In the 1960s and ’70s, the Vietnam War dominated the hearts and minds of a generation of Americans. In 1990, the American writer Tim O’Brien, himself a former soldier, published “The Things They Carried,” a short story that became an instant classic. Through its depiction of the members of a platoon in Vietnam, told largely through the tangible and intangible things in their possession as they humped their way through the jungle, O’Brien’s story captures the soul and psyches of young men engaged in a war they cannot understand and filled with a longing for home that must compete with the brutal circumstances of present-day reality. In this episode of the History of Literature, host Jacke Wilson reads the entire short story “The Things They Carried,” then invites Mike Palindrome, President of the Literature Supporters Club, to join him for a discussion of the Vietnam War and the literary masterpiece it gave rise to.
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Since ancient times, societies have used rousing lines of poetry to inspire soldiers to acts of heroism, courage, and sacrifice. But what about literature that expresses doubts about war? Or fear? Or that conveys its brutal nature? Should those works be a part of the curriculum as well?
And what about literature that, on its surface, has nothing to do with the battlefield? Where is the value in that for a soldier?
One thing seems clear: how a society educates its soldiers tells us something fundamental about the values of that society. And when it comes to the role of literature in a soldier’s education, we can learn two things. We see how we as a society think of the men and women fighting for us. And we see a reflection of what we think literature can and should do.