“Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that, but the stories that will last forever are those that swirl back and forth across the border between trivia and bedlam, the mad and the mundane.”
Author Tim O’Brien was young when he went to war; “twenty-one years old, an ordinary kid with all the ordinary dreams and ambitions;” a self-avowed lover of “baseball and hamburgers and cherry Cokes” with a degree in one hand and a draft notice in the other. So he packed up his fears alongside his politics and O’Brien went to war. But when a bullet cut short his tour of duty, hand grenades gave way to graduate work at Harvard. Eventually, O’Brien settled into life and love and the field of journalism, though the war was never far from mind.
“In ordinary conversation I never spoke much about the war, certainly not in detail, and yet ever since my return I had been talking about it virtually nonstop through my [my stories]… Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me…”
To O’Brien, the story is the thing; the conduit of the deeper meaning. For him, stories offered a way to save or to resurrect, or maybe just protect something vital that was ebbing away. It’s certainly not a new thought. Nathan used an allegory to un-deceive a king; Hamlet used a play to un-deceive a court. Jesus Himself was a master storyteller. O’Brien? He preferred war stories; it was what he knew.
But human stories are slippery things at times; a strange configuration of fact and layers of emotion; war stories all the more so. “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles are skewed… the pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. … In other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond the telling.”
Stories explain what words never can; they convey thoughts and images that might otherwise fall as so many more listless facts. But stories make us care. They engage the heart and mind and woo the emotions. Stories chase us out of ourselves and (Lord willing) into the arms of grace. And isn’t that one great errand of an author?
“I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
“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, twenty 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 twenty. 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.
“I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.”
The title of the book leaned heavily on the process of metaphor. “The things they carried” became the imagery of the burdens borne by soldiers and veterans alike. But O’Brien eased into his subject, beginning first with the tangible and working toward the abstract.
“The things they carried were largely determined by necessity”; partly a function of rank, partly of field specialty.” “What they carried varied by mission” and “unweighed fear.” “The things they carried were determined to some extent by superstition. Lieutenant Cross carried his good luck pebble. Dave Jenson carried a rabbit’s foot.”
And then there were the ghosts; “they all carried ghosts.”
“They carried the weight of memory. They took up what others could no longer bear. Often, they carried each other, the wounded or weak. They carried infections. They carried chess sets, basketballs, Vietnamese-English dictionaries, insignia of rank, Bronze Stars and Purple Hearts, plastic cards imprinted with the Code of Conduct. They carried diseases, among them malaria and dysentery. They carried lice and ringworm and leeches and paddy algae and various rots and molds. They carried the land itself — Vietnam, the place,the soil… They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.”
“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who die. Grief, terror, love, longing — these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.”
“… and for all the ambiguities of Vietnam, all the mysteries and unknowns, there was at least the single abiding certainty that they would never be at a loss for things to carry.”
O’Brien’s characters were alive. Alive with pain and pathos and all the repugnance of men at their worst. But here too, the reader is made to feel the weight of the things soldiers carry; as if the author reached out through the pages, pointing pen and paper and that terrible, accusing truth, “So you think you would have been so different?”
Describing the first lieutenant and platoon leader, Jimmy Cross, O’Brien said, “he carried a strobe light and the responsibility for the lives of his men.” But the lieutenant carried something else he never really cared to discuss: the dead weight of unrequited love.
“… Martha wrote that she had found the pebble on the Jersey shoreline, precisely where the land touched water at high tide, where things came together but also separated. It was this separate-but-together quality, she wrote, that had inspired her to pick up the pebble and to carry it in her breast pocket for several days, where it seemed weightless, and then to send it through the mail, by air, as a token of her truest feelings for him. Lieutenant Cross found this romantic. But he wondered what her truest feelings were, exactly,and what she meant by separate-but-together… Martha was a poet, with the poet’s sensibilities… and though it was painful, he wondered who had been with her that afternoon. He imagined a pair of shadows moving along the strip of sand where things came together but also separated. It was phantom jealousy, he knew, but he couldn’t help himself. He loved her so much. On the march through the hot days of early April, he carried the pebble in his mouth, turning it with his tongue, tasting sea salt and moisture. His mind wandered. He had difficulty keeping his attention on the war. On occasion he would yell at his men to spread out the column, to keep their eyes open, but then he would slip away into daydreams, just pretending, walking barefoot along the Jersey shore, with Martha, carrying nothing.”
But the weight of the love that Jimmy carried had cost a man his life, and though he buried the pebble and her picture and his own heart too, the sadness was a thing Jimmy carried all his days.
Stylistically, the author is a master. Intensely introspective and pulsing with the instinct that makes writing come alive. O’Brien is a master of juxtaposition and startling collocation, whose writing style is full of “elastic silence” and the feel of the “tongue against the truth.” “… when you [listen] to one of his stories, [you] find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe.”
See what I mean? Masterful.
Do not be deceived: this is a book about war. If, according to O’Brien’s summation, “… you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil,” “The Things They Left Behind” fairly skirted both. Yet for every instance of harshness or vulgarity, O’Brien returned a softer voice — “a hard vocabulary to contain the terrible softness”. It was a softness that made me strain to listen — really listen — with my whole heart. “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. The distinction was important.”
From the vantage point of retrospect and an over-stuffed armchair, it’s easy to decide for truth. For justice. For the American way. But on the battlefield things are different because, “for the common soldier, at least, war has the feel — the spiritual texture — of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity… and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.”
And ambiguity is a camping place the author rather liked. O’Brien shied away from absolutes, it is true, but truth can be gleaned nonetheless. The truth that courage is not the culmination of a lifetime, but distilled in the moments that make up a lifetime (Ephesians 6:13; Proverbs 24:16). That subjective truth is really no truth at all; that propaganda inflames emotion but truth invites the mind (Proverbs 8-9).
To be sure, Tim O’Brien never once claimed to be a Christian. The book is simply not written that way. It is gritty, intense, and downright disturbing, and so it is not for everyone. I closed the pages with an almost reverent air, as if I had been trusted to gaze at the soul of a terrible grief. Even now, days later, the stories persist; one does not fall into the rhythms of life without remembering, without lingering at the edge of something profound. I suppose that’s what O’Brien meant when he said, “in a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe ‘Oh.'”