Kiowa's death also evokes the notion that for the U.S. Vietnam was a quagmire; his drowning functions almost emblematically to suggest America's deepening entanglement in Southeast Asia. 'This field,' O'Brien writes, 'had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam'" (Neilson 193).
The entire book is an antiwar message, and it continues in the chapters and memories where O'Brien follows the men home after the war.
The Chapter "Notes" follows Norman Bowker, one of O'Brien's fellow soldiers who felt especially responsible for Kiowa's death. After he returns to the United Sates after he was discharged, he continues to write to O'Brien, telling him of his life back home. It is a life that he feels he no longer fits. O'Brien writes, "I received a long, disjointed letter in which Bowker described the problem of finding a meaningful use for his life after the war" (O'Brien 155). This was a problem with many returning Vietnam veterans, many who still suffer today. Many of these young men could not cope with all they had seen in the jungles and battlefields of Vietnam. Many of them had used drugs, which were plentiful in Southeast Asia, to block out the horrors of the war, and they continued when they returned home. Many could not keep jobs, and ended up homeless and on the streets, where they remain today.
Some, like Norman Bowker, simply could not cope with a normal life after everything that had happened to them in the war. O'Brien continues about Bowker, "He spent his mornings in bed. In the afternoons he played pickup basketball at the Y, and then at night he drove around town in his father's car, mostly alone, or with a six-pack of beer, cruising" (O'Brien 155-156). Bowker found his life meaningless and what he had done in Vietnam equally meaningless. Bowker writes to O'Brien, "That night when Kiowa got wasted, I sort of sank down into the sewage with him... Feels like I'm still in deep *****'" (O'Brien 156). Bowker and thousands like him were indeed in "deep *****." They, like Bowker in the novel, end up committing suicide. Others end up in mental institutions, victims of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome and other diseases and mental problems that did not have names until after the Vietnam War. War is hell, and O'Brien shows that the hell continues long after the fighting is over.
After Vietnam, an entire generation of American young people did not have to worry about fighting in a war. They did not understand war, and they did not experience war. O'Brien's book also introduces this generation to war, and instructs them in what to look for and what to think about. He writes, "A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done" (O'Brien 68). Therefore, this book of his is not a "true" war story, because it does have a moral, and that is clearly why he wrote it. He wrote it so people who never experienced war might understand it, and he wrote it to show that he believes war is morally wrong. His point is that a "true" war story somehow glorifies war, but really, war should not be glorified, even for the victors, it should be understood and stopped.
There is another important antiwar message in this book that O'Brien saves until the last Chapter "The Lives of the Dead." He shows that the lives of those lost during the war are kept alive by stories just like the stories he wrote in this book - even people he did not know, such as the young Vietnamese boy he blew up with a grenade, or the old man killed in a deserted village. O'Brien makes up stories about the lives of these people to keep them real, just as he writes the stories of the people who died to perpetuate them and their lives. He writes late in the book, "By slighting death, by acting, we pretended it was not the terrible thing it was" (O'Brien 238). But it was terrible, and that is the ultimate message of this book. Death is final, and many of these deaths in Vietnam seemed like a needless waste. War is hell, and war is what changes men forever. Some of them never come home, and that is the ultimate hell.
When the character O'Brien returns to Vietnam with his daughter, he remembers, "I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I'm left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief" (O'Brien 180). That is another poignant reference to O'Brien's strong antiwar commitment. He shows how even twenty, thirty, and forty years later the war has an affect on the people who fought it. Those who fought the war and survived paid a terrible price. They have to live with their memories every day, and most of those memories are horrible. They also have to lie about what they did in the war, as O'Brien does when his daughter asks if he killed anyone. He can lie and say "no," or he can say "yes." He keeps his past private because it is painful, and it would be even more painful for his daughter to know the truth.
While the book shows many of the horrible parts of war and actions of soldiers, it also clearly shows that the men who fight together forge a deep bond that is difficult to break. They care about each other, and this is one of the more positive aspects of the experience. O'Brien writes, "War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead" (O'Brien 86-87). This is one of the more interesting aspects of the book and its' antiwar message. Even in the worst times, there are good times, and O'Brien shows this by how the men work together as a unit, how they try to take care of each other, and feel guilty when they do not. (Just as Bowker felt guilty when he did not save Kiowa.) War is hell, but even in hell, the strongest men are able to find some good things to hold on to. O'Brien says the experiences he had in the war really turned him into a writer. Norman Bowker and Henry Dobbins played checkers each night after dinner. Other soldiers never lose touch with the men they fought with and the families of the soldiers who never came home.
Peppered throughout this story are memories that make the experience more real for the reader, so they understand just what these men went through. It seems as if it would be difficult to read this book and not understand the antiwar message it contains. The book is more than an antiwar message about Vietnam and the Vietnam War. It is really a message about all wars and how bad wars can be. Reading this book puts war into a more realistic perspective, and it is not pretty. General George Patton once said "war is hell," and this book shows why.
In conclusion, the antiwar theme is strong in this book, and after reading it, it is easy to see why. War is indeed hell, and it is a terrible price for young and old to pay. The Vietnam War seemed like a needless war that did not accomplish anything. In the end, South Vietnam fell to the Communists, millions of people were killed, both soldier and civilian on both sides, and for what? O'Brien asks that question in the book when he writes, "You smile and think, Christ, what's the point?" (O'Brien 82). If there is any point to the war and to this book, it is to show the very pointlessness of war. It ruins lives, families, and entire countries, and those who it touched never really truly forget. Throughout the book, the men carry things with them, from canteens, to grenades, to letters from home. Ultimately, the real thing they carry is the memory of the Vietnam War. It will be with them forever, and it will always show the real pointlessness of war and fighting.
Adams, Leslie Kennedy. "5 Fragmentation in American and Vietnamese War Fiction." America's Wars in Asia: A Cultural Approach to History and Memory. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1997. 84-96.
Calloway, Catherine. "How to Tell a True War Story: Metafiction in the Things They Carried." Critique 36.4 (1995): 249-257.
Neilson, Jim. Warring Fictions: American Literary Culture…