“If I Die in a Combat Zone”: a personal account of the Vietnam War

“If I Die in a Combat Zone”: a personal account of the Vietnam War

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

        2018 is a year charged with political symbolism. It marks not only the 50th anniversary of May 1968 in France, but also one of the major events of the Vietnam War: the Tet Offensive, a series of North Vietnamese surprise attacks against South Vietnamese and U.S troops. The offensive is identified as the moment that turned U.S public opinion against the war effort, even though the conflict only officially ended in 1975.

It was in this context that American novelist Tim O’Brien was drafted to serve his country in the summer of 1968. His experience as a foot soldier in Vietnam served as a leitmotiv for most of his works, such as “If I Die in a Combat Zone”, first published in 1973. Through the 23 chapters of the book, we take on the author’s journey from a small town in Minnesota until his final days of military service in the Vietnam War.

Pro patria: to fight or not to fight?

Born in 1946 in Austin, Minnesota, as William Timothy O’Brien, the author is part of the baby boom generation, term used to identify those born during the post-war period from 1946 to 1964. As such, tales of bravery of Second World War veterans and army games were part of O’Brien’s early years. In his own words, I was fed by the spoils of 1945 victory”.

Contrary to what one might think, however, O’Brien was not exactly an athletic, outgoing, bold young man. Disappointed at his own performance at sports, he spent most of his time at the town’s library, taking an interest in Philosophy and Politics. Even if he did not label himself as a pacifist, he was convinced that Vietnam War was “wrongly conceived and poorly justified”.

Still, when O’Brien’s draft notice came, he did not find an immediate excuse not to go to war, as he says most of his college friends had done. He faced the draft as a real problem [1], a choice to be made between his own convictions and the sense of duty towards his family and community. In the end, the latter prevailed, and in August 1968, Tim O’Brien started basic training in Fort Lewis.

Becoming a foot soldier in the ‘Nam’

        Basic training was the first step before a draftee was eventually sent to Vietnam. As a new soldier, the author had to adapt to the reality of army life, which included a demanding physical training and the harsh treatment imposed by drill sergeants. To resist the brutality of Fort Lewis -which he describes as the apotheosis of all nightmares about army life-, O’Brien finds an ally in Erik, an intellectual-turned-soldier who despised war as much as he did.

The two friends take different paths though: Erik is assigned to a transportation school, whereas O’Brien is to follow advanced infantry training (AIT). The end of basic training did not mean direct involvement in the battlefield for all soldiers. For those who completed AIT, however, facing real war was almost a certainty. Moved by fear and doubts, O’Brien makes up a plan to desert the army and avoid combat, but to no avail.

        With the author’s arrival in Vietnam (referred to by soldiers as the ‘Nam’) the reader is introduced to a whole range of terms related to that war. Foxholes and paddies were part of the foot soldier’s daily life. VC, Charlie and Charles were abbreviations to identify the enemy, the Viet Cong [2]. AWOL stood for “absent without official leave”, Poppa-san[3] was pidgin for old Vietnamese men and platoons were military units composed by a small group of soldiers.

In addition to the vocabulary of the war, O’Brien tries to reproduce songs and dialogues in their original structure, using informal language. The title of the book, for instance, was taken from the homonymous song listened to while in basic training[4]. His fidelity to colloquial language makes his account of the war even more real to the reader.

Courage, fear and death

        Life as a foot soldier in Vietnam was not always about action. There were long periods of monotony where men simply waited for something to happen. As O’Brien narrates, his first month in Alpha Company, the unit he was assigned to, seemed more like a vacation than a war.

Nevertheless, the idea of death was never far away, if not through direct combat with the Viet Cong, then by the explosion of a mine. In Chapter 14, Step Lightly, the author provides a detailed description of the most common mines used by the enemy and the paralyzing fear of soldiers of finding them. It was literally impossible to predict whether a simple step would result in certain death, however careful a man could be.  

        When facing those circumstances, what makes a man brave? This is one of the main questions raised by the book. Most men in Alpha Company never asked themselves about courage. They just denied the existence of fear and death, or mistook brutality for bravery. Captain Johansen was different. Leader of Alpha Company, Johansen is described as a man of principles, one of the few who actually thought about his own actions. He soon becomes O’Brien’s role model of bravery.

In one of the most powerful excerpts of the narrative, O’Brien draws a comparison between Vietnam and the Trojan War, as well as between Johansen and Prince Hector: “The war, as Hector’s own war, was silly and stupid. Troy was besieged for the sake of a pretty woman. […] Vietnam was under siege in pursuit of a pretty, tantalizing, promiscuous, particularly American brand of government. […]. So Captain Johansen helped to mitigate and melt the silliness, showing the grace and poise a man can have under the worst of circumstances, a wrong war”. When Johansen leaves the command of Alpha to start a rear job, his loss is deeply felt by the men.

As for his own behaviour during the war, O’Brien does not seem convinced he was particularly courageous. For a man who did not consider himself soldier material, he admits he surprisingly endured military service until the end, even after his unsuccessful attempt of desertion. Yet the question remains: wouldn’t it be braver to stick to his convictions and say no to a war he deplored?  


The hidden aspects of the army

        Tim O’Brien directs his criticism to the war and the reasons used by the American government to justify it, as well as to military personnel. As he recalls, most foot soldiers were careless: they fell asleep on ground and didn’t wear helmets or armoured vests when needed. Their superiors were not exactly a model of efficiency either, as O’Brien describes: “We sat on the paddy dikes, the enemy presumably still around, while the two officers debated honour and competence.”.

        Furthermore, the cruelty with which some of his colleagues treated common Vietnamese people did not go unnoticed by the author. A year before he served in Vietnam, a company of American soldiers killed more than 500 people (including women and children) in the village of My Lai. The carnage was likely retaliation after the North Vietnamese attacks of the Tet Offensive. This episode, known as the My Lai Massacre, was covered up by the army until it was eventually unveiled by the press, causing international outrage.

        Racism inside the U.S army is another subject brought about by O’Brien. Even though the Civil Rights Act came into force in 1964, substantial integration was far from being a reality. The officer corps was dominated by white men, who favoured other white men when it came to handing the rear jobs, far from the battlefield. As reported by Gerald F. Goodwin, surveys conducted with black soldiers who served in Vietnam showed that they were assigned mostly menial duties and were unfairly targeted for punishment[5].



Coming home

        The last chapter of “If I Die in a Combat Zone” shows the author’s return to the United States after his military service. He reaffirms his views on the pointlessness of the Vietnam War. It was not a war fought for territory, or for winning the hearts of the Vietnamese nationals. It was a failed attempt to advance American interests in the light of the Cold War era, with the sacrifice of almost 60 000 American and 2 million Vietnamese lives in the process[6].

        In September 2017, Tim O’Brien was featured in directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s documentary on the Vietnam War. When asked about what it felt to relive his war experience through the scenes, the answer is poignant: “I can’t stop crying. I can’t stop thinking of what a waste it all was.”[7]. It is not surprising that the war became a recurrent subject of his books. Perhaps writing is the only way to make some sense of it all.

Bartira Nunes

[1]  In an article written for The New York Times, Marc Leepson, another Vietnam War veteran, argues that this behaviour was not uncommon: “During the Vietnam War every male of my generation — all 28 million of us — faced the vexing question of what to do about the draft. During my four years as a deferred college student, every guy I knew had countless conversations about it.”.

[2] Guerrilla force that fought against South Vietnam and the United States in the Vietnam War.

[3] Originally a Japanese expression that described an adult male, native or inhabitant of East Asia, usually in a position of authority.

[4] In some versions, the title of the book takes the whole main verse of the song: “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home”.

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/opinion/racism-vietnam-war.html

[6] https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/books/99/10/24/reviews/991024.24tannent.html

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/09/24/it-makes-me-cry-tim-obriens-vietnam-war-wounds-will-never-heal/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ad0b65649b87


Bennett Murray, “Why Vietnam isn’t talking about 1968”, POLITICO, publié le 18 février 2018. En ligne, URL: https://www.politico.eu/article/why-vietnam-isnt-talking-about-1968/.

Michael S. Rosenwald, “‘It makes me cry:’ Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War wounds will never heal”,  The Washington Post, publié le 24 septembre 2017. En ligne, URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/retropolis/wp/2017/09/24/it-makes-me-cry-tim-obriens-vietnam-war-wounds-will-never-heal/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.73fa959e41e0

Marc Leepson, “What It Was Like to Be Drafted”, The New York Times, publié le 21 juillet 2017. En ligne, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/21/opinion/what-it-was-like-to-be-drafted.html

Alissa Rosenberg, “Why Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s Vietnam War PBS documentary took 10 years to make”, The Washington Post, publié le 18 septembre 2017. En ligne, URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/opinions/2017/09/18/why-ken-burns-and-lynn-novicks-vietnam-war-pbs-documentary-took-10-years-to-make/?utm_term=.85e6b165e174

Gerald F. Goodwin, “Black and White in Vietnam”, The New York Times, publié le 18 juillet 2017. En ligne, URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/18/opinion/racism-vietnam-war.html


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