Vietnam Literature

"In the Field," by Tim O'Brien & Poetry by Yusef Komunyakaa

Historical Background

  • U.S. Official Involvement 1959-1975
  • Succession of weak leadership in Vietnam
  • Gulf of Tonkin Resolution
  • Tet Offensive
  • Fall of Saigon

Home Front Opposition and End of the War


  • Anti-war protests and movement divided Americans bitterly
  • Black April
  • Effects of the Vietnam War lingered long after the return of troops to the U.S.
  • Cost of military buildup, psychological effects, & physical damage

Tim O'Brien

  • Born in 1946 in Austin, Minnesota
  • Drafted into the army in August, 1968, served 1969-1970
  • During his Vietnam tour, O'Brien began jotting down stories about the war at least in part to cope with it.
  • Metafiction: fiction that discusses the function and effect of storytelling
  • Central theme throughout his works is courage
  • Primary Works: If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), Going After Cacciato (1978), The Things They Carried (1990), In the Lake of the Woods (1994), July, July (2002).

"In the Field"


1. What does O’Brien convey about war and why do you think so?

2. How is a sense of (or lack of) community important in this text?

3. How is death represented? In general? In terms of the characters’ reaction to it or thoughts about it?

4. How does the text engage individuality and is there any significance to the characters?

5. How are the concepts of absolution and forgiveness addressed in “In the Field”?

Discussion Questions

How can we discuss O’Brien alongside the reading from Herr, last week?

Read: pg. 2742 "Near the center of the field..."

  • Using this particular passage, describe the range of reactions the soldiers exhibit to their experiences. Why are these reactions or coping mechanisms significant within the story?

  • How do the soldiers cope with these experiences?

  • How does the landscape of Vietnam play a role in the story?

  • How is spirituality expressed within the context of war?

Yusef Komunyakaa

Biographical Information

  • Born in 1947 in Louisiana & lived there during the Civil Rights Movement
  • Member of U.S. army 1969-70 as a correspondent; earned the Bronze Star during Vietnam War for helping to write The Southern Cross.
  • "The combination of the realistic and the spiritual runs throughout Komunyakaa's poems... the spiritual journey each of us takes--alone, and in whatever circumstances life hands us--and the various conflicts of war."
  • Primary Works: Dedications& Other Darkhorses (1977), Lost in the Bonewheel Factory (1979), to name a few...

"Tu Do Street"

Typically films and media portray war as a unifying force.

1. How does Komunyakaa’s African-American perspective differ from this?

2. How does music, usually thought of as common denominator for troops, not a unifying element?

3. How does the imagery in the poem about "underworld" and "tunnels” demonstrate the connectedness of humanity, but with negative connotations?


This poem also deals with shared humanity, but with a pessimistic tone of helplessness.

1. Where do you see the speaker connecting to the prisoners?

2. Where do you see the distance between the prisoners and the Americans?

3. How does this poem both lack humanity and yet show the human qualities all people possess?

"Facing It"

Read this poem aloud as a group, as we read, what sensory details and emotions does the poem evoke?

1. Where there are moments of tension in the poem how do these moments reflect the speaker's experience of looking at the wall?

2. What do internal rhyme and other repetitions of sound and image contribute to the music and feel of this poem?

3. What might be the speaker's goal in "facing it"? Think about both the poem itself and the action of looking at the wall.

4. How does the stone's surface or setting of the poem affect the reading of it? Is it inviting, reflective, charging?

5. How does the speaker’s reaction towards the wall in "Facing It" compare or contrast to the soldiers’ reactions/experiences in the readings of Herr, and O’Brien?