If I Die in a Combat Zone… (Tim O’Brien, 1975)

Words often fail me. Especially when I’m trying to convey an emotion or experience that took me past the edge of my comfortable, everyday reality: terror, exhilaration, shock, even love. It’s hard to describe some events without sounding either crazy or implausible. There have been times when I’ve been reduced to pleading, “But it’s true —you’ve got to believe me! It really happened!”

Tim O’Brien knows this feeling all too well. Like many men who have experienced the trauma of combat, he has spent his years since Vietnam haunted by memories and nightmares; it has been a natural subject for his writing. The problem with telling a war story is that it’s hard to get people to believe or understand the extremity of it—the reality of the horror and destruction and hurt.

“In many cases,” he writes in his collection of short stories, The Things They Carried, “a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness. In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.” (p. 71)

The difficulties inherent in the telling hasn’t stopped O’Brien from trying. He is best known for two books set in Vietnam during the war. First is his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, which is an intense account that takes us from the time O’Brien received his draft notice at age 22, through basic training, one year as a grunt in Vietnam, and onto the plane where he changed into civilian clothes in the bathroom, ready to go home, a damaged young man.

For the most part, O’Brien’s time in Vietnam was filled with the faceless enemies and terror that he and his fellow soldiers worked hard to keep at bay. Here’s an excerpt from his memoir:

Three silhouettes were tiptoeing out of the hamlet. They were twenty yards away, crouched over, their shoulders hunched forward.
It was the first and only time I would ever see the living enemy, the men intent on killing me. Johansen whispered, “Aim low—when you miss, it’s because you’re shooting over the target.”
We stood straight up, in a row, as if it were a contest.
I confronted the profile of a human being through my sight. It did not occur to me that a man would die when I pulled the trigger of that rifle.
I neither hated the man nor wanted him dead, but I feared him.
Johansen fired. I fired.
The figures disappeared in the flash of my muzzle. Johansen hollered at us to put our M-16s on automatic, and we sent hundreds of bullets out across the paddy. Someone threw a grenade out at them.
With daybreak, Captain Johansen and the artillery lieutenant walked over and found a man with a bullet hole in his head. There were no weapons. The dead man carried a pouch of papers, some rice, tobacco, canned fish, and he wore a blue-green uniform. That, at least, was Johansen’s report. I would not look. I wondered what the other two men, the lucky two, had done after our volley. I wondered if they’d stopped to help the dead man, if they had been angry at his death, or only frightened that they might die. I wondered if the dead man were a relative of the others and, if so, what it must have been to leave him lying in the rice. I hoped the dead man was not named Li.
Later Johansen and the lieutenant talked about the mechanics of the ambush. They agreed it had been perfectly executed. They were mildly upset that with such large and well-defined targets we had not done better than one in three. No matter. The platoons had registered other kills. They were talking these matters over, the officers pleased with their success and the rest of us relieved it was over, when my friend Chip and a squad leader named Tom were blown to pieces as they swept the village with the Third Platoon.
That was Alpha Company’s most successful ambush.
(pp. 97-98)

Every time I read this passage (no matter how many times I read it), I am struck by the fact that this is the only time O’Brien, who was in Vietnam for an entire year, actually saw the enemy and by the fact that this was the best his platoon ever did. It also strikes me that O’Brien conveys all of this with a great sense of disconnectedness. Not that I think he should feel otherwise, because I feel it, too. No one will ever know whose bullet actually killed that man, but somehow that doesn’t bother me. I understand: this is war. It’s kill or be killed. I don’t pause long before turning to the next chapter.

For some reason, O’Brien returned to this same story again in his novel-like collection of short stories, The Things They Carried. The prose in this book is beautiful and arresting; released from the constraints of non-fiction, O’Brien so skillfully juxtaposes the concrete with the ephemeral that even the twenty page-long list of things a soldier had to carry in Vietnam reads like poetry.

The first time I read this book, I didn’t realize it was fiction; I thought it was a second memoir. No wonder: the main character’s name is Tim O’Brien and some of the experiences he writes about are similar to those found in his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone.

The dedication says: “This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company [which was the historical Tim O’Brien’s company], and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa.” Usually an author dedicates a book to real people, so based on precedent, when I encountered the dedicated names as characters within the pages of O’Brien’s book, I assumed they were real people.

The specificity and authority with which O’Brien describes the objects they carry also led me to think this wasn’t fiction. Here’s an example from page five:

What they carried was partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.
As a first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross carried a compass, maps, code books, binoculars, and a .45-caliber pistol that weighted 2.9 pounds fully loaded. He carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men…
As a medic, Rat Kiley carried a canvas satchel filled with morphine and plasma and malaria tablets and surgical tape and comic books and all the things a medic must carry, including M&M’s for especially bad wounds, for a total weight of nearly 20 pounds…
As PFCs or Spec 4s, most of them were common grunts and carried the standard M-16 gas-operated assault rifle. The weapon weighed 7.5 pounds unloaded, 8.2 pounds with its full 20-round magazine. Depending on numerous factors, such as topography and psychology, the riflemen carried anywhere from 12 to 20 magazines, usually in cloth bandoliers, adding on another 8.4 pounds at minimum, 14 pounds at maximum…some carried the M-79 grenade launcher, 5.9 pounds unloaded, a reasonably light weapon except for the ammunition, which was heavy. A single round weighed 10 ounces. The typical load was 25 rounds. But Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried 34 rounds when he was shot and killed outside Than Khe, and he went down under an exceptional burden, more than 20 pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear. He was dead weight.
(pp. 6-7)

Other than the rather philosophical “unweighed fear” that Ted Lavender carried, this reads as an essay, designed to inform. None of these objects are imaginary or concocted by the author, he identifies standard issue weapons down to the last ounce. These are verifiable facts—nothing we would dispute. It’s a very small leap to believe the medic Rat Kiley, who is named in the dedication, was real or that he carried M&Ms to share with wounded soldiers.

An early chapter entitled “Love,” starts this way: “Many years after the war Jimmy Cross came to visit me at my home…and for a full day we drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and talked about everything we had seen and done so long ago, all the things we still carried through our lives…and I decided there was no harm in asking about Martha [whom Jimmy had been in love with]. I’m not sure how I phrased it—just a general question—but Jimmy Cross looked up in surprise. ‘You writer types,’ he said, ‘You’ve got long memories.’” (p.27)

This conversation is very real, made even more believable when the author admits he can’t remember his exact words. This is when we find out that the main character, or narrator, is a writer type, just like his namesake, Tim O’Brien.

A few pages later, we read: “I told him that I’d like to write a story about some of this. Jimmy thought it over and then gave me a little smile. ‘Why not?’ he said…He got into his car and rolled down the window. ‘Make me out to be a good guy, okay? Brave and handsome, all that stuff. Best platoon leader ever.’ He hesitated for a second. ‘And do me a favor. Don’t mention anything about—’ ‘No,’ I said, ‘I won’t.’”

That clinched it. How could I doubt that what I was reading is true? Tim O’Brien the character is a writer and he plans to write about the war. He doesn’t plan to tell everything; he’s going to hold some things back in order to protect the men he served with. An honorable and understandable thing to do, albeit tantalizing because I immediately wanted to know what he was holding back. But wait a minute. Who is O’Brien protecting? Real or fictional characters? And which O’Brien are we talking about? The writer O’Brien or O’Brien the writer?

Just as the real, historical O’Brien intended, we’re in a muddle about what’s true and what’s made up. Remember the earlier excerpt from O’Brien’s memoir where O’Brien and Captain Johansen fired at three enemy silhouettes, killing one? There was no description of the body because O’Brien couldn’t bring himself to look; he only heard someone say there was a bullet hole in the head.

In The Things They Carried, the fictionalized version, there is a chapter entitled, “The Man I Killed.” This time O’Brien looks. In fact, he stares:

His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrows were thin and arched like a woman’s, his nose was undamaged, there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of the skull, his forehead was lightly freckled, his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him. He lay face-up in the center of the trail, a slim, dead, almost dainty young man. He had bony legs, a narrow waist, long shapely fingers. His chest was sunken and poorly muscled—a scholar, maybe. (p. 124)

Notice how closely he’s looking. He didn’t glance once and look away. He’s close enough to see not just the big wounds, but the “slight tear at the lobe of one ear.” Still staring, O’Brien goes on to imagine what this man was like: a mathematician, a reluctant soldier who, like him, hoped the war would just go away. Unnerved by the staring, one of his friends, Kiowa, tries to convince him it was a good kill. There was nothing else you could’ve done, he insists. But O’Brien doesn’t move or respond. Finally, Kiowa intervenes, throwing a poncho over the dead body.

“Hey, you’re looking better,” he said. “No doubt about it. All you needed was time—some mental R&R.”
Then he said, “Man, I’m sorry.”
Then later he said, “Why not talk about it?”
Then he said, “Come on, man, talk.”
He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.
“Talk,” Kiowa said.
(p. 130)

Comparing the two versions of this story, which one did you find more compelling, more horrifying? Which one did you feel in your gut, much as O’Brien must have on that actual day in Vietnam, when he contemplated the fact that his bullet may have ended the life of another human? I have to admit it was the fictional account that took my breath away. When I read the memoir, I took safety in the fact that he didn’t look, and thus spared me from having to look. But apparently that wasn’t good enough for O’Brien because he rewrote the story, fictionalizing it, but claiming responsibility and then scrutinizing what he had done. He feels the guilt and the burden of having killed and he wants his readers to feel it, too.

O’Brien’s books are not easy reads (as you can well imagine)—they are intense, painful, emotionally wrenching, and full of the vulgar language of soldiers under the stress of combat. But for all of that, they are worth reading and discussing. Not simply because we need to know what happened in Vietnam, but because O’Brien is a writer of immense talent who seeks to tell the truth of what it means to be human during times of great loss.


1. What ideals, values, beliefs, and assumptions are found in O’Brien’s books?

2. Does God exist in O’Brien’s world? What is God like?

3. Is there a possibility for redemption? If so, what does that look like?

4. Is his a moral universe? How is right and wrong determined? Are there any heroes or villains?

5. If you read both books, which impacted you more, If I Die in a Combat Zone or The Things They Carried? Does the fact that one is a memoir and one is fiction have anything to do with your reaction to them?

6. Because O’Brien so deliberately plays with the notions of truth, critic Steven Kaplan wrote: “O’Brien liberates himself from the lonesome responsibility of remembering and trying to understand events and creates a community of readers who understand that events have no fixed and final meaning.” Do you agree or disagree with Kaplan’s assessment? What passages in O’Brien’s books support your position? Why do you think O’Brien works so hard to make The Things They Carried seem like a second memoir?


The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (New York: Broadway Books; 1990) 246 pp.

If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home by Tim O’Brien (New York: Broadway Books, 1975) 209 pp.