The Loss of Innocence in a Time of War
Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, said that the “most enduring Vietnam stories are those that are between the absolutely unbelievable and the mundane” (O’Brien 151). Such is the story of Mark Fossie – retold in the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” chapter of the book – a soldier in Vietnam who brings his teenage girlfriend Mary Anne Bell to the seemingly safe and isolated war zone. But after a short period of relative normalcy, things don’t go as planned for the couple. Mary Anne becomes deeply involved in the war effort, helping tend to the wounded soldiers, cooking, and learning how to speak a little Vietnamese. She also stops being some fussy and cuts her hair short. When he notices how drastically Mary Anne is changing, Fossie starts to talk to her about heading home to the States. She refuses and becomes increasingly withdrawn before eventually disappearing for a while. When she returns to camp, she doesn’t stop at Fossie’s bunk, instead heading over the special forces tent. When Fossie learns of this, he goes to see her, but she looks different. She is wearing the same sexy and feminine outfit she arrived in, this time wearing a necklace with human tongues. Above all, in the “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” Tim O’Brien effectively examines the unfortunate loss of Vietnam war soldiers’ innocence through the use of juxtaposition, symbolism, and simile.
O’Brien juxtaposes Mary Anne’s appearance and demeanor at various points of the story. When readers are first introduced to Mary Anne, they learn that, “She’s got on culottes. White culottes and this sexy pink sweater” (O’Brien 90). From this, we learn that she is concerned with style and more importantly, incredibly naïve and innocent. She thinks that her trip to Vietnam is like visiting her boyfriend at his work, not what it really is: an unprecedented trip by a civilian to a violent war zone. Later, after her adventure, Fossie finds Mary Anne in the Special Forces tent, who sees a “necklace of human tongues” at her throat (O’Brien 110). The juxtaposition between Mary Anne’s dress when she first arrives and after she experiences Vietnam is powerful because it shows how damaging war can be to any human being innocent and unprepared for what it really is, much less to a girl who arrived to it unsuitable clothing. In that sense, O’Brien appeals to readers’ by making them feel sorry for the girl and the situation she is in. They are also meant to feel sorry for the soldiers in Vietnam, many of whom put there against their will. Like Mary Anne, many will enter Vietnam innocent and fresh-faced and leave violent and hardened, not the innocent person they once were. O’Brien similarly juxtaposes Mary Anne’s personality and outfit at a few points in the story to reveal how she – and by proxy the soldiers sent to Vietnam – have lost their innocence. A little earlier in the story, she is said to be incredibly talkative, bubbly, and full of life. No longer. After spending a bit of time in Vietnam, it is said that “[Mary Anne] wore a white blouse, a navy-blue skirt, [and] a pair of plain black flats” (O’Brien 103). O’Brien later says that “[Mary Anne] would not speak,” a sharp contrast to her once-bubbly personality (O’Brien 104). This juxtaposition shows how although Mary Anne looks the same as she once was on the surface level, she experienced a deep change within. This is a reflection of the war on soldiers. They still seemed similar to who they were before the war, but the emotional trauma they went through changed their state of mind deep down. This juxtaposition serves not only to advance the narrative, but to appeals to audiences’ logic. If war can transform someone’s personality and get rid of someone’s innocence in such a short amount of time, should it be fought at all?
In the story, Mary Anne and her transformation as a person is a very powerful symbol. When she first arrives to the camp, a soldier remarks, “This seventeen-year-old doll in her goddamn culottes, perky and fresh-faced” (O’Brien 96). Mary Anne is symbolic of innocence that eventually will be destroyed by war. She clearly had no place in a war zone made for people with rocket launchers and attack helicopters. But she doesn’t think this. Based on how she dressed, she thinks it will be like a day trip to visit her boyfriend at work. This illuminates how naïve and innocent Mary Anne is; she clearly thinks her trip isn’t a big deal. It is, though. Towards the end of the story, O’Brien describes how Mary Anne has changed, writing that “At this girls neck was a necklace of human tongues” (O’Brien 110). This tongue necklace is symbolic of how Vietnam has swallowed Mary Anne and who she once was. She is no longer that girl that is too wide in the shoulders. She loves Vietnam and the war and will stay in the brutalized country as long as she is able. This puts an emphasis on how transformative war can be for those involved in it and appeals to the audience’s pathos. Here is a woman that was at first seemingly lovely but was so totally transformed by her gruesome experiences that she is unrecognizable. The audience is meant to simultaneously feel sorry for Mary Anne and wonder if a war is truly worth it if it means sacrificing innocence and humanity to fight (and eventually lose) a war that many viewed as unjust and without purpose.
Similarly, O’Brien uses revealing simile to illuminate Mary Anne’s transformation and loss of innocence. At first, we hear someone comment on her, saying “[Mary Anne is] like a cheerleader visiting the opposing team’s locker room” (O’Brien 96). This shows how out of her depths, innocent, naïve, and unassuming Mary Anne is. In her world, what would be wrong with arriving in a war zone looking fashionable or going into an opposing team’s locker room? Nevertheless, after Mary Anne returns to the camp and Mark confronts her, she observes that it “Feels like I’m full of electricity and I’m glowing in the dark… I know exactly who I am” (O’Brien 111). This simile is effective because it reveals Mary Anne’s stark change from fresh-faced cheerleader to hardened, self-confident warrior. It also appeals to the audience’s emotions. The audience is left feeling sympathetic for how misguided Mary Anne is and scared for her safety and mental health. At the end of the day, had she ventured out into the jungles of Vietnam when she first arrived at the camp, she would have likely been killed; later, she would presumably handle herself very well. She was innocent at the start of the story; at the end of it, she was anything but innocent from her experiences in the hellish war. O’Brien makes the case that the same thing happens to many of the soldiers that are sent to the Vietnamese jungles.
While this story is neither mundane, it brilliantly shows how transformative war is and how easy it is to lose innocence after experiencing it for a short amount of time. Like many male soldiers, Mary Anne arrives in Vietnam with an incredibly energetic and bubbly personality. But like many of the boys sent to Vietnam, Mary Anne changes so quickly and dramatically that she becomes unrecognizable to one of the people she loves the most – her boyfriend, Mark Fossie. In conclusion, O’Brien, through the use of juxtaposition, symbolism, and simile, makes the case that Vietnam swallowed the soldiers that went there and caused them to lose their innocence.
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