Tim O’Brien, who fought in Vietnam in 1968, went on to write two fine books: the memoir, If I die in a combat zone (1973), and the novel, Going after Cacciato (1979). This latest work, a collection of brusque but moving fictions about life in Vietnam, linked by autobiographical enquiries, has all the qualities of the first two books, the same hunger for fidelity. Going after Cacciato opened with a witness’s blasted catalogue, something between a lament and an army dispatch:
It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker ... Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead.
The same witnessing is done in this latest book. In one of the autobiographical passages, O’Brien describes the function of his writing as ‘partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me ... all the terrible things I had seen and done.’ Elsewhere, he describes himself as ‘witness to something rare’. Or as a soldier puts it in his memoir: ‘You ever seen anything like this? Ever?’
The things they carried is as powerful and precise as anything O’Brien has written. Unlike Stephen Crane or Hemingway or Mailer (to whom he has palpable debts), he cannot accommodate war within a stable vision of the horrors of human life; there is no intense exploration of the test of courage we must all face. War for O’Brien is a morbid interruption, a bloody eccentricity. It is also a nullity: it yields no truths, is revealing of nothing but itself. O’Brien is superb at catching the emptiness and zero-points of a war in which men are simply glad about ‘not being dead’. Also the vulgar surrealism, the peculiarly American wrappings: the luxurious supply choppers returning every evening laden with provisions and fresh military treasures, the mindless extermination of civilians followed by an evening at camp with a beer and a movie; and the lost men – Rat Kiley, who cracks, starts yammering about bugs and imagining them on his skin, and who has to be airlifted out, or Kiowa, who is grenaded, and drowns in a field of Vietnamese excrement, or poor Norman Bowker, who goes back to America after his one year of combat, but can’t find work, can’t adjust, and kills himself.
O’Brien told his own story – compellingly, wrenchingly – in his memoir If I die. He grew up in the rural quarantine of Minnesota, in a tight and isolated small-town community preoccupied with memories of the Second World War and of American heroism. He was a bright student, bound for Harvard, when he got his call-up papers. Not only was he frightened of war: he objected to Vietnam on political grounds. He thought of fleeing across the border to Canada, or perhaps going to Sweden. After a summer of struggle, he went to war as much from ‘fear of censure’ as from anything else. You need bravery to fight, but you also need bravery to rebel, to out-stare the patriotic warriors of your hometown: and in the end, lacking both forms of courage, he went because he could do nothing else. He was sent to an Army training camp in Washington State, where he trained, found most of his colleagues ‘boors’, and plotted his escape. In one of the most resonant moments in his memoir, he escapes to Seattle, where he intends to take a bus to Canada. He spends a final night there, in a sweat of indecision. Wandering around the city, he tries to pick up a girl, and is rejected, in crushingly polite tones. Next morning, he goes back to camp. The loneliness of this incident – a lost soul rattling around the vast American drum – comes to seem as representative of the Vietnam failure as any of the later depictions of war. Indeed, although O’Brien does not see warfare as continuous with civilian life, he does not let us forget that this is an American war, and that back home a rich, beating confusion quite as large as that of Vietnam beckons and waits. In the title story of the latest book, for instance, O’Brien’s prose swells and soars to accommodate the supply choppers and their all-American trophies: ‘fresh watermelons and crates of ammunition and sunglasses and woollen sweaters – the resources were stunning – sparklers for the Fourth of July, colored eggs for Easter – it was the great American war chest – the fruits of science, the smokestacks, the canneries, the arsenals at Hartford, the Minnesota forests, the machine shops, the vast fields of corn and wheat.’
The best story in this collection, ‘Speaking of courage’, is set in America, not Vietnam. But it lives in the desolation of both countries. In the autobiographical notes that follow it, O’Brien reproduces a letter sent to him in 1975 by fellow veteran Norman Bowker before his suicide. ‘What you should do Tim,’ writes Bowker,
is write a story about a guy who feels like he got zapped over in that shithole. A guy who can’t get his act together and just drives around town all day and can’t think of any damn place to go and doesn’t know how to get there anyway ... I’d write it myself except I can’t ever find the words, if you know what I mean, and I can’t figure out exactly what to say. Something about the field that night. The way Kiowa just disappeared into the crud.
Three years later Bowker hanged himself in the locker room of his local YMCA. ‘Speaking of courage’ is O’Brien’s reply.
It is about one of Norman Bowker’s lonely days. He spends it driving round and round the large lake in his home town, a seven-mile orbit as circular, as roundly futile as Norman Bowker’s life. A high-summer boredom fills the place (and the story); the air lounges densely. Bowker’s town seems to resemble O’Brien’s – implacably Middle-American, wistfully detached but also complacent. As Norman Bowker endlessly circles the lake, he thinks of his home and of how he hates its smugness; guiltily he goes back in his head to Vietnam, and to how he let his friend Kiowa slip from his hands and drown in a field of shit; he thinks he knows a thing or two about shit; he thinks he could give lectures to his town on the subject. It’s a story full of space, echoes, and a vast mournfulness. Its prose is hard, metalled. At the end of the day, as the sun is lazing towards the horizon, Norman Bowker goes to a fast-food drive-in. He orders his food through an intercom, and the intercom voice speaks a festive slang which painfully mimics the army-language of his time in Vietnam:
The intercom squeaked and said, ‘Order.’
‘Mama Burger and fries,’ Norman Bowker said.
‘Affirmative, copy clear. No rootie-tootie?’
‘You know, man – root beer.’
‘A small one.’
‘Rodger-dodger. Repeat: one Mama, one fries, one small beer. Fire for effect. Stand by.’ The intercom squeaked and went dead.
‘Out,’ said Norman Bowker.
O’Brien’s soldiers are as complex as people in civilian life – the same strange bags of fear and bravery, of compulsion and passivity, of sympathy and brutality. At a moment of crisis, with death beckoning, perhaps all of these intense impulses collide, and burst into a fire of glaring complexity. At such moments, it is not possible to know why a man acted as he did, and O’Brien does not try to penetrate this flame: he tries merely to witness it. Norman Bowker, for instance, recalls how he tried to save Kiowa from slipping into the mud, but failed, and how this was not cowardly: ‘He had taken hold of Kiowa’s boot and pulled hard, but then he’d felt himself being sucked under, and the smell was simply too much and he’d backed off and in that way he had lost the Silver Star. One of those sad things ... He wished he could’ve explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but how he had not been so brave as he wanted to be.’
In ‘How to tell a true story’, O’Brien uses a mixture of autobiography and fiction to explore the untruths of much war-writing. This kind of writing, O’Brien suggests, is untruthful in particular about bravery, because it presents its protagonists as simple free agents, monoliths of heroism. His idea of an untruthful war story is this:
Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, and saves his three buddies.
O’Brien’s truthful rewriting goes like this:
Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it’s a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, ‘What the fuck you do that for?’ and the jumper says, ‘Story of my life, man,’ and the other guy starts to smile but he’s dead.
O’Brien’s search for a way of fictionalising the Vietnam War is of course appropriate to a war which was constantly fictionalising itself, a war in which men were too afraid to go on night raids, and so plotted fake co-ordinates and phoned them through to HQ in the morning.
One of the largest problems for the war writer is death. It has become one of the clichés of war fiction. For a Hemingway or a Mailer, death is an immovable fact, about which the war-witness cannot afford to be sentimental. Such an approach merely stunts feeling, because, of course, one is sentimental about death.
In The things they carried, there is always something fantastical about death; it’s less an immovable fact than an unbelievable one. O’Brien makes a nonsense out of death, which seems right, because death makes a nonsense out of life. Ted Lavender, in the title story, is shot on his way back from peeing, and O’Brien proceeds to make this clumsy indignity into a verbal outrage: one of the soldiers cannot get it out of his head that Ted Lavender was shot while ‘still zipping himself up. Zapped while zipping.’ O’Brien takes the masculine iciness of a Hemingway and forces a brutal pathos out of it. His description of the death of Curt Lemon is as moving as anything in the book:
In the mountains that day, I watched Lemon turn sideways. He laughed and said something to Rat Kiley. Then he took a peculiar half step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm ... The gore was horrible, and stays with me. But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts.
And it is difficult to forget the image of Rat Kiley, who corners a buffalo in a Vietnamese village, and slowly shoots bits off it – an ear, a nose, a mouth, a knee. He does it because he has just seen Curt Lemon, his best friend, blown up. It is revenge, hot and blasting. But not simple: while he shoots the buffalo, he is weeping like a child. Once he has finished, he ‘cradled his rifle and went off by himself’.
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