If I Die in a Combat Zone


Tim O’Brien

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If I Die in a Combat Zone Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Tim O’Brien's If I Die in a Combat Zone. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien was born in Austin, Minnesota in 1946, the first of three children, immediately after his parents returned from serving in World War II. He spent his entire childhood in rural Minnesota, and the setting features prominently in several of his books. In 1968, O’Brien graduated from a small liberal arts college with a B.A. in political science, after which he was drafted into the United States Army to serve in the Vietnam War. O’Brien was ethically opposed to the war and nearly fled to Sweden, one of the few European countries unwilling to extradite American deserters. However, he felt duty-bound to respect his small Minnesota community and decided to serve. After a few months of basic training, O’Brien was sent to Vietnam where he served as a general infantry, a “foot soldier” from 1969 to 1970 in the 23rd Infantry Division—whom the year before committed the infamous My Lai Massacre, a mass-killing of hundreds of unarmed Vietnamese civilians. O’Brien survived the Vietnam War and returned to the U.S., attending graduate school at Harvard University before becoming an intern with the Washington Post. In 1973, O’Brien began his literary career by publishing If I Die in a Combat Zone, his memoir of the Vietnam War. Although he never considered himself an authority on the Vietnam War, he wrote several influential books about it for the next several decades, most notably the award-winners Going After Cacciato in 1978 and The Things They Carried in 1990. O’Brien married in 2001 and became a father at the age of 58. His latest book, Dad’s Maybe Book, is a series of letters to his two sons, so they can know him as a man even though he will be elderly by the time they enter adulthood. O’Brien currently lectures at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.
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Historical Context of If I Die in a Combat Zone

The Vietnam War stretched from 1955 to 1975. The conflict officially took place between North Vietnam and South Vietnam, though the presence of communist allies backing North Vietnam (the Soviet Union, China, and others) and anti-communist allies backing South Vietnam (the U.S., Australia, South Korea, Thailand, and others) made it essentially a proxy war for major powers, an extension of Cold War-era tensions between the East and the West. The Vietnam War began in 1954, when colonial France abandoned Indochina (the regional name for Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam). The U.S. quickly stepped in to occupy the military and financial vacuum left by France in South Vietnam, but the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong (also known as the National Liberation Front) swept south and launched a guerrilla war to oust the U.S. and establish a unified, independent communist state. In 1959, U.S. President John F. Kennedy began dramatically increasing America’s military presence in Vietnam, sending thousands of soldiers per year. Although by 1966 American military leaders privately doubted that the U.S. could achieve victory in Vietnam, heavy American involvement continued through 1973, since no president wanted to admit to a humiliating and costly defeat during their term of office. President Richard Nixon eventually ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops in 1973, and in 1975, the Viet Cong took control of South Vietnam and established their Socialist Republic of Vietnam. The Vietnam War is remembered especially for its catastrophic death tolls: 58,000 American soldiers died in combat and tens of thousands more were seriously wounded. However, this pales in comparison to what the Vietnamese people suffered: over three million dead, at least half of whom were unarmed civilians.

Other Books Related to If I Die in a Combat Zone

Tim O’Brien is recognized as one of the 20th century’s most important anti-war writers, particularly because of books like If I Die in a Combat Zone that describe the grim reality of the Vietnam War. In his novel Going After Cacciato, O’Brien continues to reflect on the Vietnam War through the story of an American soldier who deserts the army and walks from Vietnam through Asia and all the way to Paris, France. The Things They Carried, arguably O’Brien’s most revered work, is a fictionalized memoir that again reflects O’Brien’s his experience in the Vietnam War, but from the perspective of the author in his mid-forties, still haunted by what he did and saw 20 years ago. In addition to O’Brien’s body of work, many other powerful reflections on the Vietnam War also exist. Phillip Caputo, a U.S. Marine-turned-journalist, writes of his own experiences in the Vietnam War in A Rumor of War, focusing especially on how ambiguous the war felt, without clear-cut ideals of good and evil or even a clear idea of who their real enemy was. Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier, relates his experience of the Vietnam War from the opposite side in his memoir The Sorrow of War, which describes what it felt like to see his country ravaged by American military strikes. In If I Die in a Combat Zone, O’Brien notes that black American soldiers particularly suffered during the war, as they were subject to disproportionate danger and trauma due to their prejudiced white superior officers. Wallace Terry’s Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans explores this further, describing how black soldiers faced even greater dangers and died at higher rates than white soldiers due to being assigned the most dangerous roles in war.
Key Facts about If I Die in a Combat Zone
  • Full Title: If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home
  • When Written: 1969-1972
  • Where Written: Vietnam; Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • When Published: 1973
  • Literary Period: Contemporary
  • Genre: Memoir
  • Setting: Minnesota; Vietnam
  • Climax: O’Brien finishes his military service and leaves Vietnam, returning home to the U.S.
  • Antagonist: The Vietnam War
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for If I Die in a Combat Zone

At Ease. O’Brien began writing his memoir while in Vietnam, in the quiet periods between firefights. He estimates that he wrote roughly 20 pages during his military service and he filled in the rest in the two years after he returned home.