Many years ago, for reasons that are unclear to me, I bought a book called In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien which I thought was great (I must have been a teenager at the time) but I don’t think I really understood the backdrop to the novel which was the author’s experiences in Vietnam. Being on holiday in Vietnam, and having just visited the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, I sat down to read his first book, If I Die In A Combat Zone, which is a memoir of his experience of being drafted to serve in Vietnam and his experiences as an infantry soldier in the country. When you realise that the ending of the sentence of the title is If I Die In A Combat Zone….box me up and send me home, then you know this isn’t going to be a laugh a minute.
What I found most interesting was the fact that O’Brien disagreed with the war from the start, going as far as to challenge his seniors and to develop a fairly detailed escape plan (via Sweden), but that some sense of obligation, of following the norm and of what was right and wrong prevented him from pursuing them and trying to get out of the war altogether. He finds a like-minded soul during training (who also likes books, poetry, reading and has a broadly ‘liberal’ sensibility) and they keep each other sane during the nonsensical testosterone of the Fort where they learn how to bayonet and fire guns and polish their shoes.
It is the war scenes which linger, of course. The sheer futility of the exercises and the complete randomness of who gets killed or injured (and how it happens): there is nothing to suggest that being smarter, stronger, more aware or a ‘better’ soldier in any way helps. There is evidence of courage (something O’Brien goes into as a concept in some depth) but as much evidence of cowardice; there are examples of bravery and also thoughtless stupidity. What underpins it all is the constant relentless stomach-churning fear of not knowing if your next step in the mud, in the rice paddy, will be your last – O’Brien categorises all the different types of booby trap and mine here, which felt all too real as I’d just seen them all in the museum. Absolutely terrifying to think that you walk miles towards a target that might not be there, for a goal that is unclear, led by people with no real idea, and might tread on one of these at any moment. People die – good people, bad people, stupid people, smart people, but mostly people in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I’ve watched quite a few Vietnam films (Full Metal Jacket, Born on the Fourth of July, Good Morning Vietnam etc) but this book has an immediacy and a power to it that few of them can truly capture. Futility becomes normality, and death and injury become such a part of life as to be treated like walking out to buy the paper. Such are the things that war do to men, I suppose. What is extraordinary is that O’Brien experiences all this while absolutely disagreeing with the nature of the war and completely understanding both the horror and the pointlessness of it (he arrives in a similar area about a year and a half after the My Lai massacre); this adds an extra layer of poignancy and despair to the different experiences and examples he documents.
It’s the best book on war I’ve read since, I guess, Dispatches by Michael Herr back at university, or the peerless Catch-22. Reading it makes me want to revisit not only these, but also In the Lake of the Woods, which I would now read afresh with a greater level of understanding and, I hope, a little more insight.