Sunday, May 29, 2011

Soldiers and Civilians

Tim O'Brien - UT  Ransom Center Archive
War is a necessary evil, despite what Edwin Starr’s lyrics to “War” might contend. Men and women have been waging war against each other since the beginning of time. In the 1960’s and 70’s Vietnam was the war predominantly occupying the hearts and minds of most Americans. The soldiers returning from Vietnam were treated very poorly. They were labeled “baby killers” and were spat upon when they walked the streets. They were protested against; marchers and angry mobs wanting to do them harm. They were driven from their homes and the towns they grew up in. They were denied benefits from the very country they swore to protect, which they clearly earned. Tim O’Brien’s short story “The Things They Carried” is a snap shot in time of what many of these soldiers had to endure during their commitment and sacrifice to defending our country; our rights, our freedom. Ironically enough, the soldiers in “The Things They Carried,” are in many ways not unlike the civilians who condemned them, even far removed from the bleakness of war.

Soldiers carry items that they deem necessary for everyday survival in the heart of the Vietcong jungles, like “chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, [and] lighters.” In the sprawls of American society civilians carry lipstick, cell phones, shopping lists, loose change, and condoms.” These things, these tangible items, are necessary survival tools for the urban jungle, so it seems. Humans carry many things that seem necessary, but really are not. Food, water, and shelter are really all one needs to survive, but civilians and soldiers alike, burden themselves to carry these other items because they seem essential to them.

Soldiers carry items according to their “rank, partly of field specialty,” like “a compass, maps, code books, binoculars.” Civilians carry items associated with their social rank and area of expertise too, like platinum cards, work badges, food stamps, Rolex watches, PDA’s, clipboards, whistles and unemployment checks. Like “field specialty” items to soldiers, what civilians carry can often signify what social class and rank they belong to, or at least labeled as such.

Soldiers carry things according to their mission, “mosquito netting, matches, canvas tarps, and extra bug juice.” Civilians carry stethoscopes, work gloves, gavels, pitchforks, jackhammers, book bags, and lottery tickets. These items identify civilians according to their mission, their purpose in life, not unlike the soldiers thousands of miles away in the heat of battle.

Soldiers carry items that are superstitious to them, like, “[a] good luck pebble,” or, “a rabbit’s foot,” or, “a thumb,” from a corpse of Vietcong boy. These items of seemingly insignificant weight sooth their minds, and souls, and add a psychological barrier to protect them against the elements of war. Civilians carry things like, crucifixes, lucky pennies, and lockets with their loved ones pictures in them. They carry their great, great grandmother’s wedding ring, something blue and something new, and good luck eyes to ward them against evil. They carry ashes of lost loved ones around their neck. Like soldiers, these items bring them peace of mind.

Soldiers carry themselves with “poise, [and] a kind of dignity.” Civilians carry themselves with pride when they show pictures of their children to unsuspecting strangers. They carry optimism when they take on a new challenge, accept a new job, loose five pounds, or swear in a new president. They carry affection and passion for a new love, for their husbands and wives, their children and grandchildren, and for their favorite football team. These are emotions; soldiers have them too.

Soldiers carry emotional baggage “of men who might die,” and “[g]rief, terror, love, [and] longing.” Civilians carry wrath when someone cuts them off the road, or a pesky neighbor plays their radio too loud, or when an inconsiderate patron has too many items in the express lane. They carry guilt when they are home, warm and safe in their beds, with a full belly, and with the confidence that they will rise in the morning with the promise of a new day, while their friends and family and fellow compatriots are off to war, not knowing whether they will live one moment to the next. These are pains of the heart that all men and women experience.

What O’Brien is craftily saying is that soldiers are not just machines designed to hump up “hills and through the swamps,” carrying all manner of implements of war that “[seem] appropriate as a means of killing or staying alive,” to fulfill missions and rage war. These soldiers, these men, are like civilians; they are human too.

Michael A. Walker
Defying Procrastination 

Know anyone who served in the Vietnam War? What about other wars?

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