A Changed Man: How the Vietnam War Altered a Generation

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As a whole, the Vietnam War was a controversial war in the moment and is still a controversial and sensitive subject in America today. As a result of this, the topic of the Vietnam War is largely skipped over in high school history classes, except as a brief mention that it is apart of our American history. This blatant disregard for such a major piece of history dishonors the men that were directly and often tragically affected by this event, the soldiers themselves. In both Tim O’Brien’s fiction novel The Things They Carried and Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket the storytellers focus on the memory of the war by civilians and soldiers, as well as the impact it had on the veterans. Both pieces also relate the harsh realities of Vietnam to their audience, including the things the soldiers carried emotionally upon their return home.

Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried opens with a chapter that takes its name from the title of the book. In the chapter The Things They Carried O’Brien describes in detail the weapons, food, tools, radios, and other equipment in great detail, demonstrating just how much these soldiers were weighted down with excess material. Though it was all necessary and, for the most part, evenly distributed among the men of the troop, all of this weight placed a heavy burden on the men that were doing the “humping.”[1] This opening set up the perfect juxtaposition for the intangible weight these men had on their shoulders. Throughout the novel, O’Brien tells the stories of questionably immoral happenings. For example, during his first week in Vietnam, O’Briens troop kills a Vietnamese man and then everyone goes to shake his hand. The only reason O’Brien deferred was because of fear of the dead. This conscious notice of immorality is what plagued these men after they returned home. While abroad and in the jungle, the line between moral and immoral became blurred due to strenuous circumstances, and the men acted as they saw fit in the moment. However, from the foxhole at night where the conscious comes alive or the safe shores of America once returned home, that distortion seemed much less hazy. It became clear that many of these men carried more than just physical items on their backs, but also their actions and memories, which may have weighed even more.

In The Things They Carried, O’Brien makes a point to give a human quality to the men that he spent every day with in the wilderness of South Vietnam. In different chapters he goes into detail about separate characters, their interests, their lives back home, and sometimes even their plans for the future. By doing this, O’Brien sufficiently relates to the reader that these men were really not supposed to be fighting this war. It was just the cruel hand of fate that plucked their birthday from the draft, and that was their destiny. These were just normal boys, average Joe’s, shipped off to fight a war that they did not sign up for. In Full Metal Jacket, Stanley Kubrick takes a different approach. Instead of building his characters up to be average guys, Kubrick portrays his characters to be near-mindless drones sent to Vietnam to do America’s bidding. According to Michel Ciment, a renowned French film critic, the characters transform “from man to weapon” and “Kubrick underlines the process of dehumanization.”[2] This thesis supports the idea that these soldiers were no longer the men they were in the United States, but a sort of killing machine, an idea emphasized on Joker’s helmet which read “Born to Kill” in bold black lettering.

However different these ideas may appear on the surface, they are rooted in the same theme. These soldiers went to a war that they did not sign up for and as a result lost their sense of self. In the final scene of Full Metal Jacket Joker is confronted with the task of shooting a small girl who had served as the sniper that killed his friends. Again, the soldier is confronted with the question of immorality. As she begged for death because she had already been shot once, the audience could see Joker struggling with the choice. Granting her a mercy kill seemed the right thing to do, but then again, she was just a small child, and a girl at that. This murdering of the innocent shows the complete transformation from the American man to the American soldier in Vietnam. However, the look in Joker’s eye shows that he is aware that this decision would have an impact that would last the rest of his life, haunting him for eternity.

Both of these pieces were released around fifteen years after the end of the Vietnam War. However, they were released for different reasons. In The Things They Carried O’Brien tells the story, some of it perhaps based on real events of his life as he uses his own name for the protagonist, to achieve catharsis. By remembering these events and allowing them to be publicly scrutinized, he lays his life on the line yet again. However, to come to terms with the past, one must confront it head on. Through this novel, O’Brien is able to release his pent up emotions regarding his time in Vietnam and move toward a future out of the cobwebs of painful memories. In the case of Full Metal Jacket, the release was for a wholly different reason. Kubrick released the film in 1987, only fourteen years after the end of the war, and by this time Americans had seen the toll that was taken on their soldiers upon their return. Many veterans were dealing with what is now known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, suffering from addiction, and an overall sense of loss, of self and of others. Full Metal Jacket offers an explanation to the change in America’s male youth by showing the steps behind the alteration of the boy next door to cold-blooded killer while also showing the rationale and circumstances behind the change.   Kubrick’s film superbly enlightens without blame.

The Vietnam War was a war of mystery. No American civilian could be completely sure of why America was there or what fighting in Vietnam actually looked like. Books such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried are lifting that previous veil of mystery that for years concealed the horrors underneath. However, the novel is not about giving answers to the public, but giving answers to oneself and coming to peace with it. Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket clarifies how the common man was changed through a process of dehumanization so intense that a man could completely forget himself and his morals. Both of these works change the public memory of the Vietnam War from a war shrouded in secrecy, to what really mattered: our American soldiers. While O’Brien humanized his characters and Kubrick took the opposite approach, the crux of both arguments is that these men were forever changed by their experiences in South Vietnam. Nothing they ever carry will be heavier than their memories.

[1] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried, (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990), 5.

[2] Michel Ciment, Kubrick: The Definitive Edition, (New York: Faber and Faber, Inc., 1980; 1999), 36.

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