Some days just leave you stunned. While I made coffee this morning, I read my paper’s account of the slaughter of poor Nick Berg, dead at age 26 because he was in the wrong country at the wrong time.
My eye drifted down the counter to a small stack of items we bought to send our nephew, an Army soldier stationed in the Sunni Triangle. A brand of cigarettes favored by many that are not readily available in the war zone. Hard butterscotch candies. Sun screen. Things he’d asked for. Still, they seemed such an inadequate offering to a young man who, with 130,000 of his fellows, is risking his life daily in the bleak reality of Iraq. Looking at these few items reminded me somehow of the opening chapter of Tim O’Brien’s much-admired Vietnam book, "The Things They Carried," which I had read years ago. I looked it up on the Web. Here’s an excerpt:
"The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wrist watches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.
"Together, these items weighed between fifteen and twenty pounds, depending upon a man's habits or rate of metabolism. Henry Dobbins, who was a big man, carried extra rations; he was especially fond of canned peaches in heavy syrup over pound cake. Dave Jensen, who practiced field hygiene, carried a toothbrush, dental floss, and several hotel-size bars of soap he'd stolen on R&R in Sydney, Australia. Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April.
"By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed five pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. On their feet they carried jungle boots-2.1 pounds - and Dave Jensen carried three pairs of socks and a can of Dr. Scholl's foot powder as a precaution against trench foot. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried six or seven ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity. Mitchell Sanders, the RTO, carried condoms. Norman Bowker carried a diary. Rat Kiley carried comic books. Kiowa, a devout Baptist, carried an illustrated New Testament that had been presented to him by his father, who taught Sunday school in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. As a hedge against bad times, however, Kiowa also carried his grandmother's distrust of the white man, his grandfather's old hunting hatchet.
"Necessity dictated. Because the land was mined and booby-trapped, it was SOP for each man to carry a steel-centered, nylon-covered flak jacket, which weighed 6.7 pounds, but which on hot days seemed much heavier. Because you could die so quickly, each man carried at least one large compress bandage, usually in the helmet band for easy access. Because the nights were cold, and because the monsoons were wet, each carried a green plastic poncho that could be used as a raincoat or groundsheet or makeshift tent. With its quilted liner, the poncho weighed almost two pounds, but it was worth every ounce. In April, for instance, when Ted Lavender was shot, they used his poncho to wrap him up, then to carry him across the paddy, then to lift him into the chopper that took him away." There's much more and you can read it all here.
O’Brien’s story specifies, in vivid detail, the things our troops carried to try to keep themselves alive. Our men and women are better equipped today – though my nephew’s mom had to come up with $1,200 to buy his body armor because the Army had none – but their lives differ only in detail, not in fundamental reality, from those of previous wars. And as O’Brien reminds us, their true burdens are those they carry in their hearts. It’s the human condition.
I’ve done some traveling to uncomfortable places (though nothing like Iraq, certainly) and I always found it was the simple little everyday items, the familiar, that helped me deal with the unfamiliar, the alien. So we’ll pack the cigarettes, the candy and the sunscreen and dispatch them to Iraq and think good thoughts about the day when our nephew and the rest of our soldiers can return to their real lives.
But it is hard to see how we’re going to get from here to there anytime soon.