Even taking this book on its own, outside of context, it’s a pretty amazing memoir. It’s horrifyingly graphic when it comes to the violence it depicts; it analyzes its own use of language and imagery to decide what does and doesn’t make sense; it engages with both biblical history and American history to make sense of the particular vulgarity of 20th century wars — post WWII — and through an extension of its argument works backwards through all wars; it challenges (imperfectly) the de facto racial segregation of warfare. Within its context: it’s absolutely extraordinary.
This book was published in 1973, which places it still pretty much within the confines of the war itself. It’s not an anti-war book in the sense of making a cogent and logical argument (or even a moral one) against the war itself, because as Tim O’Brien shows us pretty early on, even when he tried to make those kinds of arguments they felt flat to him. Instead, it treats war as a kind of unstoppable force and inevitable thing, and showing this through indifference of everyone (on the American side) as completely amoral. So for example: given that there incredibly contradictory and unclear goals militarily, having soldiers do ANYTHING to achieve those goals is completely without justification, not only to themselves, but to the Vietnamese as well. So the book helps to deflated not the goals of the war, but the ideology behind, not through an intellectual (though it’s plenty intellectual, especially toward the end) discussion, but through an expository revealing of the lie and myths at the center of warmaking.