The hallmark of good literature is that it combines art with raising social consciousness. This is certainly true of the 3 classics perused for this essay. Falling into different genres like fiction, nonfiction and reportage, the three works treat the social consequences of war in their own unique ways. The rest of this essay will show how themes of love, loss, perception and reality are adequately addressed in these works.
The Things They Carried is an assortment of short stories penned by Tim O’Brien based on his first hand experiences in Vietnam. O’Brien was part of the platoon called Alpha Company, which was actively engaged in combat with the Vietnamese. As a result, though the stories contain fictitious additions, they are mostly based on real events witnessed by the author. Several themes recur through these stories. Chief among them are love, camaraderie and courage. Love is most pronounced in the relationship between Cross and Martha. Cross agrees to narrate his love story to O’Brien, in the hope that Martha will read the story and contact him again. The story is a touching and emotional one, full of nostalgia and longing. O’Brien, on his part, takes on the role of a compassionate documenter of the love story. He embellishes the story with more details so as to accentuate its overall effect. The exercise of listening to Cross and empathetically acknowledging his feelings also strengthens their friendship. Equally, O’Brien’s collection of stories do not lack in celebrating valor. Although political scientists today look back on the Vietnam War with a sense of regret, the American soldiers who participated in it never shied away from their missions. Even while longing to go back home to reunite with their families the soldiers fulfill their arduous combat duties with utmost courage.
In contrast to Things They Carried, Michael Herr’s Dispatches adopts a different method of documenting war. While the former uses short-stories as the medium for communicating important social and political messages, the latter uses journalistic reportage. But Herr’s is not straightforward, understated method of reporting from the ground. His is a style that pushes the genre to new terrains. Dispatches can also be considered as a historical document because it faithfully records the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War. The time of publication – 1977 – is also key here because to openly question official propaganda and producing the contrarian view is both personally and professionally risky. And yet Herr went ahead with the project. The outcome is one of the classics in the genre of war reporting. Breaking away from conventional standards of writing about history, Herr uses graphic imagery and striking emotionality to present a well rounded picture of the war.