Distortion in the "True War Story"
Many writers strive for complete objectivity in their craft. The prevalent style of literary realism exemplifies this attempt to portray events exactly as they have occurred. Some writers feel—as certainly seems to be intuitive—that only through realism can truth be communicated. Others feel that this adherence to strict reality is misguided. Is faithful depiction of reality always the most faithful way to depict reality? Do situations exist in which realism cannot convey the true magnitude of experience? Is objective realism even possible? The noted author Flannery O'Connor has written, "I am interested in making a good case for distortion because I am coming to believe that it is the only way to make people see." Her rejection of realism is on the grounds that it is not as lucid—or as elucidating—as distortion. In this fashion, American author Tim O'Brien's novelistic story collection The Things They Carried offers a view of the Vietnam War, using deliberate distortion of narrative, truth, feeling, and philosophy to portray the experienced reality of combat. In a vindication of O'Connor's statement, O'Brien presents the concept that "story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth," since it can re-create in the reader the same feelings experienced by the storyteller. O'Brien does this by using the content and structure of his novel to evoke the mental state of a soldier experiencing war in Vietnam. His story "represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed," rather than futilely trying to recreate the truth exactly as it happened.
One of the most striking aspects of O'Brien's novel is its intentionally confusing blurring of fact and fiction. The novel is subtitled "a work of fiction," and its copyright page disclaims, "This is a work of fiction. Except for a few details regarding the author's own life, all the incidents, names, and characters are imaginary." Yet The Things They Carried is largely written in the first person, in the style of a memoir, with an author and former soldier named Tim O'Brien himself as a principal character. In fact, the volume bears the inscription, "This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa"—O'Brien's "imaginary" characters whose various experiences comprise the novel. Truth is further disposed of in an almost emotionally manipulative fashion, as O'Brien relates the moving story of "The Man I Killed," describing the appearance and presumable life-story of a Vietcong soldier he killed with a grenade. Several chapters later, O'Brien turns and confesses to the reader, "I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough." The reader, of course, feels betrayed, especially when O'Brien writes, "But listen. Even that story is made up." This absence of narrative truth mirrors the confusing nature of the Vietnam War itself. Its soldiers didn't know what they were fighting for, who their enemy was, or how to fight a guerrilla war. "War has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a ghostly fog, thick and permanent," writes O'Brien. "There is no clarity." Though truth is ambiguous in the novel, O'Brien writes that, "a true war story does not depend on that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant." A true war story is about feeling. "It's about sorrow."
O'Brien continues to explore the concept of "story-truth" by relating highly fantastical stories that stretch the limits of believability yet are presented as truth by their narrators. "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong" is a story told by a medic named Rat Kiley, who "had a reputation for exaggeration and overstatement," who "wanted to heat up the truth, to make it burn so hot that you would feel exactly what he felt"—a perfect example of O'Brien's "story-truth." Rat tells about a medic named Mark Fossie, who somehow managed to have his girlfriend, Mary Anne, flown from America to his base in Vietnam. This scenario is unbelievable enough to the soldiers, but Rat continues, telling how Mary Anne became fascinated with Vietnam and eventually with combat, joining up with an elite and brutal unit of Green Berets. Mary Anne reverts to animalistic savagery, stalking the jungle in "culottes, her pink sweater, and a necklace of human tongues." The story, though probably the least believable in the novel, becomes a powerful allegorical description of the psychological effect of war, turning ordinary people into brutal killers. Vietnam's jungles become like Joseph Conrad's—or Apocalypse Now's—"Heart of darkness;" a symbol of the dark recesses of humanity. Though the story itself is an obviously hyperbolic fabrication, it reveals a deep and burning truth: the dehumanizing influence of war. "What happened to her, Rat said, was what happened to all of them. You come over clean and you get dirty and then afterward it's never the same... you're in touch with the far side of yourself." By presenting war vignettes in an absurd and surreal style, O'Brien communicates the reality of war more viscerally than any realism.
The distortion found in both O'Brien's storytelling technique and his stories themselves relays a simple message with startling power: that war distorts morality and humanity. During war killing becomes moral if undertaken in the name of "government" or "country." During war the "reality" of civilization slips away. Says one of O'Brien's soldiers, "What's real? Eight months in fantasyland, it tends to blur the line. Honest to God, I sometimes can't remember what real is." War blurs the lines between human and animal, right and wrong, life and death, it distorts everything. The blurring of fact and fiction in O'Brien's novel, the confusion created by hyperbole, absurdism, and surrealism, suit this message more appropriately than realism.
"A true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth," writes O'Brien, because when one has not experienced war, one cannot fathom the truth, and when one has experienced it, one cannot express it. "Try to tell them about it," says Rat Kiley, "they'll just stare at you with those big round candy eyes. They won't understand zip. It's like trying to tell somebody what chocolate tastes like." "Or shit," replies another soldier. The only hope is that one can attain some superficial feeling of what it must be like. "Distortion is the only way make people see," says Flannery O'Conner, and O'Brien creates a vision so vivid that it becomes the perfect example of his "true war story:" "...in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe 'Oh.'"
1 This paper was written for my Advanced Placement English class. If it seems at times didactic, I think I know the reason. O'Brien's novel is really one of the most powerfully concise and clear that I have ever read. Its case is made—it needs no critical essay to make its points clear. My friends and I all noticed the above-average difficulty of analyzing this novel, and joked that, in fact, we had little more to say about it than "oh," despite the fact that we all enjoyed the novel very much. Thus the title of the essay.