Who Am I? Close your eyes and imagine a backdrop of densely packed trees in shades of olive and emerald green, a military supply helicopter on the helipad, blades swooshing around stirring up dust, and out steps a beautiful, young, blonde girl.
Right in the middle of war-torn Vietnam, at the Tra Bong outpost, Mary Anne Bell arrives at the request of her boyfriend. When first reading “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” by Tim O’Brien, one might believe it is a love story turned sour, but on closer inspection, it is apparent that this story is about much more than that.This story is about the loss of innocence, personal evolution, and the attempt to define one’s self. A bit tired and out-of-place, a young Mary Anne steps off a helicopter and into Nam.
A war is raging beyond the concertina wire, and she is oblivious to the enormous magnitude of the situation. Mary Anne is a naive, barely 17 year old girl. She is cheerful, wide-eyed, and inquisitive all rolled up into one bundle. She is fresh out of high school with no life experience and no idea of how the world works; how it can tilt and sour one’s perspective.
In the beginning, Mary Anne is very fascinated by the country, the culture, and the people. She sees Nam through untainted curious eyes, wanting to experience the customs and feel the culture. She probes the soldiers at the outpost with many questions and listens intently to their answers, consuming all the information given. She learns about claymore mines, trip wires, how to assemble and disassemble an M-16 machine gun, as well as how to cook over a can of Sterno. Like a sponge, she soaks up all the knowledge.She even learns the language; her thought is to take advantage of her situation and learn as much as possible while in Nam. Believing that the locals are safe, ordinary people, Mary Ann wants to venture to a close-by village to interact with them. This shows just how wet behind the ears she is; Mary Anne does not see the threat or danger in her actions, “It did not impress her that the VC owned the place” (O’Brien 214).
Some of the other soldiers were impressed with her courage, but not so much with her intelligence. The NCO of the outpost, Eddie Diamond described her best as “D-cup guts, trainer bra brains” (O’Brien 215).However, Eddie knew that eventually she would learn the cold, hard truth like everyone else, and it would change her forever. Rat Riley, one of the medics at the outpost and new friend of Mary Anne’s, makes a direct comparison between her, him, and others, “…like you and me. A girl that’s the only difference” he declared, “…when we first got here – all of us – we were real young and innocent, full of romantic bullshit, but we learned pretty damn quick” (O’Brien 215). Mary Anne would learn as well, she would lose the innocence that came with ignorance of the truth.The change was slow and murky to the untrained eye, but there it was, the progression from a pure untainted soul to one that had fallen into a dark abyss.
It started with small things, the lack of emotion when dealing with injured soldiers, all the blood and guts. Not being the least bit frightened or put off by what she was seeing, Mary Anne would jump right into the middle of all the gore. “In times of action her face took on a sudden new composure, almost serene…” (O’Brien 217). A new and different person was immerging; the young, innocent, bubbly, wideeyed girl was disappearing.There were other subtle changes showing how Mary Anne was becoming one of the guys. Just like the men, she cut her beautiful blonde hair short and wrapped her head in an army issue green bandanna to blend in.
Gone were the small things that made her Mary Anne-her make-up, taking care of her fingernails, jewelry, and “hygiene became a matter of small consequence” (O’Brien 216). It was, by pure design of nature, she had to adapt to the environment to survive. The softness as well as her exuberance were gone and replaced by rigidity and indifference.She no longer engages in activates with the others, instead; she stares intently into the dark jungle with a look of contentment on her face. Nam was claiming her, sucking her into the abyss. Mary Anne starts going out on patrol in the jungle with the “Greenies”, the Green Beret soldiers.
Eventually, she becomes so comfortable with her surroundings that she ventures out on her own. Mary Anne makes the final transition; the innocent girl disappears within the new person she has become. She is now a war-born soldier. Now, there is no trace of the young girl who stepped out of the helicopter and into Nam for the first time. The girl joined the zoo” Mary Anne became just another animal in the vast Nam jungle (O’Brien 221). The naive, innocent girl was gone; she vanished into the shadows. Mary Anne found her true self and was perfectly at peace.
The wilderness succeeded in drawing her in, changing her, and making her part of the earth. Mary Anne wants “…to eat this place. Vietnam. I want to swallow the whole country-the dirt, the death-I just want to eat it and have it there inside me” she adds “I get scared sometimes-lots of times-but it’s not bad. You know? I feel close to myself” (O’Brien 223).
Perhaps for Mary Anne, she found something that was lurking deep inside her prior to arriving in Nam. Maybe Nam just expedited digging that part of her out. Mary Anne was alive, full of electricity, “perfectly at peace with herself” she explains “because I know exactly who I am” (O’Brien 223). “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong,” shows us all that no one can survive a war and walk away unscathed by it. One can never return the same person that went over to another country on a mission that involved killing. Rat Riley describes it best, “you come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it’s never the same” (O’Brien 225).This story is not about Mary Anne Bell, but about what she embodies.
She personifies all the young, inexperienced boys that went to Vietnam and their stories. Mary Anne represents the loss of purity in the many young men that went by choice or by force to a foreign land. Nam devoured their souls transforming them forever, as if the very country cried out for a piece of them as payment for damages rendered.
Nam claimed its price of those that trampled on her soil. Some young men may have found their inner killer and like Mary Anne did in the end, they became content.But on the other hand, many others were forced to become something alien just to endure the war. These are the souls that returned tortured. Oh my soul that I should weep for I no longer close my eyes and find innocent sleep. These haunted souls look in a mirror and ask, “Who am I? ” Perhaps on some days, they see a glimmer of the person they once were when they were young and innocent.
Works Cited O’Brien, Tim. “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong. ” World Views Classic and Contemporary Readings. Ed. Macy, et al Felty.
6th. Boston: Pearson, 2010. 210-226.