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: 1276

Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien, the author and narrator of If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, is twenty-two when he is drafted into the army to fight in the Vietnam War in 1968. Although anti-war on principle, O’Brien does not resist his conscription. His willingness to submit to social mores is characteristic of his youth and naive notions of honor. Both of O’Brien’s parents are army veterans as well, which compounds the inevitability of his going to Vietnam. However, O’Brien also knows the Vietnam War is far more ethically dubious than any of America’s previous forays into battle, which is why he fantasizes about desertion even during infantry training. O’Brien’s sojourn in the army takes him on two important journeys: one in which he inevitably loses empathy, and another in which he develops a more nuanced understanding of courage.

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O’Brien notes that the systematic degradation of a soldier’s empathy begins even before combat. At training camp Fort Lewis, O’Brien comes across sadistic officers who dehumanize the trainees through brutish behavior. In Vietnam, O’Brien notes how soldiers use euphemisms such as “wasting” for dying to distance themselves from the close reality of death, and address each other only by generic nicknames such as “Buddy” and “The Kid.” With danger waiting to spring up at each booby-trapped step, O’Brien enters a state of dissociation typical of trauma. Further, exhaustion and the death of his fellow soldiers make O’Brien begin to detest the “enemy.” The hatred which was previously reserved for sadistic officers now begins to extend to the Vietnamese people. As “scraps” of O’Brien’s friends go home in plastic bags, burning down Vietnamese villages starts to feel like a ritual of purification to him. Yet, O’Brien is also aware that his fading pity for the Vietnamese is unfair, and he never loses sight of the culpability of the US forces.

Strikingly, the loss of pity occurs in tandem with a deeper understanding of his fellow soldiers. O’Brien begins to understand that, like him, the other GIs are boys who have joined the war out of a sense of inertia or a misguided concept of duty. Moreover, O’Brien’s elitist notions about all soldiers being brutish automatons are challenged by his real-life friendships. Although he will never subscribe to the view that the Vietnam War was necessary, he does respect those who fought in the war. O’Brien is categorical that it is the politicians and generals who are to blame for the war, not the “foot soldier.” Although O’Brien wishes his memoir could take the form of a “plea for everlasting peace,” the best overture he can make toward that plea is an honest record of war.

The Viet Cong

The Viet Cong (VC) were rebel forces that fought alongside the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) against South Vietnam and the United States. American soldiers often referred to them as "Victor-Charlie" or simply "Charlie." Fighting for the communist National Liberation Front, whose aims were to overthrow the government of South Vietnam and the unification of Vietnam, the VC were known for their guerrilla style of warfare. O’Brien’s memoir effectively captures the elusive danger the VC represented for most US soldiers. As O’Brien notes early in the narrative, he only sees the living enemy once in his entire mission, as “three silhouettes . . . tiptoeing out of the hamlet.”

However, even though the VC stay out of sight, their effectiveness is plain. Familiar with the Vietnamese countryside and jungles, the VC have overlaid the land with mines like “Bouncing Bettys,” which routinely destroy lives and limbs. For O’Brien, the anonymity of the “enemy” helps in dehumanizing the VC. On ambush...

(The entire section contains 1276 words.)

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