If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home

by Tim O’Brien
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Last Updated on November 21, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1252

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...

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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 concurring with Plato that courage means “wise endurance.” To display foolish courage is dangerous, which is why O’Brien comes to admire Captain Johansen, a man whom he initially disliked for the way he lingered over decisions.

As the Alpha Company moves in chapter 13 to Pinkville— the site of the infamous My Lai massacre of March 1968, in which American troops raped and killed more than 500 civilians—the accrued horrors of his situation begin to numb O’Brien’s empathy. Trawling land riddled with mines like “Bouncing Bettys" and “toe-poppers” during the day and spending nights burrowed in foxholes is taking its toll on him. Further, the enemy he chases is a “phantom” whom he sees alive only once in his entire mission. O’Brien observes that he no longer sympathizes with the Vietnamese people, as they’ve become an easy scapegoat on whom he pins the death of his friends.

Scraps of our friends were dropped in plastic body bags. ... The hamlet was leveled, and napalm was used. I heard screams in the burning black rubble. ... But Chip and Tom were on their way to the Graves Registration at Chu Lai, and they were dead, and it was hard to be filled with pity.

Yet O’Brien is never completely at peace with the horrors the Americans themselves wreak. He notes with dismay an incident in which American mortar-men “mistakenly” bomb a small Vietnamese village, injuring thirty-three people and killing thirteen. Most of the dead are children.

Spiritually broken by combat, O’Brien longs every day to be transferred to desk duty away from the field. He finally gets his wish at the end of chapter 19, when he is assigned as a typist to LZ Gator. Though the bureaucratic nature of his work is boring compared to the adrenaline rush of combat, O’Brien notes that it is infinitely preferable to the horrors of the field. Further, the desk staff seem to be involved in a tamer war compared to the fighting troops, receiving R&R breaks in Australia. This gives O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnamese countryside the quality of a hallucination.

In chapter 22, O’Brien meets Major Callicles, the battalion’s executive officer. Callicles is tasked with covering up the My Lai massacre of a year before, which the US Army has so far managed to keep out of the media. But three months into Callicles’s command, My Lai headlines every news outlet from Time to Newsweek. As Callicles arranges doctored investigative tours for reporters to unearth the "truth" about My Lai, he maintains that a warring soldier has the right to assume that every Vietnamese is the Viet Cong or the enemy. O’Brien wryly observes that Callicles, whom some soldiers deem “crazy,” wins a letter of recommendation for his handling of the investigation.

Finally, as O’Brien flies home in chapter 23, he mulls over his war experiences. He concludes that though war does not make a man out of a boy, it does teach him that “manhood” or bravery is nothing to scoff at. He also notes that fear may be paralysis, but it can keep a person alive, just as it has helped O’Brien himself survive. At the end of the day, O’Brien can offer no platitudes on war, only his own testimony. As he writes at the outset of the memoir:

Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories.

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