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Book Review

This historical fiction book by Tim O'Brien is published by Mariner Books, a division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and others, and is written for adults but is sometimes studied by high school classes or put on high school reading lists.

Positive Elements

Spiritual Content

Sexual Content

Violent Content

Crude or Profane Language

Drug and Alcohol Content

Other Negative Elements


Pro-social Content

Objectionable Content

Summary Advisory

Plot Summary

According to the author, this nonchronological collection of fictitious scenes is an accurate account of the experiences of many American soldiers in Vietnam.

The men of Alpha Company carry many things — weapons, armor, ammunition, food, letters, good-luck charms and an assortment of personal items including New Testaments, pantyhose and severed thumbs. But their emotional baggage is heavier than their physical load.

First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross blames himself for the death of Ted Lavender, who was shot while relieving himself. Azar straps Ted's puppy to an anti-personnel mine and pulls the trigger. Lee Strunk and Dave Jensen make a pact to kill the other if one is badly wounded. When a rigged mortar round takes off Lee's leg, Dave doesn't kill him, but Lee dies anyway.

Curt Lemon steps on a booby-trapped 105 round while using a smoke grenade to play catch with his best friend, Mitchell Sanders. Tim O'Brien, who had the opportunity but is unwilling to cross the border into Canada when he was drafted, picks pieces of Curt out of a tree. Later, Mitchell repeatedly shoots a baby buffalo — to injure, not to kill. Horribly maimed, it dies a slow and painful death.

Both Jimmy Cross and Norman Bowker blame themselves for the death of Kiowa. Jimmy shouldn't have told his men to camp over the village latrine. Norman would have been able to pull Kiowa out of the muck if the smell of excrement hadn't overpowered him. Norman hangs himself three years after the war, wracked with guilt and unable to find meaning in a life that doesn't include fighting. Tim kills a young Vietnamese recruit with a hand grenade. It isn't in self-defense. It isn't in battle; he's simply afraid. And now he can't forget.

The men fantasize about shooting off their fingers or toes so the chopper will pick them up and take them away from the war, but they're too afraid to be cowards — except for Rat Kiley, who can't shake the images of internal organs and severed body parts that haunt him on the night-long marches. He shoots himself in the foot and is transferred to Japan.

After being shot twice, Tim is relieved from active duty. When Alpha Company briefly visits the base where he is stationed, he realizes that he's no longer one of them. He wrestles with feelings of anger and plots revenge against a medic who provided him with substandard care, but when the war ends, Tim is one of the lucky ones. He resumes his education and finds a way to release his emotions through his writing. He takes his daughter Kathleen to Vietnam and revisits old battle sites. In Vietnam, the men use words to distance themselves from reality. Now, Tim uses words to bring reality closer. He learns that by writing stories, he can make the dead live again. He can put faces on corpses that he was once too scared to look at. He can rewrite his past the way he wishes it happened or is still happening — and maybe save himself in the process.

Christian Beliefs

Kiowa is a devout Baptist. He carries an illustrated New Testament at all times and uses it as a pillow. During battle, men make hasty promises to God. Later, they joke about their near escapes. Henry Dobbins remembers counting bricks when he attended church as a child. In his teens, he considers becoming a minister because he'd enjoy the perks (potlucks and a free car and house). He doesn't feel particularly religious, but he would like to wear a robe and be nice to people. Norman Bowker, who later hangs himself, worries about the existence of God.

Other Belief Systems

A soldier carries a pilfered statuette of Buddha. Tim makes a vague reference to the gods. When he is trying to decide whether to defect across the river to Canada, Tim hallucinates about people in his life — past, present and future. At night, soldiers believe in ghosts. When the platoon uses a pagoda as a temporary base, monks deliver water and watermelons to the soldiers. They also help them clean their guns.

Authority Roles

Jimmy Cross, the platoon leader, burns pictures and letters from the woman he loves in an effort to be more alert and daydream less. He feels that his inattentiveness and poor decision-making caused Kiowa's and Ted's deaths. A soldier wishes his father wasn't so worried about him winning medals. Elroy Berdahl, a resort owner near the Canadian border, doesn't say much but is an influential force in Tim's life. He gives Tim the chance to escape to Canada, but when Tim is too embarrassed to defect, he reacts with perfect nonchalance.


Frequent profanity and coarse words include: a--, a--hole, b--tard, b--ch, d--n, the f-word, h---, p---, p---y, cooze, gook, pecker, poontang, and s---. Racial slurs and other coarse language are also used. The name of Jesus is misused. The language the soldiers use to distance themselves from reality can also be offensive. They refer to a napalmed Viet Cong nurse as a crispy critter and a dead baby as a crunchie munchie.

Men are shot, blown up and drowned. The moment of their death is often described in detail. Mutilated and dismembered corpses are described in detail. Alpha Company burns the village where Ted Lavender was shot. A soldier kicks a boy's corpse and cuts off the corpse's thumb. Soldiers shoot and deliberately torture animals. A soldier uses an anti-personnel mine to blow up a puppy. A girl makes a necklace out of dried human tongues. Soldiers deliberately wound themselves, shooting off their fingers and toes. Soldiers make a pact to kill each other if one of them is seriously wounded. A soldier deliberately breaks his own nose with his pistol. Without provocation, Tim kills a Vietnamese recruit.


Jimmy Cross wonders if Martha is a virgin. He remembers kissing her goodnight. He fantasizes about tying her to a bed and touching her knee. He also fantasizes about sleeping inside her lungs, breathing her blood and being buried together in a cave-in with her tongue in his mouth. Jimmy loves Martha, but she never marries and becomes a Lutheran missionary.

Soldiers carry condoms. A soldier wears his girlfriend's pantyhose wrapped around his neck as a good-luck charm. A soldier suggests bringing several Vietnamese women to their base to use as prostitutes.

After a soldier defects, his life is described as being about "nookie and new angles." A soldier's girlfriend swims in her underwear. A soldier thinks his girlfriend is sleeping around, but actually she's on night patrol with the Green Berets. Azar pretends to dance erotically. A soldier jokes that Jane Fonda boosts his "morale." On Halloween, Curt Lemon goes "trick-or-treating" naked in a Vietnamese village.

Discussion Topics

Additional Comments/Notes

Subjective truth: Tim blurs the lines between fact and fiction, stating that some stories that actually happened are less true than stories that didn't actually happen.

Substance use: Soldiers smoke dope and cigarettes, pop tranquilizers and drink alcohol.

This review is brought to you by Focus on the Family, a donor-based ministry. Book reviews cover the content, themes and world-views of fiction books, not their literary merit, and equip parents to decide whether a book is appropriate for their children. A book's inclusion does not constitute an endorsement by Focus on the Family.

You can request a review of a title you can't find at reviewrequests@family.org.

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