A Modern Reaction to the Classic Tim O'Brien Short Story, "The Things They Carried"
Today's post has nothing to do with Finance, but everything to do with making a living in America upon returning home from War. My brother, Shaun Swaleh, is a former Sergeant in the 101st Airborne division of the U.S. Army. He was Honorably Discharged in 2012, and lived with me for the first year upon his return to civilian life.
Shaun now lives with wife and 1-year old son in California, and is going to college thanks to the Post 9/11 GI Bill, for which our family is grateful. He wrote this short story in reaction to the experience of reading Tim O'Brien's story, The Things They Carried, as part of a college course. I thought it was a powerful snapshot that represented some of the smaller, but meaningful, moments a soldier goes through upon assimilating into civilian life. Enjoy!
And Shaun, brother, thank you for sharing. Helluva job.
The Things They Carried Too
There he was, reading what he was told to read. In school now, doing as he was told.
Reading the stories he was told to read.
But this one stood out—in his mind, this one was different. He knew, to everyone else, it was likely just another story, but to him it was a retelling of his own trials. Yes, in a different era—a different war even—but nevertheless a recount of what he had experienced.
He grimaced at the thought of some kid, some damn kid, retelling the story from their ignorant kid point of view, with their ignorant kid outlook. He was older than most in his class. By ten years or so, he was older. To him, that made him wiser, but only because of war.
He often would think, “Did war make him wiser?”
“No” he would think.
“It made him weaker” he would think.
He had feelings now, and feelings made him weak. He got those feelings from War. War made him weak. He reads a story now; a story from his backpack.
The story from his backpack that his teacher makes him read.
When he reads it, those feelings come back. Those feelings War made him feel. When he reads it, he dreads the other kids—the kind in his class—retelling it from their kid point of view. He knows better. He knew what the story meant, the story of The Things They Carried0. He knew what they carried.
How his best soldier Richmond carried the Mark 48, a weapon made for the SEALs, and somehow his platoon had one.
How his worst soldier Croudit, couldn’t even carry himself. Every mission Croudit would put everyone’s life on the line because he couldn’t hump.
He couldn’t hump like Ramirez, not the brightest, but he could hump what no one else could, and with a smile on his face.
Humping was not a word these kids would understand, these kids in his class. Humping was to carry, to pack, to put on your back and to march. To march up a mountain, then back down a mountain, then up a mountain, then back down a mountain. Humping would be a joke to these kids, a word to laugh at, and make a joke about, but to him it wasn’t that.
He had met Winters on a mission. It was a CLP1, some called it a Clip and others called it a CLP. It was on the clip that he met him, Winters. Winters had come out of nowhere it seemed. Honestly, it’s as though he had. Their last JFO2 had just been fired for impersonating an Officer. So Winters, the man he never met, came up to him.
The man, Winters, asked “How far do you suppose they are”?
“Hard to tell” he said, nervous that Winters would think him an idiot for not knowing. “It’s hard to gauge distance with this illume tonight,” he said.
“No kidding,” Winters replied, “I would say maybe 600-700 meters.”
“Yeah, about that” he said.
That night on the clip, he got his first taste of reality. Or was it reality? Not the reality he was used to but the reality he was stepping into. This new reality would give him a distaste for everything else. That would make him… feel, make him weak, that would make him a soldier.
Winters called in the ordinance3; “about 600-700 meters from our position,” Winters radioed.
Winters carried an ASIP, a Vietnam era radio the Army was still using. 26lbs of radio, and everyone, Winters most of all, wondered, “Cell phones that could do as much as computers and the ASIP is the best they can do”.
They? Oh, the big green weenie. The Army and all its wisdom. The “They”.
The They that would haunt them all, well after they left.
If they made it home they thought, “How lucky they would be to have Them haunt them”.
Winters called in the ordinance and he saw everything go white, “white like Tahoe in the winter” he thought.
White as if nothing else, at least for that moment, existed. Funny, he thought, because the purpose of what caused the flash was to eliminate anything that does exist.
“At least for a few dozen meters”, he thought.
In that flash of light, that night, a bond was forged. He knew, although he hadn’t seen his face, he knew he liked Winters. Winters had just killed two men without a shot fired from his rifle, without a knife drawn from his waist.
Winters picked up an antique, a 60 year old radio, and took two lives. Little did he know, Winters was about to pull a double header. Turned out the Taliban on that hilltop, the hilltop about 600-700 meters away, had friends. And when their friends came, Winters called a team of Apaches to escort them, the Taliban’s friends, to meet their 72 virgins. In a rain of Flechettes4; they, the friends of the Taliban, fell, in halves, tumbling down the hilltop. He knew—he speculated anyway—that Winters was a guy not to be trifled with, and although he hadn’t seen his face, he was Winters’ friend.
How could his classmates, or rather, his “peers” he thought, understand a bond like that. These kids, he thought, haven’t seen war. He felt so many things, things that war made him feel, and war he thought, made him weak. How could his “peers” understand?
He carried an MBITR, which in terms most would understand was a walkie-talkie with a long antenna. He carried also an M-67 grenade; in that theater war was fought hilltop to hilltop, or rather mountain to mountain. Grenades were useless. He had seen movies though, and the grenade was useless in that theater, but the grenade made him feel tough. Tough like the movies. He carried also a mortar round for the 605. The 60 was always in his squad.
“The other squads were weak”, he thought.
“That’s why 2nd Squad carries the 60”, he thought.
He carried the 60 sometimes; it was more a burden then one could bear, although no one bearing it would ever admit. He also carried the weight of another in his platoon, although not a member of his platoon.
Winters was the JFO. Winters was not an Infantryman. He was, on paper, responsible for his three guys, but because Winters had no one else, off the books, he was responsible for Winters. Not a heavy burden because Winters was squared away. Winters was always where he needed to be, when he needed to be there.
He remembers this while reading that story. The story the teacher made him read.
The story those kids would not understand. It was a story of The Things They Carried. How could they understand? They, the kids in his class. He was older; he knew that, but not just in years, in experience. Not just from war either. His life had taken him all kinds of places. He was a carpenter; he was a soldier. Hell, after the war, at least after the war for him, he was a TV star.
A TV star. That thought made him laugh. Although other people, the people he told anyway, seemed to care. He didn’t. He knew what a star was. He gazed upon their wonder, in that dreadful country. That country whose mountains were so close to the stars you could almost grab them. That country whose nights were so clear, so untainted by smog, pollution and lights that the stars seemed as though they were unreal; unreal to his eyes—his American eyes.
He remembered the terrain. God that terrain, he thought. God must have had a surplus of mountains, and when God was about to finish creating the world, God stuck all of those mountains in that dreadful country, he thought. Those mountains, he thought, if the Taliban didn’t kill you, those mountains would, he thought. Everything in that dreadful country could kill you, he thought. And anything that survived in that country had to be hard as shit. The enemy, he thought, had to be hard as shit.
He remembered the moon. The moon in that dreadful country was as burdensome to him as the sun.
He remembered as he read that story, the one his teacher made him read.
The moon that, if there were a man on it, you could have talked to him as if he was right next to you. That’s how close the moon was to him in that dreadful county. And how bright it was, he remembered; two up two down6, he remembered. The moon mocked you as if it were the sun. “Try to sleep”, it said, he remembered.
He remembered this, all of this, as he read the story. The story his teacher made him read. The one he knew his peers would not understand.
He read that story, the one the teacher made him read and he reflected.
He carried so much. He carried his rifle; he carried his vest, helmet, 270 rounds of ammo, water for three days, grenade, MBITR, batteries, mortar rounds, rations, and C’White Lie. He carried the weight of his country, the country he loves. He remembered how he loved being there, in that dreadful country. Life or death he thought, so beautifully simply, he thought. He carried those memories, like a movie—so long ago in his mind.
He now carries the memory of his wife saying “I do”, and even more recently, the memory of his child being born, and crying for the first time. Crying like a baby does out of the womb.
But there is something he can’t remember now as he reads this story—the one his teacher made him read, the one he dreads his peers won’t understand, the story that makes him feel.
He can’t remember anything being as heavy, in that dreadful country, as heavy as Winters was, when he carried him onto that plane, wrapped in that flag. The flag his country let him bear.
0-The Things They Carried By Tim O’Brien: A short story about soldiers in Vietnam and what they carried, both literally and figuratively; or rather, physically and emotionally.
1-CLP: Combat Logistics Patrol or Convoy Over-watch.
2-JFO: Joint Fires Observer.
3-Ordinance: Refers to explosives; in this case, 155mm Artillery round.
4-Flechettes: Anti-Personnel Rockets.
5-60mm Mortar Tube.
6- Two Up, Two Down: Two hours asleep, two hours on guard, alternating with another person.
Disclaimer: While aspects of this story are real events, the names have been changed.