If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home marks my third foray into Tim O'Brien's Vietnam War experience. Going After Cacciato was a compelling trip into the haze of 'Nam. The Things They Carried was one of the most deeply affective books I've ever read. This third trip into Vietnam from perhaps the most accomplished author on the subject (at least in the realm of fiction) is a much more personal book.
If I Die in a Combat Zone is memoir. It is his account of his reluctant tour-of-duty as a Combat Infantry soldier in My Lai a mere year after the massacre. Much as we've come to expect from most Vietnam literature and film, this is not a nostalgic look at a noble war, but rather an often scathing journal calling into question the rationale for even being at war.
As a man who seriously considered fleeing the country from boot camp, obviously he was not in favor of the U.S.'s involvement in Vietnam and did not want to risk his neck for a cause he viewed as questionable at best. When he did get there, his experience was not one entirely without valor in battle, however. There was awe at the honor and bravery with which some men carried themselves in battle, and an appreciation for the being able to conduct oneself by a fundamental code of man's ideals. But these brief explorations into the admiration of masculinity in war are outshone by the haphazard execution of a war fought on unfamiliar foreign land. In O'Brien's experience, the men in charge were largely ineffectual, boorish, and ill-suited for command, yet they were able to continue to order young men to their death for missions with little to no meaning.
If I Die in a Combat Zone is nothing if not compelling. O'Brien surely grew as a writer between this, his first book, and Going After Cacciato, his National Book Award-winning third book, but he doesn't seem to have been lacking much of the skill on display a mere five years later, and the first person account of real events add a verity that his works of fiction lack by nature.
But don't take my word for it...