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.

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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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