Letters from Martha

Last night I finished The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien which was recommended by one of my favorite blogging buddies, Yeah Another Blogger.  Yeah has another name as most of us do, one we were born with and which is on our driver’s licenses (which reminds me that mine is up for renewal – crap!)  To find out more about Yeah, check out his blog.  

I first heard of the Vietnam War when Rosalee A. (who lived across the road from me) announced that her brother – a graduate of West Point!  – was leaving the US to fight the communists who were rapidly taking over the world. Rosalee, who intended to one day become Mrs. George Harrison, knew very little about the communists except that they were against God.  She knew even less about Vietnam.  Leelee, as we all called her, would never travel the world and lives to this day in Fernley Nevada.  We were then, I think, thirteen.

For years Vietnam was a far off place until my friends’ older brothers began to disappear. It’s hard to explain that era to anyone who wasn’t alive back then. To our fathers, if your country asked you to serve, you served. No matter the reason or place. Young men went as ordered and came back profoundly changed. Other young men began to doubt the motive behind the war and their fathers wished them dead. The Things They Carried isn’t an anti-Vietnam war piece as much as a first hand account of what war does to soldiers.

Tim O’Brien

The focal point is First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross who carries, along with his artillery and survival pack,  letters from Martha.  

“Lt. Jimmy Cross humped his love for Martha up the hills and through the swamps.” 

Others in his platoon carry what gives them comfort: extra socks, hygiene products, tranquilizers, condoms, a diary, but Cross carries the hope that Martha, although she writes him steadily and always sign off with “love,” might someday really love him (and, of course, that she’s still a virgin).

The platoon navigates through a shared nightmare by focusing on what needs to be carried for the next mission.  “they would never be at a loss for things to carry.” Until the convergence of an unexpected stroke of luck followed a quick and sudden death … “[Lavender] just flat out fuck fell” … convinces Cross that he is clinging to a dream that will never be and he burns the letters from Martha.   He becomes another leader whose “… principles were in their feet.  Their calculations biological.”

It is a great, albeit depressing piece but there’s no need to search high and low for information about the author.  He’s alive and, aside from Vietnam, has led an accomplished and apparently, content life. Although one has to wonder if he ever gave “Martha” a second chance.  

Tonight I think I’ll try for something light and amusing.  Eudora Welty, don’t you let me down now girl!  

31 thoughts on “Letters from Martha

  1. This book made a huge impression on me. It was in my dad’s bookcase when we cleaned out his stuff after his death, and my mom said he’d liked it very much. Definitely a worthwhile read.

    • I’m sure a lot of men went to war and survived by believing a woman was waiting for them. It would be horrible to lose that hope. I saw a lot of similarities between Duke’s writing about truth and morality in war situations and O’Brien’s. Books were importa

  2. I’ve not heard of this memoir, but it sounds interesting and powerful. I remember Viet Nam more as something the adults talked about among themselves, never when “little pitchers with big ears” were around. I was a little pitcher at the time.

  3. Hi Jan,

    This is a profound piece of writing. I can see your face, there in the shadows of the book, contemplating your own history. Isn’t that what it is all about? How we once were and how we are today. We are persons, struggling in the world, infected by events. All of us going home, one way or the other. It is so hard to be happy these days. I can hardly bear it. Duke

    • Thanks Duke. Many of the young people I knew during those years really felt like they were fodder for the war machine happily sacrificed by their parents. So much pain. Similar to today in that there was nothing we could do to change our parents’ minds. They were just as entrenched as the trumpies. (Luckily both of my parents escaped that cult)

  4. I live with a Vietnam Veteran and was nearly an Army brat, myself. I showed up in my dad’s senior year of college as he prepared to go to Vietnam as a 2Lt. He didn’t go. Way too many of the men who graduated ahead of him weren’t coming back or, if they did, what they had to say about what was really going on weighed heavily on my dad. He got into a shouting match with is CO, he resigned his commission, graduated and never looked back. Two years later, he went into law enforcement. I was in my late 20s before he spoke about what bothered him about all of it. Prior to that, my first encounter with a VN vet was my first full time job out of college. I was working in a jewelry store when a man brought in a pocket watch to be repaired. He said some strange things…he mumbled about getting some coffee and said he was just a few miles from Bien Hoa (I wondered for years what Ben Wah was).

    • It was an awful time for young men because the purpose for the war was so unclear but our parents were so blinded by the communist threat (the red scare) that they didn’t seem to care. And then when those young men came back from war, they weren’t really appreciated or taken care of. O’Brien doesn’t focus on the politics but on the transformation from human to walking wounded that soldiers undergo.

      • Even worse many were scorned, salt in the wound – their own peers calling them “baby killers.” Did you watch Ken Burns Viet Nam film? I couldn’t get through all of it but watched plenty. It just makes you feel sick. We kept our soldiers there when we already knew we’d lost. Such betrayal.

  5. Being in the UK we experienced this war at one remove. We had violent anti war demos outside the US embassy and debates about joining in. Thank heavens we didnt. To me, a teenager it was a foreign war in a foreign land and then i went to university and met a vet who talked about his experiences around the fall of Saigon and while i suspect it was sanitised it still hit home. Sounds like a powerful work

  6. All wars are evil, but still they rage on. Like Geoff I saw Vietnam as a place of war in s foreign place being fought by foreigners..once removed. It was seen on the news, in the papers and glorified and villified on the big screen. Like all wars it has had far reaching effects on Veterans and their families and left it’s mark in world history. …the books sounds depressing but powerful 💜

    • I don’t think most people, even our parents, knew what the heck we were really doing in South East Asia. I have since gotten to many refugees from Vietnam and they are very grateful that the US went in and saved them. Many are devout Catholics. It’s hard to know what to say to those folks!

  7. I have it on my to read list, but wondering if I can bear it. I lost 2 young friends in Vietnam and one was severely maimed. Then there are those as you say who are “profoundly changed.” I remember feeling relief (for once) that I was female and guilty at the same time.

    • I know what you mean. My father would have gladly shipped me and my brother off to Vietnam but luckily he was too young and I would have been worthless. .

  8. I read recently that the purpose of the Vietnam war was by introducing a foreign invader (American) the warring factions of North and south Vietnam became united to fight this enemy. A centralized government is easier to control.
    Only the world rulers knew what the game plan was and it certainly wasn’t to stop communism.
    At least I this is what I have read.

    • Hard to believe that even the most hard hearted leaders would send troops into that miasma simply for that reason. Where did you read that? I have spoken to people who fled Vietnam and they are very anti-communist.

  9. Although I am not familiar with this book, I really enjoyed your writing here, Jan. Taking a look at a war fought in our lifetime, with a history of very different war philosophies from our parents’ and grandparents’. Vietnam was such a different kind of war, and you describe the changing times really well with your young friends, disappearing brothers, what soldiers carried and how they dealt with this senseless war. This is my favorite sentence, and sets the tone perfectly: “Rosalee, who intended to one day become Mrs. George Harrison, knew very little about the communists except that they were against God.”

    • Thanks Jet. Most of the kids I grew up with never questioned their parents. What their parents believed, they believed until they began coming back from Vietnam with horror stories. It was a terrible time.

  10. Thanks for sharing your review of The Things They Carried – I’ve heard about this book, but have not read it. As the little sister of a brother who got a low draft number, but was lucky to get a student deferment and finished school just at the end of the Vietnam War, I related to your reaction as a girl on hearing the news that your friend’s brother was going off to Vietnam. I was about 9 years old and understood little about what being drafted meant. And the reality of that time period hit me later when I was older and could understand it. Great review.

  11. Vietnam was a horror show. Canada did not support the war, and allowed draft dodgers into Canada. It’s one of the few times my country has had the guts and balls to stand up to the USA.
    Sigh! I designed the costumes for a Showtime movie about the Vietnam War.
    Here’s the link to a demo I did of the movie, for costume design promo, only. https://vimeo.com/24743005

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