If I Die in a Combat Zone Summary

Tim O'Brien

If I Die in a Combat Zone

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If I Die in a Combat Zone Summary

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If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home is a non-fiction autobiographical account of novelist Tim O’Brien’s tour of duty during the Vietnam War. Published in 1973, it was one of the first major autobiographical accounts of the Vietnam War and has been praised extensively for its unflinching look at the horrors of the war. Many critics have called it among the greatest pieces of literature to come out of the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

O’Brien served a year in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, and his first-hand experience allows the book to explore multiple themes. O’Brien makes clear from the beginning of the book that he is opposed to the war in Vietnam, viewing it as pointless and not worth the loss in life. However, the book makes frequent note of the bravery of the young soldiers drafted into the jungles of Southeast Asia, even as it explores their doubt and fear unflinchingly. Because of this, If I Die in a Combat Zone provides a fuller view of the soldier’s experience than many second-hand or fictionalized accounts.

The book does not proceed in chronological order, starting instead with an account of a typical day for a soldier in Vietnam. All names and physical characteristics in the book have been changed, although they are inspired by real events. The reader is introduced to O’Brien as a young man, the fellow soldiers in Alpha Company, and Captain Johansen, his commanding officer. This opening segment sets the tone for the book and places the audience squarely in a soldier’s shoes.

After this introduction, the story flashes back to how O’Brien wound up in Vietnam, introducing the reader to his home town of Worthington, Minnesota, where his childhood is explored. A frequent theme in this segment is his idolization of the U.S. military, growing up in the immediate aftermath of World War II and learning the stories of the Allies’ heroism from returned soldiers. The Korean War unfolded during his early childhood as well, which increased the military’s influence during his early years.

At the same time, the story flashes back to O’Brien’s initial training at Fort Lewis in Washington state, where his anti-war beliefs lead him to a fellow soldier named Erik. The two soldiers form a bond, determined to resist the government’s influence. The two soldiers clash with their commanding officer, Drill Sergeant Blyton. Blyton, a cold, officious, and demanding man, only appears in a few chapters of the book but is the closest thing the story has to an antagonist besides the war itself.

Although O’Brien does consider desertion, he doesn’t go through with it and arrives in Vietnam in 1969, where he receives further military training in mine-sweeping, grenade throwing, and the tactical elements of jungle warfare. He is then assigned to Alpha Company in Landing Zone Gator, where he meets Captain Johansen, who is portrayed as a smart, intelligent authority figure respected by his men. A constant theme of this part of the book is the sense of danger. Unlike in World War II, where the action was generally confined to direct battles, the jungles of Vietnam are consistently booby-trapped with mines and the soldiers need to be aware of the danger with every step they take. O’Brien focuses heavily on the various types of mines they encounter and the constant danger they present. Many of O’Brien’s fellow soldiers meet their end in this manner, and the book never really focuses too much on any soldiers other than O’Brien. They simply pass through his wartime experience, and many don’t make it home.

Towards the conclusion of the book, If I Die in a Combat Zone deals heavily with the moral complexity of the war and the legal ramifications. When a local village that Alpha Company was protecting is accidentally shelled, O’Brien is offered a job at the rear and is airlifted out of the combat zone. He encounters a Battalion Executive Officer, Major Callicles, who is involved in the investigation into the My Lai Massacre, and is employed as a typist under his command. Callicles is a stern, by-the-book officer, determined to do an honest and full investigation into misconduct by his own men, but sees himself as a soldier on a crusade to fight the modernization and liberalization of the U.S. military. The stress of the investigation and its conflict with his belief that the U.S. military is the most honorable one on Earth weigh on the man as the investigation gains more and more attention.

The book ends with O’Brien leaving Vietnam and boarding a plane to go home. He observes the dull depression that seems to fill the plane, which epitomizes the morally complex, hopeless way he viewed the war as a whole. Unlike many memoirs of wartime service, If I Die in a Combat Zone does not end with a sense of victory, O’Brien simply seeing himself as a cog in a machine, serving a war that he never believed in and that he’s unsure if the U.S. can win.

U.S. direct military involvement in Vietnam had only ended in 1973, the same year that O’Brien’s memoir was released. As such, it is considered a vanguard in the genre of Vietnam memoirs, with the unflinching look at the day-to-day life of a soldier and the skeptical eye he cast on the war influencing many future writers. Although O’Brien’s book has never been adapted into a movie or TV series like many others, it has remained consistently in print for over forty years.