The Somerville Public Library received a grant this year to sponsor “Somerville Reads,” an opportunity for any city resident who can read, can read English, and wanted to, to read the same book: Tim O’Brien’s amazing The Things They Carried. The SPL also arranged a number of discussion groups, a community read-aloud, and a Vietnam film series. These have been happening all this month. Cool, huh?
Tuesday, I attended a well-attended discussion at Porter Square Books, a wonderful, independent bookstore which, to be technical, is in Cambridge. Sigh. (Like many Somervillians, I’m just a wee bit pissed that next-city-over Cambridge boosts so many bookstores; don’t get me started about its brand-new library.)
Much as I loved every minute of Tuesday’s discussion, ably moderated by writer Margot Livesey, much as I love, love, love Porter Square Books, I couldn’t help but feel sad that a discussion re a Vietnam novel couldn’t have happened on Somerville “soil.” Somerville lost so many, many soldiers in Vietnam; a disproportionate number. Soil. Isn’t war about soil?
O’Brien makes war and the men and women who fight it excruciatingly, you-can-smell-it-and-taste-it real. None of these abstractions about “courage” and “glory” and “sacrifice,” please. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, the odious Azar, the soulful Kiowa; by the end of the book, we KNOW these men.
And here’s something we carry, after finishing O’Brien’s masterpiece. We read an April, 2010 account of American soldiers killing civilians, women and children, on a bus in Afghanistan—a bus!— and we know that men and women like Bowker and Cross and, yes, even Kiowa perpetuated that attack. (Which, apparently, happened in a thick fog. The fog of war?) We know how scared those soldiers are, how exhausted, how so often poorly commanded. We know for a fact that American soldiers have and can and will kill for revenge. We know that in war, horrendous mistakes happen.
We can’t condone such an attack, no way. But we get it.