The hallmark of good literature is that it combines art with raising social consciousness. This is certainly true of the 3 classics perused for this essay. Falling into different genres like fiction, nonfiction and reportage, the three works treat the social consequences of war in their own unique ways. The rest of this essay will show how themes of love, loss, perception and reality are adequately addressed in these works.
The Things They Carried is an assortment of short stories penned by Tim O’Brien based on his first hand experiences in Vietnam. O’Brien was part of the platoon called Alpha Company, which was actively engaged in combat with the Vietnamese. As a result, though the stories contain fictitious additions, they are mostly based on real events witnessed by the author. Several themes recur through these stories. Chief among them are love, camaraderie and courage. Love is most pronounced in the relationship between Cross and Martha. Cross agrees to narrate his love story to O’Brien, in the hope that Martha will read the story and contact him again. The story is a touching and emotional one, full of nostalgia and longing. O’Brien, on his part, takes on the role of a compassionate documenter of the love story. He embellishes the story with more details so as to accentuate its overall effect. The exercise of listening to Cross and empathetically acknowledging his feelings also strengthens their friendship. Equally, O’Brien’s collection of stories do not lack in celebrating valor. Although political scientists today look back on the Vietnam War with a sense of regret, the American soldiers who participated in it never shied away from their missions. Even while longing to go back home to reunite with their families the soldiers fulfill their arduous combat duties with utmost courage.
In contrast to Things They Carried, Michael Herr’s Dispatches adopts a different method of documenting war. While the former uses short-stories as the medium for communicating important social and political messages, the latter uses journalistic reportage. But Herr’s is not straightforward, understated method of reporting from the ground. His is a style that pushes the genre to new terrains. Dispatches can also be considered as a historical document because it faithfully records the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. The time of publication – 1977 – is also key here because to openly question official propaganda and producing the contrarian view is both personally and professionally risky. And yet Herr went ahead with the project. The outcome is one of the classics in the genre of war reporting. Breaking away from conventional standards of writing about history, Herr uses graphic imagery and striking emotionality to present a well rounded picture of the war.
The prominent themes in Dispatches are the sacrifice and suffering that warfare invariably produces. Dispatches is thus a veiled criticism of the enterprise of war as a means to resolving geo-political conflicts. A repetitive theme of the work is that of individual alienation. As soldiers live a chaotic and edgy existence during days of active combat, their emotional and moral apparatus take a pounding. Though they co-habit with members of their platoon, they suffer severe emotional disturbances. Disorders like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are common occurrences among war veterans. Even those soldiers who are lucky enough to return to civilian life feel the repercussions lifelong. Their entire view of the nature of humanity stand altered. It is this pathos that Herr successfully taps into in his reports from the war zone.
Ann Jones’ They Were Soldiers is a more recent publication, covering America’s controversial and costly military occupation of Afghanistan since 2001. Similar to Michael Herr, she also adopts the form of reportage to put her points across. She focuses on the ‘other side’ of the war story, the perspectives of the victims of war. Contrasted to the propaganda of mainstream media outlets, Jones’ account is one of capturing the dark realities. Interestingly, the victims of war in her reports are not Afghans but American soldiers and their loved ones. Needless to say the casualties and losses incurred by Afghans are far greater. But the fact that American soldiers themselves have suffered so much is an indictment of the political establishment, which had colluded with major media houses in suppressing this reality. Under vague slogans such as ‘Support Our Troops’, the Bush administration had deliberately misinformed and misled the people of the country into believing that it was a just war.
The main themes evident through They Were Soldiers are love, courage and reality. The love is that between American soldiers at war and their relatives back home. Ann Jones incorporates numerous snapshots of communication between the two groups with all their emotional and honesty. In terms of reality, Jones illustrates how the relatives were deluded into believing that their sons are safe in Afghanistan, when in reality, they may have been grievously wounded. The news of wounded soldiers would reach back home only after they had already spent several days on hospital beds. The soldiers themselves are under an illusion, that they are fighting a just cause and that their sacrifice would be promptly conveyed to their loved ones far away.