Review: If I Die in a Combat Zone

Note: As we come up on the 50th Anniversary of the Pentagon Papers, and with the recent release of the Afghanistan Papers, we felt it was timely to look back at the conflict in Vietnam. Over the next few months, I am doing an examination of several Vietnam-era historical works that examine both sides of the conflict. Part I was the biography Ho by David Halberstam, a deep-dive into understanding the nationalist movement of Vietnam. Part II will be If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien, one of the seminal works of the American combat experience in the war. Part III will be They March Into Sunlight by David Maraniss, a look at the domestic turmoil the war on the ground caused at The University of Wisconsin-Madison in October 1967. Part IV will be Patriots by Christian Appy, a reflection of the war by those who fought on both sides. You can buy this book here.

Throughout his book If I Die in a Combat Zone, Tim O’Brien seeks to convey to his readers not only the hardships of combat common among soldiers in Vietnam but also to demonstrate the moral ambiguity that many men faced as they went to Southeast Asia. Written on the heels of the end of the conflict in 1975, O’Brien uses Socrates consistently throughout his work to highlight some moral arguments he frequently had with himself throughout his long nights in Vietnam. The author tells us that Socrates fought for Athens but also questioned war in of itself and the idea of fighting as a brave soldier in an immoral war are central themes that O’Brien sought to answer while he was deployed. By investigating O’Brien’s experience and conversations with the Greek philosopher, we see the conundrum and inner conflict he felt on the battlefield as he fought in Vietnam.

Socrates had fought for Athens: It could not have been a perfectly just war, but Socrates, it has been told, was a brave soldier. You wonder if he had been a reluctant hero? Had he been brave out of the spirit of righteousness? You wonder how he felt as a soldier on a night like this one, with the rain falling, with just the temperature and sound. Then you think of him as an old man, you remember his fate, you think of him peering through the iron bars as his ship sailed in…his country, for which he had been a hero, ending the most certain of good lives…certainly he must have missed something. 1Tim O’Brien, If I Die in a Combat Zone (New York: Broadway Books, 1975), 47.

Behind bars facing execution by his own city-state, Aristotle had the chance to flee, but argues that his community had served him fairly for over seventy years. O’Brien faces the same questions of balancing community and country versus what he thought was morally right on every step of his war journey, from the draft, to basic training, throughout his near-AWOL excursion, on the battlefield, and, finally, when he returned home.

            O’Brien was a product of the Midwest and certainly felt the same pressures of community that Aristotle alluded to. He “grew out of one war and into another” into a “nation giving bridle to its own good fortune and success.”2O’Brien, 11. Hubris, to cite another central Greek theme, was central to the military attitude in America at the time, and the small town Americana into which O’Brien was born into felt “the war was right…and it had to be fought.”3O’Brien, 11-13. Similar to a lot of the draftees that O’Brien encountered, he felt an obligation to his family to avoid backing out from the war, saying “I come from a small town, my parents know everyone, and I couldn’t hurt or embarrass them” because of a “fear from society’s censure.”4O’Brien, 38. Despite the fear of society’s displeasure, he couldn’t help but harbor his own feelings:

I was persuaded then, and I remain persuaded now, that the war was wrong. And since it was wrong and since people were dying as a result of it, it was evil. Doubts, of course, hedged all of this: I had neither the expertise nor the wisdom to synthesize answers; the facts were clouded; there was no certainty as to the kind of government that would follow a North Vietnamese victory or, for that matter, an American victory…but perhaps I was mistaken, and who really knew, anyway?5O’Brien, 18.

Even as he was about to go to basic training, he made signs protesting the war before eventually tearing them apart and going to the military facility; he “did not want to upset a peculiar balance between the order I knew, the people I knew, and my own private world.”6O’Brien, 20.

O’Brien was drawn to politics and spent the summer of 1967 in Prague, Czechoslovakia. There he met a North Vietnamese scholar who argued that the war was one of American aggression, that government in Hanoi was trying to stabilize things, and that the idea of a divided Vietnam was historically and politically incorrect. O’Brien’s largest complaint seems to be that he saw no difference in the regimes, north and south. He cannot justify the war by placing faith in one administration or the other. Who is he to say which ideology or political regime is correct? Should he blindly follow the will of his country despite his own internal conflicts?

            As he went into basic training and subsequently advanced infantry training, O’Brien tried to voice these concerns to his battalion commander and his chaplain at the base. Both of the commanders tried to reinvigorate his faith in his country, telling him that if he believed America is great, “then you follow what she tells you.”7O’Brien, 59. The battalion commander even goes so far as dismissing his concerns as an attempt to substitute morality for fear of deployment. O’Brien took considerable time researching countries where he could desert to, even getting his funding and passports ready to go AWOL. In the end, he circles back to his community arguing that “I simply could not bring myself to flee…family, the hometown, friends, history, traditions, fear, confusion, exile: I could not run.”8O’Brien, 68.

            O’Brien arrived in Vietnam in January, 1969. Perhaps the crowning achievement of O’Brien’s work is the breathtaking manner in which he describes the common actions of a soldier in Vietnam. On marches, for example, O’Brien would recall how a soldier had to walk in order to avoid mines and booby traps. Simultaneously, the soldier would also have to hope that he did not get lost by losing the man in front of him. However, the most intense words were not the physical component of the march but the psychology of the soldiers. The “moment-by-moment, step-by-step decision making prays on your mind…the effect is sometimes paralyzing.”9O’Brien, 124. While O’Brien had his head down concentrating on the man in front of him to avoid getting lost, his mind would wonder: What if the guy I am following is lost? Where did the soldier step? No booby trap there. I want to step there…and there…not there…yes, there. The mental fatigue was exhausting. Monotony and war seem to be contradictions, but to the soldiers in O’Brien’s unit they were synonymous. O’Brien related it to “waking up in a cancer ward, no one ambitious to get on with the day, no one with obligations, no plans, nothing to hope for, no dreams for the daylight.” Daylight meant the sun, which was their worst enemy as “the days were always hot, even the cool days.”10O’Brien, 3, 9.

O’Brien’s troop tried to ignore the enemy they were supposed to be looking for to the best of their ability. “Charlie finds us” was a common line of thinking in his battalion. Instead of seeking engagements, they would go from town to town to “cordon, wait, sweep, search…the mechanics were simple and sterile.” Even when they did meet resistance, O’Brien conveys a tone of formality:

On the perimeter of the village, the company began returning fire, blindly, spraying the hedges with M-16 and M-70 and M-60 fire. No targets, nothing to aim at and kill. Aimlessly, just shooting to shoot. It had been going like this for weeks-snipers, quick little attacks, blind counter-fire. Days, days. Those were the days.”11O’brien, 7.

On days there was no action, the soldiers in O’Brien’s unit would stage a battle or call in fake missions in order to liven up their own inactivity.

            O’Brien also went into great detail on the type of mines and weaponry the Vietcong used to slow American advances, damage American morale, and psychologically bewilder American soldiers. There was the Bouncing Betty, a three-pronged explosive device that flies a yard up into the air before detonation. There would be booby-trapped mortar and artillery rounds placed in trees and shrubbery. The M-14 antipersonnel mine, called the toe-popper, would be buried underground and take out soldiers’ feet. Booby-trapped grenades were everywhere, even in cars where the clip would be replaced with a rubber band and placed in gas tanks until the corrosive elements of gasoline eroded the rubber a week or so later, detonating the device. Mine-detectors were constantly misreading information or picking up fragments of war that had been strewn throughout the countryside throughout decades of previous warfare.

            During their raids on camps, O’Brien and his unit frequently ran into clashes with Vietnamese civilians. As O’Brien points out, “Charlie…is hidden among the mass of civilians, or in tunnels, or in jungles”, making it nearly impossible to differentiate between the two. Unfortunately, some soldiers were more ruthless to women and children and unaffiliated men as the war wore on and the casualties grew. As the author notes, moral righteousness was omitted in dealing with many of the civilians of the My Lai area as “it is not a war fought to win the hearts of the Vietnamese nationals, not in the wake of contempt drawn on our faces and on theirs, not in the wake of burning a village, a trampled rice paddy, a battered detainee.”12O’Brien, 127. War had changed the character of many of the combatants and in many American soldiers’ minds, such atrocities were unavoidable albeit not necessarily morally defensible. For instance, after an assault on troops in a village called Tri Binh 4, a platoon leader cut off the ear of one of the enemy combatants. Beating old men to get them to talk about Vietcong activity in the area was a common occurrence. Many men seemed ambiguous to the deaths of women and children. This fence-straddling extended up the chain of command to the government, who would issue sums of under thirty-five dollars for civilians killed in a misfire on a Vietnamese village. There were even incidents that could not be attributed to warfare or accidental misfire, such as when the soldiers with O’Brien threw a milk carton at an old man aiding them, striking him in the face and causing a gash. Despite these incidents O’Brien notes that “acting wisely when fear would have a man act otherwise” was still a common practice for many of the more restrained American soldiers in Vietnam.

           Perhaps no other variable affected the conduct of American soldiers than whom their officers were. As O’Brien notes in his writing, effective American officers were sorely lacking in Vietnam. The rush to promote officers caused many in the army to label people who had not earned their stripes as “Instant NCO’s”, giving them names such as Ready Whip, Nestlé’s Quick, and Shake and Bake. These ineffective leaders were prevalent throughout the entirety of O’Brien’s army life, from basic training to field combat. In basic training his squad leaders had been in the army for only two weeks. At advanced infantry training, the chaplain he sought assistance from complained that “there really aren’t enough chaplains to go around anymore…there’s so damn many kids who want help, I get tired.” Soon after O’Brien’s arrival in Vietnam, there was a fire outside the barracks. Commanding officers had difficulty even getting the unit to follow orders or to take the threat seriously as the soldier’s response was to stand in their underwear and watch.13O’Brien, 61, 74-76.

            O’Brien does paint a flattering portrait of his first commanding officer in Vietnam, Captain Johansen, calling him “the best man around” and “meticulously fair.” He goes on, saying “I could not match my captain…human beings sometimes embody valor…He helped to mitigate and melt the silliness, showing the grace and poise a man can have under the worst of circumstances, a wrong war. We clung to him.” However, after Johansen left in June, 1969, there was a void in leadership. The man who replaced him, Captain Smith, was “a short, fat ROTC officer” who was as inexperienced in the field. He would be late for assignments, never certain where he was nor certain where he needed to go next. When his troops died in a mine explosion, Smith had this to say, according to O’Brien:

Got me a little scratch from that mine. Here, take a look. Got myself a Purple Heart. My first big operation, and I get a Purple Heart. Gonna be a long year, Timmy. But wow, I’ve lost a lot of men today. Damn it, I’m going to suffer for this. What’s my commander to think? He is gonna see a damn casualty list a mile long, and it’s only my first operation. My career is in real jeopardy now.14O’Brien, 156.

More than the field duty shortcomings, Smith’s command was perhaps best indicative of the poor morale that began to plague the American troops in the late 1960’s.

Under Johansen, the troops felt safe and secure while under Smith they feel expendable and parts of a process. When things went wrong, they frequently blamed the green officer who did not appear to have their best interests in his heart. Furthermore, there was increasing distrust of the men above their field commanders. Colonel Daud, a direct superior of both Johansen and Smith, met the men when they first arrived in Vietnam by saying “you are stronger than the dink…bigger…faster. You’re better educated…supplied…trained…supported. All you need is brains.”15O’Brien, 107. Daud would frequently order dangerous Helicopter combat assaults which drove the men crazy. O’Brien notes that the troops “learned to hate Colonel Daud and his force of helicopters…when he was killed by sappers in a midnight raid…we sang in good harmony.”16O’Brien, 111. O’Brien conveys a sense of everyman for himself, a goal to achieve fulfillment of his DEROS by every soldier and to get the hell out of Vietnam. The war became less about ideals and objectives and more about simple survival. Men would often attempt to get rear-duty by injuring themselves or, in the words of O’Brien, by burrowing your “nose gently up an officer’s ass.” The rear-duty assignments were often discriminatory based on race, highlighting issues that would plague the rest of the war effort.” Near the end of August, O’Brien receives and takes a rear-duty job as a typist.

The title If I Die in a Combat Zone came from a common song recited at basic training. It seems, right from O’Brien’s first foray into army life, he is besieged by a pessimism that further entrenched his hostile morality to the war. While in Vietnam, these hardened views convinced him to “expose the carelessness which people…played with my life.” He did so, but still seems confused to what it all means, whether his role was exemplary and brave despite its lack of complete moral justification, saying:

Now, war ended, I am left with simple, unprofound scraps of truth. Men die. Fear hurts and humiliates. It is hard to be brave. It is hard to know what bravery is. Dead human beings are heavy and awkward to carry, things smell different in Vietnam, soldiers are dreamers, drill sergeants are boors, some men thought the war was proper and others didn’t and most didn’t care.17O’Brien, 23.

In the end, O’Brien utilization of Socrates is symbolic, as it took the Greek philosopher’s succeeding generation, that of Plato, to put action to thought when it came to the question of morality: that it is not only the wisdom to do what is right but the power to bring yourself to do it that defines virtuous men and women.