How to Witness a True War Story

Image: Neil Thomas

Monday 9th May, 2016

Scott Timke

In the final section of our special section on Sociology and Fiction, Scott Timcke reflects on the work of Tim O'Brien and what it can tell us about trauma and witnessing.

The Things They Carried is a collection of Tim O’Brien’s previously published short stories as well as some new material which serve as a bridges in the book. Throughout O’Brien explores issues that came from both his time spent as an infantry solider in Vietnam, as well as his adjustment to society upon returning from the war to begin graduate studies at Harvard University in politics and government, but where he did not complete a dissertation. In order to do so, he uses a mixture of narrative techniques, several consistent characters, a non-linear story line and significant jumps to various times before, during and after the war. The protagonist of the book is one Timothy O’Brien. Whilst each of these stories can be read alone, the effect of their composition is to simultaneously present clarity and confusion.

Through bringing the reader to the war—possibly his war—O’Brien faces a key difficulty of articulating the war in a way that people can understand the severity of this horror. This is clearly evident in the story Speaking of Courage where the character Norman Bowker spends a day driving around a lake remembering the war. While driving, the character anticipates a conversation that he plans to have with an ex-girlfriend later in the day, the various directions in which that conversation could develop, and the subtle ways in which he could weave his Vietnam experiences into their conversation in case it wasn’t brought up. Bowker does this in a search for acknowledgement, some sort of recognition that things are different, yet comes to the conclusion that no acknowledgement will ever be suitable. Beset with unease that comes from his perception that everything is still the same—that people are sailing, walking, as if Vietnam had not occurred—Bowler never does meet with the ex-girlfriend and at the end of the story, Timothy O’Brien learns that Bowker committed suicide a short time later.

One of O’Brien’s key themes is the “interlocking of memory and what actually happened”. This is most evident in the characters who repress certain feelings, the presence, ambivalence and contradiction and the difficulty in expressing things that should be unknown because the events in which they came to be known should not have occurred. These features are openly addressed in How to Tell a True War Story.  Early in that story O’Brien writes that:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

Here the distinction between the “raw story” itself and the “making of the story” is blurred in the “part essay and part fiction,” becoming in a way neither definitively an essay or a work of fiction, but rather a “total effect”. Whilst the story that follows from these words admits to not being true in the literal sense, O’Brien maintains that it should point to truth. “A story’s truth shouldn’t be measured by happening,” he says, “but by an entirely different standard, a standard of emotion, feeling- ‘Does it ring true?’ as opposed to ‘Is it true?’” This use of the imagination becomes “the main way of finding truth.”

It is important to note that the book a tapestry of many traditional writing genres which orbit the writer’s imagination:

It’s made up, but I use my own name [the protagonist and narrator is a character called Timothy O’Brien]. The Things They Carried is sort of half novel, half group of stories. It’s part nonfiction, too: some of the stuff is commentary on the stories, talking about where a particular one came from.

More so,

I [O’Brien] blended my own personality with the stories, and I’m writing about the stories, and yet everything is made up, including the commentary.

This blurring of ambiguity and reflection present a problem of assessing the “truth” to which the story might speak. This question of the reliable account of the war becomes difficult to assess (and one could add, what degree of veracity.) For instance, in one story Timothy O’Brien tells of how he killed a man by throwing a grenade. How does one come to assess this remark when in a later story, The Man I Killed, the narrator admits that he never killed that man, nor threw a grenade to kill that man, that the entire event was a product of imagination? Clearly this story is not true itself, but then again is it even important to know that the narrator killed a man with a grenade if is it more important to know that a true war story can never be told unless there is the ‘uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.’ Alternatively stated, perhaps at one level the event might not have occurred, neither in the story nor in O’Brien’s tour, nevertheless at another level this narration of deceit about war is obscene and so reveals the evil character.

In several of O’Brien’s books, like Northern Lights or Going After Cacciato,  the grenade comes to stand for collective guilt; emblematic of design, production, distribution, shipping, allocation, exchange and finally use in combat. For O’Brien it does not matter which specific hand ‘pulls the pin,’ but rather that many hands that have been involved in its making. For O’Brien the locus of responsibility is removed from the act and instead comes to focus on systematic relations.

Given all this one could conclude that for O’Brien’s work the absolute distinction between truth (as a logical category) and fiction less is important than his concern is with the purpose of feelings induced by the narrative and his objective of distributing responsibility for actions undertaken by soldiers in Vietnam, to recognise the horror of an industrial war system.

I am prone to think that this is part of what O’Brien wants to draw our attention to, but going too far down this road of recognition, I think, can miss other important features too and inadvertently fail to witness the horror inherent in a true war story. Let me explain what I mean by this.

For over a decade the American Philosopher Kelly Oliver has argued that the recognition is not a sufficient political response to political trauma. “The victims of oppression, slavery, and torture are not merely seeking visibility and recognition,” she writes,

but they are also seeking witnesses to horrors beyond recognition. The demand for recognition manifest in testimonies from those othered by dominate culture is transformed by the accompanying demands for retribution and compassion

Oliver’s concern is that recognition cannot help but reproduce the master-slave hierarchy. This is because it is predicated upon a dominate group bestowing recognition, granting it its due. That “the operations of recognition require a recognizer and a recognizee then we have done no more than replicate the master-slave, subject-other/object hierarchy in this new form.” The extent to which one may think that Oliver reading may be unorthodox or unconventional is besides the point. What matters is that recognition, while meant to change the positions of both parties, more often than not it is a one-way street that takes place on the grounds that the recognizer can understand. So this is an incomplete transformation.

As an alternative, Oliver offers witnessing, which involves the “double sense of eye-witness and bearing witnesses to what cannot be seen” seeks to give credence to the meaning as expressed best by those who suffer. O’Brien is aware of this. The character Norman Bowker wants more than recognition for his service, he wishes for others to witness his traumatic experiences, not for therapeutic reasons but because it was a system that put him in place to suffer and do violence. In this respect, O’Brien wants us to witness the repetition of violence in everyday life that condones institutions that facilitate many hands coordinating to commission, design, make, distribute, then use grenades.    

Here's more you may be interested in: