War Without End

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An Interview with Tim O’Brien

In The Things They Carried, the prize-winning novelist Tim O’Brien offers this nugget in a chapter titled “How to Tell a True War Story”:

“In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.

“In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling.”

For the past three decades, O’Brien has been trying to tell true war stories — even though most of them, strictly speaking, are fiction.

O’Brien opposed the Vietnam war but got drafted, and opted to go rather than flee to Canada. After his service, he went to grad school, and then learned journalism at the Washington Post. In 1973, he published the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone.

But he learned — from journalism and his own story — that there’s a major gulf between “happening truth” and “story truth,” that sometimes objective accounts don’t speak accurately, that sometimes fiction is a better representation of the world than nonfiction.

In a recent interview, O’Brien — winner of the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato and a Pulitzer Prize finalist for The Things They Carried — discussed his literary career; the inadequacy of nonfiction in describing war; the current war in Iraq; and how a book called Larry of the Little League was as critical to his writing career as Vietnam.

“Nobody Is Without Stain”

While an intern and then a general-assignment reporter at the Washington Post, O’Brien started to see the limitations of nonfiction. “You could do the dialogue better” than people spoke, he said. “You’re constrained by the rules [of journalism]. You can’t help them [characters] out. ... I knew it wasn’t for me.”

When he was writing If I Die in a Combat Zone, O’Brien understood that it didn’t qualify as a traditional memoir. His memory for dates, names, places, words, and chronology was poor, he said. “Even as I was writing, it was inadequate,” he told me. “I couldn’t write nonfiction. I wasn’t capable of doing it ... to remember dialogue, for example, what people said a half-year later, even a day later. The best I could do was re-create it, try to get the feel of it. And it occurred to me even as I was doing it that I wasn’t being true to the rules of journalism or history. I was in another world between nonfiction and fiction. I was trying to capture the feel of things, the sound of voices, the spirit of what was said.”

Unsurprisingly, when he finished the book, it didn’t feel right. “It felt as if I hadn’t gone far enough,” he said.

And that is essentially the premise of O’Brien’s literary career — seeking truth through fiction. The Things They Carried, published in 1990, is written like a memoir, down to the dedication to six specific soldiers from the book and its first-person style. But three-quarters the way through, O’Brien reveals his conceit:

“It’s time to be blunt. I’m 43 years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.

“Almost everything else is invented.”

“The central idea,” he explained in our interview, “was to try to write a novel or a work of fiction using the conventions of a memoir ... trying to give a sense of ‘this actually happened.’” The goal wasn’t to trick readers, but to express the psychological truth of the situation in Vietnam, if not the real events as they unfolded.

He cited one chapter in particular, “On a Rainy River.” “That never happened,” he said. “But ... that chapter, even though it’s entirely invented, seems to me more true emotionally and more moving and captures the feel I had of wanting to run from this war better than I’d done in If I Die ... by far, not just a little bit.”

Later in the book, he explains the difference by example:

“Here is the happening truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, 20 years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.

“Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about 20. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.

“What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.”

The origins of O’Brien’s approach are in childhood, in the ability of kids to take fantasy as reality. “Fairy tales, books about baseball ... felt real to me,” he said. “The characters after I closed the book were still there — the Hardy Boys, Thumbelina. ... They just felt like real people running around my life. And I think that’s probably true for most kids. ... Clifford the Big Red Dog probably feels as real to my kid as a real dog.”

While fantasy and reality intermingle in the mind of a child, war is something else entirely. Straightforward reporting, O’Brien said, doesn’t do justice to “the nightmare world of Vietnam”: “You knew it was happening, but it didn’t feel that it could be happening. Everything that you had lived prior to it — civility and decency, all the things I had taken for granted — were utterly and absolutely upside-down.” So what better way to deal with it than through fiction?

It’s not that O’Brien’s work isn’t true. Quite the contrary. His 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods — which Time named best novel of the year — imagined a candidate for U.S. Senate whose covered-up participation in the My Lai massacre torpedoes his political career and his family life. Although the book is something of a mystery — dealing with the disappearance of the candidate’s wife — its premise has eerie echoes of Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. Senator who in 2001 revealed that he had participated in a 1969 massacre in Thanh Phong, Vietnam.

O’Brien called the similarities “uncanny. I’m glad I wrote my book first and that happened second.”

The novel, he said, speaks to issues of withholding and guilt: “With all veterans, there’s a tendency — not just Vietnam, but from all wars — to remain silent about the terrible things that they did.” He added that he didn’t have a model in mind but wanted to magnify the secrecy issue through the use of a public figure.

That Kerrey situation, he added, “validated ... a general sense of how the world is — that sins are committed, they’re held in silence, and they can come back to haunt us. And not just for politicians but for all of us — housewives, plumbers. Nobody is without stain.”

“I’m Not Nuts”

O’Brien is known as a Vietnam writer, even though several works — particularly his 1998 novel Tomcat in Love — are major departures. But the author is convinced he would have become a writer no matter whether he went to Vietnam.

“Secretly in the back of my head I always wanted to be a novelist,” he said. “Until Vietnam collided with my life, I didn’t pursue it.”

He had opposed the war, but said he doesn’t consider what he did “protesting.” “I wasn’t a rad; I was a liberal,” he said. “I stood in peace vigils. I rapped on doors when Eugene McCarthy was running for president. But I wasn’t as committed to it as a good number of my classmates. ... To say I was a protester is a disservice to people who really committed themselves to it ... day and night. ... I did what I felt I could do, but probably not as much as I ought to have done.”

The author has frequently called his decision to not dodge the draft “cowardly,” but he’s quick to say that going to Canada would have brought its own difficulties — and plenty of material for writing.

“I’m pretty sure I would’ve ended up there [as a novelist],” he said. “If I’d gone to Canada, that would have been equally if not more traumatic in my life. I knew I would’ve written about it. Either course was horrendous. ...

“In going to the war I avoided the pain of jail and of exile and of being called a coward ... . But another kind of pain came, which was the pain of conscience, when you feel you’ve done the wrong thing, when you haven’t had the courage to say ‘no.’”

O’Brien noted that although Vietnam is but one of three or four “great moral crises” in his life, he’ll never be finished with it. “There are so many stories,” he said. “I couldn’t get through a fraction of the stories I’ve jotted down — some of them imaginary and some of them coming directly out of real events. On top of that there’s the whole baggage of Vietnam that finds its way into a story about a father or about a son or in a love story.”

He sounds exasperated with the line of questioning about Vietnam as an ever-recurring element in his work: “It’s like saying to Toni Morrison, ‘Will you ever be done with being black?’ She’s not going to be done with it.”

The fact that O’Brien keeps returning to Vietnam is undoubtedly a good thing for audiences. His different approaches to the subject give readers a variety of perspectives. The Things They Carried personalizes the war in a multifaceted way that breaks down reader defenses against “yet another war book.” The novel begins:

“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack.”

“That was my intent,” O’Brien said, “to take it right away into the baggage we all haul around whether we’ve been to a war or not. ... I didn’t want to write a book about soldiering. I wanted to write a book that came out of soldiering but went beyond it.”

The book has made a connection with many people, but O’Brien said he’s particularly gratified when deployed or returned military personnel from the Iraq war get something from his work. On a recent visit to Cleveland, he said, he was signing books that were being shipped by mothers and sisters to Iraq, or signing for returned soldiers. “It feels that it’s gone beyond a mere literary artifact to meaning something in the here and now and in individual lives,” he said. “And that’s not to underrate literature. ... It feels as if I’m being of some solace, that the book is being of some solace and comfort to the soldiers that have been in Iraq and are still there. ... You don’t feel quite so alone in the world. I’m not nuts; this happened to somebody else.”

Larry of the Little League

Soldiers are finding meaning in the book, O’Brien said, because the conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq share significant common ground. “There are similarities and dissimilarities, and the similarities to me outweigh the dissimilarities,” O’Brien said.

The biggest difference, he said, is that “there’s no draft, and that was a tremendous energizing force in getting middle America, white America, small-town America to gradually lean toward opposition toward the war when their sons began dying and their brothers came home without legs. It became not just a war of poor black kids out there or volunteers ... . That’s a huge dissimilarity.”

But while that might affect the public view of the war, it doesn’t alter the perceptions among troops. And the Iraq war echoes Vietnam, both in tactics and unclear aims, O’Brien said. “One of the similarities is, of course: How do you know who your enemy is? Who do you kill?” he said. Both Iraq and Vietnam featured guerrilla tactics, and the result was American casualties with no obvious target for retaliation. “The rage and frustration ... builds up in the soul when you’re watching your friends die and you can’t find an enemy to shoot back at,” O’Brien said.

Furthermore, he said, the American military involvement in both Iraq and Vietnam was predicated on “false claims,” in the current situation the assertion that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. “We went to war for one reason, and then changed reasons for the war midstream, and then it was to get rid of a bad guy,” O’Brien said.

But to limit oneself to a discussion of war is to seriously undersell O’Brien and his work. The words he uses might be plain, but they’re highly detailed and evocative, with wonderful rhythm. His interests and sophisticated narrative strategies easily transcend any dismissive “war writer” label you might want to tack onto him. The Things They Carried is a case study of the unreliable narrator, but it’s employed breathtakingly, and for a noble purpose: to underscore that there’s “happening truth” and “story truth,” and both are valid and both have their places. In the end, when you learn that you’ve been reading a novel rather than a memoir, you’re likely to shrug your shoulders with the understanding that it doesn’t really make a difference. Either way, it’s real.

Yes, Vietnam shaped Tim O’Brien the man, but it didn’t make him a writer. He likes to tell the story of reading the book Larry of the Little League at the library when he was seven or eight years old, and immediately he wrote his own “novel,” Timmy of the Little League. “I can see it in my mind’s eye right now,” O’Brien said. “I can picture the paper it was written on.”

The anecdote is more than an attempt to divert attention from Vietnam; it’s meant to remind people that writers start their love affairs with words not with Shakespeare but with significantly more modest works, sometimes about big red dogs and sometimes about baseball players named Larry. “They’re not models for how you’d want to write or what you’d want to be as a writer yourself,” O’Brien said, “but they’re explosions of love for the magic of stories that happen early on, and I think that Vietnam was less important to my being a writer than Larry of the Little League.”

(This article originally appeared in slightly different form in the River Cities’ Reader.)

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