Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Tim O'Brien's War

First it was Matterhorn, then The Lotus Eaters. It seems that once a year I feel the need to revisit Vietnam hoping to make sense of unnecessary wars and their effect on those who must serve and those at home. Perhaps it was the horrific attack on innocent civilians by Sgt. Robert Bales last month in Afghanistan, so reminiscent of the My Lai massacre fifty years ago, that compelled my to listen to The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien.

Once considered the penultimate novel of the Vietnam War, though I personally feel that Karl Marlantes has usurped that position, O'Brien's book is a strange hybrid, billed as fiction though every few chapters the author speaks as himself. His book is raw, uncomfortable, hopefully cathartic, as any war story must be. In a way, it's almost a confession. The most difficult one was how desperately he tried to avoid going.

The opening chapter is gut wrenching in its honesty as Mr. O'Brien explains his fear of traveling halfway around the world to be killed - as he was sure would happen - fighting people he didn't know in a country he didn't hate. Younger readers may ask why he had to go. Yes, we had a draft then, or perhaps he was caught up in the lottery where young eligible men were assigned a number that held their future in it. I'll never forget the evening they televised the "lottery" for all to see, we young college women watching in agony as brothers, lovers, and friends were saved or damned.

O'Brien's dad was a veteran, as was mine. How do you look those brave men in the eye and say, "I can't do this." He left a note on the kitchen table and headed for Canada. Not too many miles before the border he saw a circle of run down cabins and stopped for the night, a dalliance that would change him profoundly and inexorably.

Tim O'Brien will be the first one to tell you that fact and fiction are liberally blended in this account of his friends, his injuries, the losses, regrets, anger, and resentment that live with a soldier forever. Twenty years later he was still trying to write his way through those emotions. When you ask yourself how Sgt. Bales could have woken in the night, armed to the teeth, and descended upon women and children with murder in his heart, you must ask yourself what we expect from these young men, barely kids, 18 to 20 years old, when we teach them to go to war.

Listening to Mr. O'Brien describe himself objectively, almost like an outside observer remarking upon the person he once was and the person he now is, you want to sob for the loss of innocence and goodness. When he admits to that deep core of ice that developed after his second injury you understand that rage would be preferable. When I read books like this one or Matterhorn I marvel that more young men, damaged beyond repair, aren't committing atrocities even more frequently. We owe it to them to remember the unspeakable things they carry within them when they come marching home.

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