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'The Things They Carried,' 20 Years On

Mar 24, 2010 (Talk of the Nation)

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In war, there are no winners. That's what readers take away from Tim O'Brien's book about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, in the 20 years since its publication.

O'Brien wrote parts of The Things They Carried 20 years after his service in Vietnam. 40 years since the war, he still carries it with him. "I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam — the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers," he tells host Neal Conan. "More importantly," he continues, "I carry the weight of responsibility, and a sense of abiding guilt."

But O'Brien carries joyful memories, too, "the friends I made, the conversations at foxholes where, for a moment or two, the war would seem to vanish into camaraderie and friendship."

Still, the memories of near-death moments remain the most vivid. "There's something about being amid the chaos and the horror of a war that makes you appreciate all you don't have, and all you may lose forever." Those things range, for O'Brien, from "the sublime, your parents, down to the petty — a Big Mac, and a cold Coke. When you're really really thirsty and you're drinking paddy water, the mind will lock on a can of cold Coke the way your mind might, you know, back in high school, have locked on a pretty girl."

O'Brien never anticipated the universal appeal his story would have among young people. They "bring such fervor to it that comes from their own lives, really. The book is... applied to a bad childhood or a broken home. And these are the things they're carrying."

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