War Stories (IWP)

Tim O’Brien had everything going for him in the summer of 1968. He had just graduated from college and was preparing to attend graduate school in the fall. But the American war in Vietnam was heating up and Gen. Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces, requested 200,000 additional troops in the aftermath of the Tet Offensive. Draft deferments for graduate school were canceled and O’Brien received his draft notice and went off to war. This is one of the many stories O’Brien tells in his collection of short stories The Things They Carried.

The collection was published in 1990, almost twenty years after his war memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home and O’Brien has had a lot of time to think and write about his war experiences. He seems to being blurring the line between truth and fiction, to be asking the question: What exactly is the truth? O’Brien sometimes inserts himself into the narrative telling the reader how to read a war story, how to write a war story. In one story he kills a Vietnamese soldier with a hand grenade and in another it was a different soldier who threw the grenade and yet in another story nobody threw a hand grenade and the soldier kept on walking.

O’Brien tells the human side of a war, a war different from what is often seen on the movie screen where heroic battles are fought by heroic soldiers. War is folly and when a bunch of kids are thrown together to wander through dense jungle with no clear sense of what’s going on it becomes an epic tragedy. The title story focuses on the platoon leader Lt. Cross. Lt. Cross is still just a boy. He carries a picture of a girl who will never love him. When he digs in for the night he reads her letters and imagines what she’s doing. He carries around a rock that she sent him, in his mouth, “tasting sea salt and moisture,” imagining her bare feet in the sand. His mind wanders while his soldiers are off getting stoned, reading, sleeping, just marking time.

Lt. Cross is brought violently into the reality of his situation when one of his troops is killed by a sniper. Cross decides, while watching the soldier’s lifeless body being loaded onto a helicopter and the rest of his platoon smoking pot, that a change is needed. That night he burns all the letters, all the photos of Martha, pulls out a map, and gets ready for the next mission. He’s changed. A mistake like this won’t happen again if he can help it.

The most powerful story of the collection is “On A Rainy River”. O’Brien, the protagonist, has received his draft notice ordering him to report to induction and then on to Vietnam, a war he strongly disagrees with. O’Brien, knowing he can’t go off and fight a war he doesn’t believe in, flees to the north of Minnesota just a few miles from the border with Canada. He wants to cross the border, but something holds him back. His family, his sense of honor, doing what’s right. But what’s right? He doesn’t know.

O’Brien finds a quiet cabin that is used during tourist season and stays with the owner Elroy. Elroy knows what O’Brien is thinking, can see it in his eyes, and one day he takes him fishing. O’Brien is savoring the cool air and is excited and frightened when he realizes they passed into Canadian waters. Elroy stops the boat only a few feet from land, from Canada and starts fishing, whistling softly. It’s decision time and O’Brien stares at the land, at freedom, at peace, and thinks of everything he would leave behind, thinks of the shame of running away, of not being a man. In the end he tells Elroy to take him back. “I was a coward, I went to war,” O’Brien laments at the end. As strange as it sounds, a coward going to war, O’Brien didn’t stand up for his beliefs. He did what was expected of him.

O’Brien’s stories are maddening to read. What’s the truth? Is there a truth? With one of the protagonists named Tim O’Brien a reader could be forgiven for believing the stories at face value, as non-fiction. A friend once told me that the stories are non-fiction but O’Brien labeled them as fiction because they were so crazy, so unbelievable. I don’t buy this. O’Brien has deftly woven fiction and non-fiction together in a blend meant to confuse the reader over and over again.

O’Brien also gives writing lessons, indeed some of the pieces feel like essays on how to write a war story. He doesn’t make it easy. He goes back and forth over what is the truth, what is the truth in how things happened, how they should of happened, how they did happen. In twenty years a lot of things can change. O’Brien tells us that he killed a man and turns right around to admonish us that we’re not paying attention, that he never killed anyone. Have we not been listening, have we learned nothing? It is said that truth is the first casualty of war. Who can we believe to tell us a war story, a real war story. O’Brien wants us to believe no one. There is no truth, only different versions of it.

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