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

Overview

Before writing his award-winning Going After Cacciato, Tim O'Brien gave us this searing, intensely personal account of his year as a foot soldier in Vietnam. The author takes us with him—to experience combat from behind an infantryman's rifle, to walk the minefields of My Lai, to crawl into the ghostly tunnels, and to explore the ambiguities of manhood and morality in a war gone terribly wrong. Beautifully written and heartfelt, If I Die In A Combat Zone has been hailed as a masterwork of art in its genre. ...
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Overview

Before writing his award-winning Going After Cacciato, Tim O'Brien gave us this searing, intensely personal account of his year as a foot soldier in Vietnam. The author takes us with him—to experience combat from behind an infantryman's rifle, to walk the minefields of My Lai, to crawl into the ghostly tunnels, and to explore the ambiguities of manhood and morality in a war gone terribly wrong. Beautifully written and heartfelt, If I Die In A Combat Zone has been hailed as a masterwork of art in its genre. "[O'Brien's] landscapes have the breadth and scope of Tolstoy's and the essential American wonder and innocence of his vision deserves to stand beside that of Stephen Crane"--National Book Award Committee

A searing, intensely personal account of O'Brien's experience as a Vietnam foot soldier that takes readers behind the infantryman's rifle--from the minefields of My Lai to the darkness of the ghostly tunnels--in a heartfelt masterwork of its genre. Reissue. (Military/War History)

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"O'Brien brilliantly and quietly evokes the foot soldier's daily life in the paddies and foxholes, evokes a blind, blundering war. . . . Tim O'Brien writes with the care and eloquence of someone for whom communication is still a vital possibility. . . . A personal document of aching clarity. . . . A beautiful, painful book."
—The New York Times Book Review

"One of the best, most disturbing, and most powerful books about the shame that was / is Vietnam."
Minneapolis Star and Tribune
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780440343110
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/2/1992
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 205
  • Product dimensions: 4.20 (w) x 6.73 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Tim O'Brien

TIM O’BRIEN received the 1979 National Book Award in fiction for Going After Cacciato. His other works include the Pulitzer finalist and a New York Times Book of the Century, The Things They Carried; the acclaimed novels Tomcat in Love and Northern Lights; and the national bestselling memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone. His novel In the Lake of the Woods received the James Fenimore Cooper Prize from the Society of American Historians and was named the best novel of 1994 by Time. In 2010 he received the Katherine Anne Porter Award for a distinguished lifetime body of work and in 2012 he received the Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Foundation. He was awarded the Pritzker Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing in 2013.

Biography

Tim O'Brien has said it was cowardice -- not courage -- that led him, in the late 1960s, to defer his admittance into Harvard in favor of combat in Vietnam. The alternatives of a flight to Canada or a moral stand in a U.S. jail were too unpopular.

He has since explored the definitions of courage -- moral, physical, political -- in his fiction, a body of work that has, at least until recently, dealt almost exclusively with America's most unpopular war and its domestic consequences. His first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home looked at the war through a collection of war vignettes that he had written for newspapers in his home state of Minnesota, and his second book was a novel, Northern Lights, that he later decried as overly long and Hemingwayesque -- almost a parody of the writer's war stories.

His third book, Going After Cacciato in 1978 does not suffer such criticism from the author. Or, for that matter, from the critics. Grace Paley praised the novel -- which follows the journey of a soldier who goes AWOL from Vietnam and walks to Paris -- as "imaginative" in The New York Times. And the book became a breakthrough critical success for O'Brien, the start of a series that would give him the unofficial title as our pre-eminent Vietnam storyteller. Cacciato even won the prestigious National Book Award for fiction in 1979, beating out John Irving's The World According to Garp.

"Going After Cacciato taunts us with many faces and angles of vision," Catherine Calloway wrote in the 1990 book America Rediscovered: Critical Essays on Literature and Film of the Vietnam War. "The protagonist Paul Berlin cannot distinguish between what is real and what is imagined in the war just as the reader cannot differentiate between what is real and what is imagined in the novel... Paul Berlin is forced, as is the reader, into an attempt to distinguish between illusion and reality and in doing so creates a continuous critical dialogue between himself and the world around him."

Born in Austin, Minn., to an insurance salesman and schoolteacher, O'Brien grew up as a voracious reader but didn't find the courage to write until his experiences in Vietnam. After the war, he studied at the Harvard University's School of Government and was a staff reporter at The Washington Post in the early 1970s. He writes from early in the morning until the evening and has a reputation for discarding long passages of writing because he finds the effort substandard. He also can do extensive revisions of his books between editions.

His follow-up to Cacciato, 1981's The Nuclear Age, had a draft dodger find his fortune in the uranium business though he is consistently plagued by dreams of nuclear annihilation. Critics labeled it a misstep. But his subsequent effort, The Things They Carried, a collection of short stories about Vietnam, reaffirmed his reputation as a Vietnam observer. "By moving beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth, he places The Things They Carried high up on the list of best fiction about any war," The New York Times said in March of 1990. And his next novel, In the Lake of the Woods, another Vietnam effort, won the top spot on Time's roster of fiction for 1994.

In Lake, Minnesota politician John Wade, whose career has suffered a major setback with the revelation of his participation in the notorious My Lai massacre from the Vietnam War, retreats to his cabin with wife Kathy, who later disappears. The Times Literary Supplement said it was perhaps his "bleakest novel yet" and that "the most chilling passages are not those which deal with guns and gore in Vietnam but those set in Minnesota many years later, revealing a people at ease but never at peace." Pico Lyer, writing in Time, said "O'Brien manages what he does best, which is to find the boy scout in the foot soldier, and the foot soldier in every reader."

O'Brien's more recent efforts -- his sexual comedy of manners Tomcat in Love and July, July, which centers on a high-school reunion of the Vietnam set -- have not received the high praise of his earlier efforts. But O'Brien has said he is not writing for the critics, noting that Moby Dick was loathed upon its release.

"I don't get too excited about bad reviews or good ones," he told Contemporary Literature in 1991. "I feel happy if they're good, feel sad if they're bad, but the feelings disappear pretty quickly, because ultimately I'm not writing for my contemporaries but for the ages, like every good writer should be. You're writing for history, in the hope that your book -- out of the thousands that are published each year -- might be the last to be read a hundred years from now and enjoyed."

Good To Know

O'Brien was stationed in the setting of the infamous My Lai massacre a year after it occurred.

His father wrote personal accounts of World War II for The New York Times.

O'Brien's book The Things They Carried was a contender as Washington D.C. looked in 2002 to find a book for its campaign to have the entire city simultaneously reading the same book.

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    1. Also Known As:
      William Timothy O’Brien
    1. Date of Birth:
      October 1, 1946
    2. Place of Birth:
      Austin, Minnesota
    1. Education:
      B.A., Macalester College, 1968; Graduate study at Harvard University

Read an Excerpt

Days

"It's incredible, it really is, isn't it? Ever think you'd be humping along some crazy-ass trail like this, jumping up and down like a goddamn bullfrog, dodging bullets all day? Back in Cleveland, man, I'd still be asleep." Barney smiled. "You ever see anything like this? Ever?"

"Yesterday," I said.

"Yesterday? Shit, yesterday wasn't nothing like this."

"Snipers yesterday, snipers today. What's the difference?"

"Guess so." Barney shrugged. "Holes in your ass either way, right? But, I swear, yesterday wasn't nothing like this."

"Snipers yesterday, snipers today," I said again.

Barney laughed. "I tell you one thing," he said. "You think this is bad, just wait till tonight. My God, tonight'll be lovely. I'm digging me a foxhole like a basement."

We lay next to each other until the volley of fire stopped. We didn't bother to raise our rifles. We didn't know which way to shoot, and it was all over anyway.

Barney picked up his helmet and took out a pencil and put a mark on it. "See," he said, grinning and showing me ten marks, "that's ten times today. Count them-one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten! Ever been shot at ten times in one day?"

"Yesterday," I said. "And the day before that, and the day before that."

"No way. It's been lots worse today."

"Did you count yesterday?"

"No. Didn't think of it until today. That proves today's worse."

"Well, you should've counted yesterday."

We lay quietly for a time, waiting for the shooting to end, then Barney peeked up. "Off your ass, pal. Company's moving out." He put his pencil away and jumped up like a little kidon a pogo stick. Barney had heart.

I followed him up the trail, taking care to stay a few meters behind him. Barney was not one to worry about land mines. Or snipers. Or dying. He just didn't worry.

"You know," I said, "you really amaze me, kid. No kidding. This crap doesn't get you down, does it?"

"Can't let it," Barney said. "Know what I mean? That's how a man gets himself lethalized."

"Yeah, but--"

"You just can't let it get you down."

It was a hard march and soon enough we stopped the chatter. The day was hot. The days were always hot, even the cool days, and we concentrated on the heat and the fatigue and the simple motions of the march. It went that way for hours. One leg, the next leg. Legs counted the days.

"What time is it?"

"Don't know." Barney didn't look back at me. "Four o'clock maybe."

"Good."

"Tuckered? I'll hump some of that stuff for you, just give the word."

"No, it's okay. We should stop soon. I'll help you dig that basement."

"Cool."

"Basements, I like the sound. Cold, deep. Basements."

A shrill sound. A woman's shriek, a sizzle, a zipping-up sound. It was there, then it was gone, then it was there again.

"Jesus Christ almighty," Barney shouted. He was already flat on his belly. "You okay?"

"I guess. You?"

"No pain. They were aiming at us that time, I swear. You and me."

"Charlie knows who's after him," I said. "You and me."

Barney giggled. "Sure, we'd give 'em hell, wouldn't we? Strangle the little bastards."

We got up, brushed ourselves off, and continued along the line of march.

The trail linked a cluster of hamlets together, little villages to the north and west of the Batangan Peninsula. Dirty, tangled country. Empty villes. No people, no dogs or chickens. It was a fairly wide and flat trail, but it made dangerous slow curves and was flanked by deep hedges and brush. Two squads moved through the tangles on either side of us, protecting the flanks from close-in ambushes, and the company's progress was slow.

"Captain says we're gonna search one more ville today," Barney said. "Maybe--"

"What's he expect to find?"

Barney shrugged. He walked steadily and did not look back. "Well, what does he expect to find? Charlie?"

"Who knows?"

"Get off it, man. Charlie finds us. All day long he's been shooting us up. How's that going to change?"

"Search me," Barney said. "Maybe we'll surprise him."

"Who?"

"Charlie. Maybe we'll surprise him this time."

"You kidding me, Barney?"

The kid giggled. "Can't never tell. I'm tired, so maybe ol' Charles is tired too. That's when we spring our little surprise."

"Tired," I muttered. "Wear the yellow bastards down, right?"

But Barney wasn't listening.

Soon the company stopped moving. Captain Johansen walked up to the front of the column, conferred with a lieutenant, then moved back. He asked for the radio handset, and I listened while he called battalion headquarters and told them we'd found the village and were about to cordon and search it. Then the platoons separated into their own little columns and began circling the hamlet that lay hidden behind thick brush. This was the bad time: The wait.

"What's the name of this goddamn place?" Barney said. He threw down his helmet and sat on it. "Funny, isn't it? Somebody's gonna ask me someday where the hell I was over here, where the bad action was, and, shit, what will I say?"

"Tell them St. Vith."

"What?"

"St. Vith," I said. "That's the name of this ville. It's right here on the map. Want to look?"

He grinned. "What's the difference? You say St. Vith, I guess that's it. I'll never remember. How long's it gonna take me to forget your fuckin' name?"
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Reading Group Guide

1. O'Brien writes of the Vietnam War, "Things happened, things came to an end. There was no sense of developing drama." What does he mean by that? Do his stories support or contradict his assertion? How does O'Brien manage to fashion a book out of events that have no developing drama?

2. If I Die in a Combat Zone consists of 23 short chapters, often chronologically discontinuous and out of order. Why do you think O'Brien chose to structure his memoir in this way? How did the structure affect your reading of the memoir? Did it frustrate you, or did the lack of continuous narrative give you insight into his experience?

3. How does this account of the war differ from other novels and films of Vietnam you may have read or seen?

4. What light does If I Die in a Combat Zone shed on current U.S. military engagements? Are the same issues of courage, justice, and patriotism at stake in the Balkans and the Middle East? How do these conflicts differ from the Vietnam War, with regard to the U.S. foot soldier?

5. Do you think that Tim O'Brien is a reliable narrator?

6. Throughout his entire training and tour of duty, O'Brien remains engaged in the essential question of whether he should continue to fight in the war, or desert. Which arguments did you find most compelling on either side? Are they still relevant today? In the end, he finishes his tour of duty without ever deserting. What prevents him from running away? Do you find his behavior heroic or cowardly, or both?

7. How does the army address O'Brien's misgivings about the war they are fighting? Between the Battalion Commander, the Chaplain, the Drill Sergeant, and Captain Johansen, are any of his concerns treated seriously? How do you think dissent within the ranks should be treated? How did Plato feel about it?

8. Chapter 10, "The Man at the Well," is less than two pages long, and yet it manages to be one of the most powerful chapters in the book. How is that so? How does it strike at the heart of what it means to be in a foreign war? Can the chapter be viewed as allegorical?

9. Why is Erik's friendship so important to O'Brien? What role does it play in his life? How is he able to maintain a close relationship with Erik throughout the war, despite their differing deployments?

10. How do the soldiers relate to the women they encounter in the context of the war? What role do the strippers and prostitutes play in the soldiers' morale? How do the soldiers view the women in the villages they pass through? Why, in Chapter 12, "Mori," do the soldiers attend to the dying woman so diligently?

11. How does O'Brien define courage? How do his actions fall short of his ideal? Why do you think it is so important to him to be courageous? In light of his frank descriptions of his own lack of valor, how do you imagine you would behave in similar combat situations? Has this book changed your notions of bravery?

12. Major Callicles imagines himself to be a brave man from the old school of soldiering. In what ways is he courageous, and in what ways does he fail O'Brien's measure of valor? What does Plato mean when he writes, "courage is a certain kind of persevering"?

13. In Chapter 18, "The Lagoon," O'Brien describes how the war has transformed an Eden-like sea coast into a modern combat zone. In what ways does the lagoon retain its beauty? Similarly, where does O'Brien find beauty in Vietnam in general?

14. In the final chapter, as O'Brien's flight home takes off, he writes, "There is no joy in leaving." What is it that robs his departure of the much anticipated joy he expected? How is his encounter with the stewardess sadly prescient of what his life back home will be like?

15. Has your opinion of either the Vietnam veterans or those who dodged the draft changed in the course of your reading?

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