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The Things They Carried | Context

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Critical Response

O'Brien's Going after Cacciato (1978) launched him to national fame, winning the National Book Award in fiction. The Things They Carried, published in 1990, cemented O'Brien's status as a war writer of the same rank as Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961), author of the tragic novel For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), set during World War I, and Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007), author of the satirical novel Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), set during World War II. The Things They Carried won the Chicago Tribune's Heartland Prize and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award. The New York Times gave the book a place "high up on the list of best fiction about any war" and praised the way it "crystallizes the Vietnam experience."

The Vietnam War

In 1961 the United States sent advisers to aid South Vietnam in its struggle against North Vietnam, and by 1965 U.S. combat units had arrived to fight with the South Vietnamese. However, the conflict in Vietnam had begun more than a decade earlier, when North Vietnam threw off French colonial power. The North Vietnamese, inspired by communist China and the Soviet Union, hoped to unite the country under communist rule. In the midst of the Cold War, Western powers wanted to prevent the spread of communism. Some Western leaders described what they called the "domino theory." If one country in Southeast Asia became communist, they argued, nearby countries would fall to communism, too, in a chain reaction. This idea supported U.S. involvement in the war, and by 1969 a half million U.S. troops were in Vietnam to hold the communist North Vietnamese at bay. China and the Soviet Union supported the Viet Cong, the North Vietnamese military, in the conflict.

As the war dragged on, many Americans turned against it. Media reports from combat areas disturbed American viewers, many of whom were not convinced that the United States needed to participate in the war, as did the increasing numbers of American casualties and a failed attempt to halt the Viet Cong through an aggressive bombing campaign. Some argued that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and pointed to the terrible loss of life, agriculture, and business in Vietnam.

In 1969, under President Richard Nixon, a policy called "Vietnamization" was put into effect. U.S. troops would gradually hand over operations to the South Vietnamese military and return home. Though the South Vietnamese were not ready to fight without U.S. support, by this point U.S. politicians found it nearly impossible to change direction. Reports of demoralized troops intensified the demand to exit, and by March 1973 all U.S. troops had left Vietnam. Summer 1974 saw the U.S. Congress cutting economic and material aid to South Vietnam, even as the Viet Cong were pressing south. By late April 1975, South Vietnam's government collapsed, and the Viet Cong achieved their goal of a single communist Vietnam.

The Draft Controversy

Nearly two million servicemen deployed to Vietnam were drafted into military service instead of volunteering to enlist. Selective Service, commonly called the "draft," required young men to join the armed forces for a set period of time. This system had been used in previous wars, but the draft during the Vietnam War became a national flash point.

Critics argued that sons of wealthy or politically connected families were protected from the draft. A young man's service could be deferred if he enrolled in college, but not all families could afford to shelter their sons this way. Therefore, poor men and those from minority groups were drafted in greater numbers. To counter these criticisms, the draft became a lottery in 1968. Men between ages 18 and 26 were assigned a number. If it was chosen at random in the lottery, they had to report for training and then serve a one-year deployment.

As the war dragged on, hundreds of thousands of young men "dodged," or evaded, the draft. Some fled the country, often to Canada. By 1973 opposition to the draft was widespread, the United States was drawing down its troops, and the draft ended. Later presidents pardoned many draft dodgers.

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