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

by Tim O’Brien

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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...

(This entire section contains 1287 words.)

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anonymity of the “enemy” helps in dehumanizing the VC. On ambush missions, O’Brien and his company search and burn villages where they suspect VC members are hiding. Such is the paranoia around the VC that the soldiers believe even children could be Viet Cong. Thus, the entire Vietnamese countryside takes on a malignant hue for them, compounding their trauma. Yet, O’Brien also notes the atrocities the American soldiers carry out against VC members—often described derogatorily as “dinks” and “gooks”—as well as Vietnamese civilians.

Drill Sergeant Blyton

Blyton, O’Brien’s training officer at Fort Lewis, often verbally abuses the trainees, calling them names such as “pansies,” “lezzies,” and worse. In his sadism, Blyton represents the dehumanizing nature of the army, acting as “a reflecting pool of inhumanity.”

The Chaplain

Edward, the Fort Lewis chaplain, is a friendly man “designed to soothe trainees.” The chaplain’s pleasant manner belies his hypocrisy. When O’Brien is sent to him for counseling about his conflicted views on the war, the chaplain is unable to clarify his doubts, instead asking O’Brien to have “faith” and soldier on.

The Battalion Commander

The battalion commander is “the big man” at Fort Lewis, to whom O’Brien is sent after he expresses his conflicted feelings about joining the war. Like the chaplain, the commander patronizes O’Brien and trivializes his spiritual quandary.

Captain Johansen

The captain of Alpha Company when O’Brien joins, Johansen is perhaps the only officer the narrator admires. O’Brien often carries the radio for Johansen, which the captain cautions him against, since the radio’s “sticking-out” antenna may invite the attention of the VC. Johansen’s thoughtfulness toward his soldiers elevates him in O’Brien’s eyes. Johansen, who kills a VC by directly charging at him like “Lancelot,” also ponders the abstract notion of bravery. Because of this, O’Brien believes Johansen practices the conscious courage that Plato termed “wise endurance.”

Mad Mark

Mad Mark is the platoon leader of Alpha Company. His “madness” comes not from rage, but from cold violence. A grisly example of this madness is exhibited when Mad Mark severs the ear of a VC corpse and passes it around to the troops, who whoop childishly and cruelly at this “crazy” act.

Captain Smith

Smith becomes the new captain of Alpha Company after Johansen’s mission concludes. A “green officer” who lacks the authority and experience of Johansen, Smith leads the Alpha Company into several bad ambushes. Smith is relieved of his command within a couple of months.

Major Callicles

Callicles is the battalion executive officer at LZ Gator, the base camp where O’Brien is assigned to desk duty after his stint in the field. Callicles is responsible for sanitizing news of the infamous My Lai massacre—in which US troops killed more than 500 Vietnamese civilians—that has recently leaked to the media. He does so by arranging carefully orchestrated tours of Pinkville for the press and senior army officials.


Bates is one of O’Brien’s closest friends in Alpha Company. He exhibits his humane side often, such as when he questions the company’s treatment of three old men at a village in which they find a NVA rifle. The soldiers tie up and gag the old villagers all night to force them to reveal information about the rifle, which Bates finds “appalling.”


Erik, a college-goer whom O’Brien befriends at Fort Lewis, loves talking about “poetry and philosophy and travel.” O’Brien and Erik are similar in their political beliefs and form a “coalition” against the army. Like O’Brien, Erik is conflicted about the rightness of the Vietnam War. At the end of their training period, Erik is sent to transportation school, while O’Brien is assigned to Advance Infantry Training, a sure sign he is going to Vietnam. In Vietnam, Erik’s wise, poetic letters become a source of emotional sustenance for the traumatized O’Brien.