DIMON KENDRICK-HOLMES: For people who don't like war books

March 1, 2013 

If you live in the Chattahoochee Valley, you should read "The Things They Carried."

The book, by Tim O'Brien, is this year's Big Read selection, which means the whole community is encouraged to read it and discuss it and attend events about it. O'Brien himself will hold a free reading at 7:30 p.m. March 29 at the Springer Opera House, as part of the Southern Literary Festival.

I don't know about you, but I don't like being told what to read. In college, I read "Catcher in the Rye" when I was supposed to be reading something else. In graduate school, I read "The Things They Carried" when I was supposed to be reading something else.

That's the best endorsement I can give a book: It's something you'll want to read when you're supposed to be reading something else.

So if it helps, act like you're supposed to be reading something else, like "Moby Dick" or "As I Lay Dying."

"The Things They Carried" has been called a novel about the Vietnam War, a semi-autobiographical account of the Vietnam War, and a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. So while scholars may disagree on what it is, they don't disagree on what it's about.

"The Things They Carried" is about the Vietnam War. But it doesn't fit a particular genre or play to stereotypes.

I've already heard people say they don't plan to read it because they don't like war stories. Deciding not to read "The Things They Carried" because it's about war is like deciding not to read "To Kill a Mockingbird" because you don't like lawyers. Or "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer" because you don't like rafting or fence-painting.

Mostly, "The Things They Carried" is about being young and scared and making your way in a world you don't understand. We've all been there before, or will be.

Of course, many of us can only imagine what it's like to be a soldier in combat. But around here, everybody you see in uniform above the rank of private has probably spent time in a combat zone.

Maybe you don't know much about units or maneuvers or the caliber of various weapons, but O'Brien, a reluctant draftee in 1968, doesn't care much about these things either. "The Things They Carried" focuses on how soldiers cope with what they've experienced.

"War is hell," O'Brien writes in a chapter called "How to Tell a True War Story," "but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead."

The Chattahoochee Valley is a great place to live, and Fort Benning is one reason why. It's worth the trouble to try to understand the struggles of our neighbors in uniform, and "The Things They Carried" is a good way to do that.

Dimon Kendrick-Holmes, executive editor, dkholmes@ledger-enquirer.com

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