Obviously any two books about war will have elements in common. Still, one might expect, based on what we've often been told about how different Vietnam was from World War II, that the war experiences narrated in these two books, Slaughterhouse-Fiveand The Things they Carried, would be dissimilar. Though...
Obviously any two books about war will have elements in common. Still, one might expect, based on what we've often been told about how different Vietnam was from World War II, that the war experiences narrated in these two books, Slaughterhouse-Five and The Things they Carried, would be dissimilar. Though outwardly this may be true, the experiences of men serving in the military, conveyed in both books, have a remarkable sameness in the impressions they impart to the reader.
Tim O'Brien's book is a series of connected stories and episodes about a platoon serving in Vietnam. Kurt Vonnegut's novel (which, incidentally, was written during the same period, the late 1960's, when O'Brien's book takes place) by contrast has a dream-like fantasy quality, involving time travel and abduction by aliens, though the central event in it takes place in 1945 during World War II. Vonnegut's Billy Pilgrim, a soldier in Europe, is portrayed chiefly as a passive victim, a man through whom we are given access to the horrors of war most people on their own would be unable to conceptualize. Billy is acted upon, rather than being an actor. But the same is true in some way of the men who serve in Vietnam in The Things they Carried. The men in Lt. Cross's platoon understandably have none of the gung-ho enthusiasm we are often told was typical of combatants in earlier wars, the supposedly "good" wars. They fight, and survive or die, but there is an element of just going through the motions about their conduct. Again, this is understandable. But this is actually the case in any war, as earlier writings, not just Slaughterhouse-Five, indicate. As George Orwell wrote, the average soldier on the field has little idea what the war is about or what is the overall purpose of the actions in which he's engaged. The same mindset of the soldier has been conveyed in works as diverse as The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, Born on the Fourth of July, and the two under discussion here.
In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim is present during the firebombing of Dresden. When he and the other prisoners are brought up from the bunker, they see what appears a moonscape—total desolation, and Vonnegut tells us that the assumption was that every person on the surface was dead, that life in Dresden had been exterminated. Yet the event is narrated matter-of-factly, as are the science-fiction elements of the story when the aliens of Tralfamadore make their appearances. It's as if Vonnegut is juxtaposing these unlike things in order to show that war, as humans practice it, is as insane as the idea of being abducted by aliens.
Similarly, the narrative of The Things they Carried is muted and subdued for the most part. When one of Cross's platoon, Ted Lavender is killed, "there was no twitching or flopping. . . . it was like watching a rock fall." The platoon burn a village and move on to the next village. They discard food and supplies, because a chopper will come by and re-supply them from the endless bounty of America. Among the men there is no feeling of surprise, and no pointing of blame, though there is a sense of guilt. When one of the platoon is killed, Cross blames himself. But the men move on, endlessly repeating the same actions.
It would be unnecessary to reiterate the observation that war makes victims of soldiers. What both these books show, despite that fact, is the assertion of will that enables the survival of men under these conditions, and the continuance of a regular kind of life once they've emerged from war. Even Billy Pilgrim, as bizarre as the incidents are to which he is subjected, is a survivor, a man who lives to tell a story, just as O'Brien and his characters do.