Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973) begins in media res, boots-deep in muddy action around the Batangan Peninsula, before switching to the events leading to the narrator's conscription in the war. Thus, O’Brien’s narrative follows a syncopated rhythm, flitting through time, with short chapters punctuating longer sections. In this, O’Brien mimics how war veterans experience and recall the trauma of combat. Recollection is not linear, and time often has a sped-up or slowed-down quality.
Before his conscription, O’Brien is an intellectual who opposes the Vietnam War. Yet, when drafted in the army while on summer break from college in 1968, he does not resist. His youth and his fear of paying the price for committing civil disobedience ensure O’Brien goes to war, social pressure pulling at him like “magnets” or “gravity.”
In chapters 2 to 6, O’Brien’s perspective alternates between the field in Vietnam and infantry training at Fort Lewis in Washington. College-educated O’Brien finds himself at odds with the army’s brutal training officers and rote drills. He also recoils from the derogatory way the soldiers talk about women. The title of the memoir itself is taken from an expletive-laden song to which cadets march:
If I die in a combat zone
Box me up and ship me home
An’ if I die on the Russian front
Bury me with a Russian c***
However, at Fort Lewis he also finds solace in his friendship with poetry-quoting Erik, with whom he stays in touch through letters over the course of the memoir.
Though O’Brien has been planning to desert the army and escape to Sweden via Canada, he cannot summon the “courage” to do so when given the chance . His use of the words “courage” and “cowardice” in this context is striking. Usually, abandoning the war front is the act of cowardice, but O’Brien challenges this trope. Raising important questions about the nature of bravery, he posits that perhaps being true to one’s own beliefs is real courage.
In chapter 7, O’Brien arrives at LZ Gator in Vietnam, the base camp for his battalion, where he is assigned to the Alpha Company. In his first week there, the camp is attacked by the Viet Cong, leaving eight VC members and two GIs dead. A young soldier downplays the GI deaths, saying those killed were “stupid dinks” who should have known better. This is O’Brien’s first brush with the soldiers’ tactic of degrading death in order to distance themselves from its constant presence.
Chapters 8–12 take O’Brien deep into ambushes in the mine-riddled countryside. He meets Mad Mark, their platoon leader, whose “madness” is revealed by his cold and precise manner, and Captain Johansen. O’Brien also becomes friends with two soldiers: Chip and Bates. As they walk through the paddy fields, the fear of being separated from the company begins to haunt each soldier. One particular incident leaves O’Brien shaken—ironically, the Alpha Company’s “most successful” ambush so far. O’Brien notes that even while the soldiers and officers are expressing relief that the ambush is over,
My friend Chip and a Squad leader named Tom were blown to pieces as they swept the village with the Third Platoon.
In two other dehumanizing incidents, a blond GI smashes a milk carton in the face of a blind, seventy-year-old Vietnamese farmer, and the Alpha Company arrive where a young Vietnamese woman lies dying, having been shot through the groin. The pointless cruelty of these events shows the daily humiliation the local populace face at the hand of the American forces.
Drawn further into the morass of battle, O’Brien meditates upon the nature of “courage.” He observes that while authors such as Hemingway vividly portray combat, they rarely question war’s rightness. O’Brien finds it difficult to make such an unquestioning record. Further, he considers Plato’s philosophy on the definition of courage, ultimately...
(The entire section is 1,252 words.)