War Stories


A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. – Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

I believe that war is a concept I will never really understand. Tactics, motivations, rationale  — all of these are puzzles to me. Which, I suppose, is why I am so drawn to literature that views war as the ultimate expression of human irrationality.

Just a few weeks ago, I read Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” which is a series of interconnected short stories that explore the minds of Vietnam War soldiers. Twenty short stories that in the end equal a great whole. Though he insists in the introduction that the stories are all made up, I was convinced while reading it that they — the characters, at least — had to be real. They were too complicated, too gray, for me to believe anyone had made them up out of whole cloth.

After a little digging, I learned that the stories were indeed semi-autobiographical.

“The Things They Carried” paints war to be an ugly mosaic of death, fear, selfishness, coming of age,  heroism and vulnerability. Unlike your standard mosaic, however, war seems confused and vulgar when considered as a whole. It’s in the details of O’Brien’s stories that we see the broader picture. From a distance selfishness seems corrupt and ugly. Up close, at least in the context of war, it only seems human. Natural. The stories are so personal I began to relate to things that I have not only never endured, but never even imagined until reading these stories.

Take the story “Speaking of Courage” for example. “Speaking of Courage” in my opinion is the most emotionally gripping story in the collection. It describes the frustrated mental state of a Vietnam War vet, having returned to his small hometown with nothing to do but drive around  a lake, imagining conversations with his father. It’s an emotional place I’ve certainly never been (needless to say, I’ve never seen one of my comrades drown in a river of feces) but reading that story made me feel as though it were part of my own psychological journey. O’Brien’s book injects these stories into your bloodstream. They become impossible to remove.

Another striking element of “The Things They Carried” is O’Brien’s ability to find poetry in the obscene. I couldn’t help but think of Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” while reading “Carried.” I don’t know if there is a higher compliment I could possibly give any book on the subject of war.

In Malick’s film, World War II soldiers struggle to maintain a sense of purpose as their world is consumed by violence. Like O’Brien’s men, they find comfort — sometimes even God — in the nature that surrounds them. One of O’Brien’s stories, titled “Church,” even confronts faith head-on as his soldiers talk about God and religion in an abandoned building used for church services. As Private Witt, the (main) protagonist of “The Thin Red Line” says, these men have all seen another world. One without war. Any chance they get to stop and talk about the peaceful things of life — love, God, family — only make the violence harder.

These stories help me appreciate something I don’t understand — war — by spelling it out in terms I can comprehend: War is the presence of everything. Everything good, bad and in-between. And there is plenty of in-between. War will probably forever be a puzzle to me, and the thought that it isn’t a puzzle to some other people worries me a bit.

Take Robert Kagan’s essay in this month’s New Repubic, “The Allure of Normalcy.” As someone who enjoys American history and appreciates insightful context for current events, Kegan’s essay was a delight to read. Kegan, a highly influential Neo-Con (Jeb Bush, for example, has listed one of his books as a recent favorite, leading many to speculate that he’s getting more serious about this being president thing) sees the role of the united states as one of a referee. He’s not the only one; As he points out in in his essay most presidents of the twentieth century  have viewed our foreign policy engagements as balancing acts. For good or for ill, the U.S. has kept the world afloat with our methods for the last 50 plus years. I really don’t disagree with him on this.

He makes a good case, and he is a fantastic writer. If I were prepping for a debate, his explanation of American foreign policy would likely come to good use:

When a nation uses its power to shape a world order, rather than merely for self-defense or conquest, the tenuousness of solutions is even more pronounced. Military actions for world order preservation are almost by definition limited both in scope and objectives. World order maintenance requires operating in the gray areas between victory and defeat.

He doesn’t just make use of military  force sound understandable but essential. He argues well the legacy of American military intervention. But after reading “The Things They Carried,” it is suddenly harder to see the world as Kegan does. War, in O’Brien’s stories, is about men and women. People who die or suffer PTSD or lose limbs or struggle with guilt for the rest of their lives for things they did in rice patties during an hour of desperation. “The world ‘as it is’ is a dangerous and often brutal place,” and virtuous military actions are needed to maintain hope, Kegan reminds his readers. But it is hard not to feel that American military interventions, though well intentioned, often increase that danger and add to the brutality.

Which leads me to Bowe Bergdahl. What am I to make of his confusing, contradictory story? To some, he somehow symbolizes a foreign policy defeat. Proof that we are no longer maintaining the peaceful order of the world. We have lost our touch.

But isn’t he nothing more than a reminder of what Tim O’Brien wrote about War almost 25 years ago?

“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.”

No matter how this all plays out, we should at least feel comfort that it’s a bold reflection of the truth of war, not just some war story.


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JJ Feinauer

JJ writes stuff occasionally.

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