONE by Tim O’Brien (First published 1973)

Nowadays, few are prepared to defend America’s invasion of Vietnam in the 1960s but, at the time, anyone who opposed the draft were seen at best as naive beatniks, at worst as traitors.

In times of conflict, propaganda machines of the state and media go into overdrive. Dissenting voices are ridiculed or silenced. Lip service is paid to alternative perspectives but killing continues to be routinely sanctioned in the bogus name of patriotism and justice.

Tim O’Brien’s first book was written, or begun, while serving in the combat zone of Vietnam then completed at graduate school when the war was over. The short sentences and plain language are reminiscent of Hemingway but this is no celebration of machismo.

On the contrary, O’Brien’s first instinct was to escape to Canada or Sweden. He ended up signing up; not because he believed in the cause but out of “a fear of society’s censure…..fear of weakness, afraid that to avoid war is to avoid manhood”.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien

At funerals, priests frequently trot out the antiphon: ‘in the midst of life we are in death’. This was a daily reality that those in the front line in Vietnam didn’t need to be reminded of. O’Brien makes no attempt is made to gloss over the horrors he saw as when he writes stark sentences like: “Scraps of our friends were dropped in body bags”.

The absence of a linear narrative reflects the sporadic nature of the author’s experiences. “One moment the world is serene, and in another moment the war is there” he writes. A surreal logic and existential intensity replaces the relative order of everyday life we take for granted.

Successfully navigating the minefields of Mai Lai or dodging a sniper’s bullet depended more on luck than courage. Notions of right and wrong had no meaning when survival boiled down to a simple case of kill or be killed.

In his later novel, In The Lake Of The Woods, O’Brien wrote “There is no such thing as getting used to a combat zone”.  You endure and, if you are one of the fortunate ones, you live to tell the tale.

While witnessing or participating in the atrocities, he was aware that the ‘normal’ world he left behind went on as though in a parallel universe. This passage captures this brilliantly:  “Mail came. My girl friend travelled in Europe, with her boyfriend. My mother and father were afraid for me, praying; my sister was in school, and my brother was playing basketball. The Viet Cong were nearby. They fired for ten seconds, and I got on to the radio, called for helicopters, popped smoke, and the medics carried three men in the choppers, and we went to another village.”

In ‘The Vietnam In Me’, a New York Times article written in 1994, O’Brien describes the guilt and shame he felt upon returning to the killing fields. This ugly period in America’s history is something that still weighs heavily on this conscience. There is anger too at being complicit in the atrocities that took place: “I feel betrayed by a nation that so widely shrugs off barbarity, by a military judicial system that treats murderers and common soldiers as one and the same”

The depressing reality is that the experiences so vividly and honestly documented in this book can be applied in countless conflicts before and since.

What is the point of a war, asks O’Brien, “if land is not won and if hearts are at best left indifferent?”

What indeed?