If i die in a combat zon.., p.1

If I Die in a Combat Zone, page 1


If I Die in a Combat Zone

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If I Die in a Combat Zone

  “One of the best, most disturbing, and most powerful books about the shame that was/is Vietnam.”

  —Minneapolis Star and Tribune

  “Its effect is as devastating as if its author had been killed. But he survived. So, through such writing, may the American language.”

  —Times (London)

  “A genuine memoir in the full literary sense of that term, and a work that quickly established itself among Vietnam narratives as an exemplar of the genre.… It recalls the depictions of men at war by Whitman, Melville, Crane, and Hemingway; and it stands at the same time in the central tradition of American spiritual autobiography as well, the tradition of Edwards and Woolman, of Franklin and Thoreau and Henry Adams.”

  —Philip D. Beidler, American Literature and the Experience of Vietnam

  “O’Brien writes with pain and passion on the nature of war and its effect on the men who fight in it. If I Die in a Combat Zone may, in fact, be the single greatest piece of work to come out of Vietnam, a work on a level with World War Two’s The Naked and the Dead and From Here to Eternity!”

  —Washington Star

  “O’Brien brilliantly and quietly evokes the foot soldier’s daily life in the paddies and foxholes, evokes a blind, blundering war.… Tim O’Brien writes with the care and eloquence of someone for whom communication is still a vital possibility.… It is a beautiful, painful book, arousing pity and fear for the daily realities of a modern disaster.”

  —Annie Gottlieb, New York Times Book Review

  “What especially distinguishes it is the intensity of its sketches from the infantry, an intensity seldom seen in journalistic accounts of the war.”

  —Michael Casey, America

  “An admirable book by an admirable man … a finely tuned, almost laconic account of soldiers at work.”


  “A controlled, honest, well-written account … Mr. O’Brien is educated, intelligent, reflective, and thoroughly nice—all qualities that make his a convincing voice.”

  —The New Yorker

  “It’s a true writer’s job, gaining strength by dodging the rhetoric, and must be one of the few good things to come out of that desolating struggle.”

  —Manchester Guardian

  “O’Brien is writing of more than Vietnam.… What O’Brien is writing about is the military, and the feel of war, and cold fear, and madmen. O’Brien does it with a narrative that often is haunting, and as clean as the electric-red path of an M-16 round slicing through the Vietnam dark.”

  —Philadelphia Inquirer

  “A carefully made series of short takes, the honestly limited view of a serious, intelligent young man with a driving wish to be both just and brave. Its persistent tension is between contrary impulses: to fight well or to flee.”

  —Geoffrey Wolff, Esquire

  “It’s a beautiful book dealing with the unbeautiful subject of the Vietnam War.… O’Brien sees clearly and tells honestly. This may prove to be the foot soldier’s best personal account of America’s worst war.”


  “I wish Tim O’Brien did not write so beautifully, for he makes it impossible to forget his book. I have read it three times, and years from now it will still have that terrible power to make me remember and to make me weep.”

  —Gloria Emerson

  Books by Tim O’Brien

  If I Die in a Combat Zone

  Northern Lights

  Going After Cacciato

  The Nuclear Age

  The Things They Carried

  In the Lake of the Woods

  Tomcat in Love

  Names and physical characteristics of persons depicted in this book have been changed.



  Other Books by this Author

  Title Page


  1. Days

  2. Pro Patria

  3. Beginning

  4. Nights

  5. Under the Mountain

  6. Escape

  7. Arrival

  8. Alpha Company

  9. Ambush

  10. The Man at the Well

  11. Assault

  12. Mori

  13. My Lai in May

  14. Step Lightly

  15. Centurion

  16. Wise Endurance

  17. July

  18. The Lagoon

  19. Dulce et Decorum

  20. Another War

  21. Hearts and Minds

  22. Courage Is a Certain Kind of Preserving

  23. Don’t I Know You?

  lo maggior don che Dio per sua larghezza / fesse creando …/… fu de la volontà la libertate

  —The Divine Comedy

  Par. V, 19ff.



  It’s incredible, it really is, isn’t it? Ever think you’d be humping along some crazy-ass trail like this, jumping up and down like a goddamn bullfrog, dodging bullets all day? Back in Cleveland, man, I’d still be asleep.” Barney smiled. “You ever see anything like this? Ever?”

  “Yesterday,” I said.

  “Yesterday? Shit, yesterday wasn’t nothing like this.”

  “Snipers yesterday, snipers today. What’s the difference?”

  “Guess so.” Barney shrugged. “Holes in your ass either way, right? But, I swear, yesterday wasn’t nothing like this.”

  “Snipers yesterday, snipers today,” I said again.

  Barney laughed. “I tell you one thing,” he said. “You think this is bad, just wait till tonight. My God, tonight’ll be lovely. I’m digging me a foxhole like a basement.”

  We lay next to each other until the volley of fire stopped. We didn’t bother to raise our rifles. We didn’t know which way to shoot, and it was all over anyway.

  Barney picked up his helmet and took out a pencil and put a mark on it. “See,” he said, grinning and showing me ten marks, “that’s ten times today. Count them—one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten! Ever been shot at ten times in one day?”

  “Yesterday,” I said. “And the day before that, and the day before that.”

  “No way. It’s been lots worse today.”

  “Did you count yesterday?”

  “No. Didn’t think of it until today. That proves today’s worse.”

  “Well, you should’ve counted yesterday.”

  We lay quietly for a time, waiting for the shooting to end, then Barney peeked up. “Off your ass, pal. Company’s moving out.” He put his pencil away and jumped up like a little kid on a pogo stick. Barney had heart.

  I followed him up the trail, taking care to stay a few meters behind him. Barney was not one to worry about land mines. Or snipers. Or dying. He just didn’t worry.

  “You know,” I said, “you really amaze me, kid. No kidding. This crap doesn’t get you down, does it?”

  “Can’t let it,” Barney said. “Know what I mean? That’s how a man gets himself lethalized.”

  “Yeah, but—”

  “You just can’t let it get you down.”

  It was a hard march and soon enough we stopped the chatter. The day was hot. The days were always hot, even the cool days, and we concentrated on the heat and the fatigue and the simple motions of the march. It went that way for hours. One leg, the next leg. Legs counted the days.

  “What time is it?”

  “Don’t know.” Barney didn’t look back at me. “Four o’clock maybe.”


  “Tuckered? I’ll hump some of that stuff for you, just give the word.”

  “No, it’s okay. We should stop soon. I’ll help you dig that basement.”


  “Basements, I like the sound. Co
ld, deep. Basements.”

  A shrill sound. A woman’s shriek, a sizzle, a zipping-up sound. It was there, then it was gone, then it was there again.

  “Jesus Christ almighty,” Barney shouted. He was already flat on his belly. “You okay?”

  “I guess. You?”

  “No pain. They were aiming at us that time, I swear. You and me.”

  “Charlie knows who’s after him,” I said. “You and me.”

  Barney giggled. “Sure, we’d give ’em hell, wouldn’t we? Strangle the little bastards.”

  We got up, brushed ourselves off, and continued along the line of march.

  The trail linked a cluster of hamlets together, little villages to the north and west of the Batangan Peninsula. Dirty, tangled country. Empty villes. No people, no dogs or chickens. It was a fairly wide and flat trail, but it made dangerous slow curves and was flanked by deep hedges and brush. Two squads moved through the tangles on either side of us, protecting the flanks from close-in ambushes, and the company’s progress was slow.

  “Captain says we’re gonna search one more ville today,” Barney said. “Maybe—”

  “What’s he expect to find?”

  Barney shrugged. He walked steadily and did not look back.

  “Well, what does he expect to find? Charlie?”

  “Who knows?”

  “Get off it, man. Charlie finds us. All day long he’s been shooting us up. How’s that going to change?”

  “Search me,” Barney said. “Maybe we’ll surprise him.”


  “Charlie. Maybe we’ll surprise him this time.”

  “You kidding me, Barney?”

  The kid giggled. “Can’t never tell. I’m tired, so maybe ol’ Charles is tired too. That’s when we spring our little surprise.”

  “Tired,” I muttered. “Wear the yellow bastards down, right?”

  But Barney wasn’t listening.

  Soon the company stopped moving. Captain Johansen walked up to the front of the column, conferred with a lieutenant, then moved back. He asked for the radio handset, and I listened while he called battalion headquarters and told them we’d found the village and were about to cordon and search it. Then the platoons separated into their own little columns and began circling the hamlet that lay hidden behind thick brush. This was the bad time: The wait.

  “What’s the name of this goddamn place?” Barney said. He threw down his helmet and sat on it. “Funny, isn’t it? Somebody’s gonna ask me someday where the hell I was over here, where the bad action was, and, shit, what will I say?”

  “Tell them St. Vith.”


  “St. Vith,” I said. “That’s the name of this ville. It’s right here on the map. Want to look?”

  He grinned. “What’s the difference? You say St. Vith, I guess that’s it. I’ll never remember. How long’s it gonna take me to forget your fuckin’ name?”

  The captain walked over and sat down with us, and together we smoked and waited for the platoons to fan out around the village. Now and then a radio would buzz. I handled the routine calls, Captain Johansen took everything important. All this was familiar: cordon, wait, sweep, search. The mechanics were simple and sterile.

  “This gonna take long?” Barney asked.

  Captain Johansen said he hoped not. Hard to tell.

  “What I mean is, you don’t expect to find anything—right, sir?” Barney looked a little embarrassed. “That’s what O’Brien was saying. Says it’s hopeless. But like I told him, there’s always the chance we can surprise old Charlie. Right? Always a chance.”

  The captain didn’t answer.

  I closed my eyes. Optimism always made me sleepy.

  We waited.

  When the cordon was tied up tight, Barney and the captain and I joined the first platoon. Johansen gave the order to move in. And slowly, carefully, we tiptoed into the little hamlet, nudging over jugs of rice, watching where we walked, alert to booby traps, brains foggy, numb, hoping to find nothing.

  But we found tunnels. Three of them. It was late afternoon now, and the men were tired, and issue was whether to search the tunnels or blow them.

  “So,” a lieutenant said. “Do we go down?”

  The men murmured. One by one we moved away, leaving the lieutenant standing alone by the cluster of tunnels. He peered at them, kicked a little dirt into the mouths, then turned away.

  He walked over to Captain Johansen and they had a short conference together. The sun was setting. Already it was impossible to make out the color in their faces and uniforms. The two officers stood together, heads down, deciding.

  “Blow the fuckers up,” someone said. “Right now, before they make up their minds. Now.”

  “Fire-in-the-hole!” Three explosions, dulled by dirt and sand, and the tunnels were blocked. “Fire-in-the-hole!” Three more explosions, even duller. Two grenades to each tunnel.

  “Nobody’s gonna be searching them buggers now.”

  The men laughed.

  “Wouldn’t find nothing anyway. A bag of rice, maybe some ammo. That’s all.”

  “And may be a goddamn mine, right?”

  “Not worth it. Not worth my ass, damn sure.”

  “Well, no worry now. No way anybody’s going down into those mothers.”


  Another explosion, fifty yards away.

  Then a succession of explosions, tearing apart huts; then yellow flashes, then white spears. Automatic rifle fire, short and incredibly close.

  “See?” Barney said. He was lying beside me. “We did find ’em. We did.”

  “Surprised them,” I said. “Faked ’em right out of their shoes.”


  Men were scrambling. Slow motion, then fast motion, and the whole village seemed to shake.

  “Incoming!” It was Barney. He was peering at me, grinning. “Incoming!”

  “Nice hollering.”

  On the perimeter of the village, the company began returning fire, blindly, spraying the hedges with M-16 and M-70 and M-60 fire. No targets, nothing to aim at and kill. Aimlessly, just shooting to shoot. It had been going like this for weeks—snipers, quick little attacks, blind counter-fire. Days, days. Those were the days.

  “Cease fire,” the lieutenants hollered.

  “Cease fire,” the platoon sergeants hollered.

  “Cease the fuckin’ fire,” shouted the squad leaders.

  “That,” I told Barney, “is the chain of command.”

  And Barney smiled. His face had the smooth complexion of a baby brother. Tickle him and he’d coo.

  When it ended, he and I walked over to where the mortar rounds had come in. Soldiers from the third platoon were standing there in the wreckage of huts and torn-down trees. It was over. Things happened, things came to an end. There was no sense of developing drama. All that remained was debris, four smouldering holes in the dirt, a few fires that would burn themselves out. “Nobody hurt,” one of the men said. “Lucky thing. We was all sitting down—a little rest break, you know? Smokin’ and snoozin’. Lucky, lucky thing. Lucky. Anybody standing up when that shit hits is dead. I mean gone.” The soldier sat on his pack and opened a can of peaches. It was over. There was no fear left in him, or in any of us.

  When the captain ran over to check on casualties, the same soldier repeated his story, making sure the captain understood the value of a good long rest break. Johansen smiled. What else was there to do? Smile, make a joke of it all. Blunder on. Captain Johansen told me to call battalion headquarters. “Just inform them that we’re heading off for our night position. Don’t mention this little firefight, okay? I don’t want to waste time messing with gunships or artillery—what’s the use?”

  I made the call. Then we hefted our packs and guns, formed up into a loose column, and straggled out of the village.

  It was only a two-hundred-meter march to the little wooded hill where we made our night position, but by the time the foxholes
were dug and we’d eaten cold C rations, it had been dark for nearly an hour.

  The day ended.

  Now night came. Old rituals, old fears. Spooks and goblins. Sometimes at night there was the awful certainty that men would die at their foxholes or in their sleep, silently, not a peep, but this night everyone talked softly and bravely. No one doubted that we’d be hit, yet there was no real terror. We hadn’t lost a man that day, even after eight hours of sniping and harassment, and the enemy’s failure during the day made the dark hours easier. We simply waited. Taking turns at guard, careful not to light cigarettes, we waited until nearly daybreak. And then only a half-dozen mortar rounds came down. No casualties. We were charmed.

  When it was light, a new day, Bates and Barney and I cooked C rations together. Same food, same smells. The heat was what woke us up. Then flies. Slowly, the camp came alive. The men stirred, lay on their backs, dreamed, talked in small groups. At that early hour no one kept guard: a glance out into the brush now and then, that was all. A cursory feign. It was like waking up in a cancer ward, no one ambitious to get on with the day, no one with obligations, no plans, nothing to hope for, no dreams for the daylight.

  “Not a bad night, really,” Barney said. “I mean, I was looking for the whole fuckin’ Red Army to come thunking down on us. But zilch. A few measly mortar rounds.”

  Bates shrugged. “Maybe they’re out of ammo.”

  “You think so?”

  “Could be,” Bates said. “A real possibility.”

  Barney stared at him, thinking, then he smiled. The idea excited him.

  “You really think so?” he said. “Out completely?”

  “No question about it.” Bates put on a solemn face. He was a teaser and he loved going after Barney. “Way I figure it, pal, Uncle Charles shot his whole wad yesterday. Follow me? Boom, it’s all gone. So today’s got to be quiet. Simple logic.”

  “Yeah,” Barney murmured. He kept wagging his head, stirring his ham and eggs. “Yeah.”

  “We wore ’em out. A war of fucking attrition.”

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