Blasts from the Past - Truth in The Things They Carried

So here is the first in the series of old school assignments that I wrote that have fallen down the memory hole. These are pieces that I believe deserve more then to be graded, forgotten, and pulped. I wrote this piece for a Short Story course taught by Dale Griffith at Middlesex Community College back in the Fall of 2014. I put far more effort into this assignment that was likely needed for a two hundred level class. So here I present a metafictional analysis of The Things They Carried, a novel by Tim O'Brien.

Throughout Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, numerous important events serve as buoys in the narrative, demarcations in a shifting landscape that serve to provide continuity between the different short stories that make up the full collection. One of the more powerful events that happens is the death of Kiowa, wounded and drowning in a cesspit to the horror of the helpless Norman Bowker in “Speaking of Courage,” an event which is foreshadowed and reiterated, before and after the actual event is told. O’Brien details the process of writing “Speaking of Courage” in the next story, “Notes,” where O’Brien explains that he wrote the story after receiving a lengthy letter after the war from Norman Bowker, who told him about the events and the mindset he had that day and has held onto since. O’Brien also explains that he told a different version of the story where Kiowa didn’t drown in a cesspit, in an earlier novel, Going After Cacciato, and attributing the role of witness to that novel’s lead character, Paul Berlin. However, in “In the Field”, the very next story, O’Brien states that it was not Norman Bowker at all who witnessed Kiowa’s death, but instead himself and that he directly caused it as well. O’Brien goes one step further in the succeeding story, “Good Form,” and states that almost everything in the novel was made up except that he was a soldier in the Vietnam War, thus invalidating the factual basis of the novel leading up to that point. The reader having had the rug ripped out from under them is then introduced to one of the most important themes in The Things They Carried, O’Brien’s differentiation between what he calls the story-truth and the happening-truth and the former’s precedence over the latter. By emphasizing the so called story-truth over the happening-truth, O’Brien seeks to counter the traditional realist narrative paradigms of the Vietnam War, thus taking on both the political obfuscation leading to its start and the unintended revisionism by its participants after its end. To do so, O’Brien reveals the novel’s façade, thus allowing the reader to feel the same uncertainty that defined the soldier’s experience and by so doing allow the reader to come to a sense of catharsis in the unanswerable.

To begin, the concepts of story-truth and happening-truth should be clearly defined. Dr. Stefania Ciocia, a professor of contemporary literature and prominent Tim O’Brien scholar, writes in Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O’Brien and the Power of Storytelling, that “[O’Brien sets] up an opposition between two radically different concepts of truth… [with happening-truth making] a claim to literalness, factuality and objectivity in representation, while [story-truth] rejects these qualities as unimportant, or even detrimental to the fundamental pursuit of the writer” (4). If O’Brien stuck to his own happening-truth and reported only those things that he witnessed, he states that he would report that, “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” (171-172). Objectively, O’Brien may or may not have experienced the dread of being unable to stop a close friend from dying, but its emotional approximation defined the war for him. It is from this formless guilt that the basis of the story-truth is found whereby O’Brien “practices a certain narrative embellishment of factual reality in place of… a faithful account of things as they happened; in this way, he means to try to salvage… the exact intensity of the original impact of the narrated events on those who experienced them” (Ciocia 5). Thus, the story-truth serves as an epistemological tool, allowing O’Brien to explore his own experience and to attempt to translate his feelings of weakness into a relatable story. In this exploration, O’Brien tests different methodologies of storytelling, repeating and changing details from iteration to iteration. This ranges from adding the revolting detail of Kiowa drowning in human waste, to personalizing the story further by placing himself as the helpless lead which all serves to seeking out the story-truth. As O’Brien puts it in “How to Tell a True War Story,” “all you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth…. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it” (81). By placing the “emotional veracity… [as] more important than factual accuracy” (4), Ciocia contends that for O’Brien, “the lying involved in fictional re-elaborations of certain experiences… eventually reveals a deeper truth” (5). This deeper truth that can only be revealed by adhering to the story-truth is that the experience of war is something that can only be made real when magnified by the imagination. For O’Brien, tying together the memory of war with this infinite engine of possibilities, keeps the war, as well as all of its participants alive by giving them “a new life each time they are told and retold” (Kaplan 47). By so doing, O’Brien also keeps the feeling of the war alive allowing him to more authentically recreate the dread and anxiety of Vietnam than if he had simply recited his observations without embellishment. This storytelling and invention was not only the exclusive dominion of O’Brien, but rather the basis for the entire Vietnam fiasco. Indeed the whole rotten affair was so rich in embellishment and loose truths that for soldiers exposed to the reality on the ground the only avenues available to them was to either enshrine only the petty little details as the truth or to understand and embrace the swirling chaos of uncertainty that was Vietnam.

The Vietnam War was not an endeavor taken lightly by its architects. They realized that Americans would need greater motivation to join in the war than the reality of bailing out the puppet dictator of a colonial backwater of a fading European power. So “before the United States became militarily involved… it had to… invent the country and the political issues at stake there. The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of fiction written by some dangerous and frightening storytellers” (Kaplan 43). Fears of worldwide communist aggression were riled up in the public and minor provocations were manufactured into a pretext for war. To Americans, the Vietnamese were billed as technologically inferior and ideologically confused, that all they needed was a sharp dose of liberal humanism and the quick shock of American Might to ward off the Communist chill. However, to the Vietnamese, the Americans were just another foreign invader in a near constant string of wars dating back to the Japanese occupation of Indochina during World War 2. Far from being the lost lambs the politicians promised back home, the Vietnamese were deeply partisan and war weary veterans. Indeed, “for the soldiers… the facts that their government had created about who was the enemy, what were the issues, and how the war was to be won were quickly overshadowed by a world of uncertainty” (Kaplan 43). The cognitive dissonance caused when the official story met the reality of the war left soldiers in a lurch, unable to comprehend their own role in the larger project. As O’Brien put it, “for the common soldier, at least, war has the feel – the spiritual texture – of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent” (78). This impenetrable haze forced soldiers on the perpetual hump to cling to what was quantifiable. This is best shown in the opening and titular story of The Things They Carried with the meticulous attention given to the weights of equipment lugged around by the soldiers. Indeed, “all the things are depicted in a style that is almost scientific in its precision… However… the certainties are merely there to conceal uncertainties” (Kaplan 45). For example, all the soldiers were aware that the mine detector weighed 28 pounds as that could be directly sensed and measured. However, the soldiers could not be sure if what the heavy mine detector actually detected was harmless shrapnel embedded in the ground or a life-stealing mine just based on its beeps alone. In the end, these soldiers carried the mine detector “partly for safety, partly for the illusion of safety” (O’Brien 9). This desperate faith in the measurable encapsulates the American mindset during the Vietnam War. These soldiers carried “the great American war chest—the fruits of science” (O’Brien 15) around with them as little more than security blankets, bits of flotsam to cling to in a sea of uncertainty. However, “to a great extent it is because of, not just in spite of, the products of our civilized technology and the resulting attitudes towards the dirty, ungeometrical jungle and its inhabitants, that we got into trouble in Vietnam” (Ringnalda 19). This inflexibility of imagination not only made militarily succeeding in Vietnam untenable, it also made capturing the true experience of the war through memoir untenable as well. In an uncertain time, soldier-writers grabbed onto the few certain details they had, where they were, when they fought, and with who they shared these experiences. But these facts alone do not capture what being in the war is like any more than reading a box score allows someone to experience what it’s like to play in the World Series. As Donald Ringnalda, professor of literature with a focus on the Vietnam War, says about Vietnam War memoirs:

“The problem… is [the] addiction to facts…. In the face of a crisis of knowledge, [Vietnam soldier-writers] unconsciously try to achieve a veneer of authenticity with clean, hard-edged facts about their Vietnam experiences. But instead of alleviating the crisis, this approach only exacerbates it; it reinforces the limited ‘reality’ of the shadows cast on the wall of Plato’s cave. Instead of discovering that the shadows are shadows and then reinterpreting human reality on the basis of the discovery, it confidently provides quantitative, factual descriptions of the shadows.” (93-94)

This inability to reconcile the legion of lies constructing the narrative of the war with their own personal experiences leads writers to cling to what is tangible in their experience. Much like the mine detector in “The Things They Carried”, emotionally decontextualized facts are used to approximate the war, partly for the reality and partly for the illusion of reality. Even after the war, these factually accurate memoirs based on happening-truths only serve to assist “America’s infinite capacity to chimerically adjust to, simplistically remember, and quickly forget a war that inconveniently challenged this country’s righteous positivistic paradigm” (Ringnalda 91). It is only through invention and imagination that the unquantifiable chaos of Vietnam can be conveyed. By using the story-truth, O’Brien embraces the uncertainty of the times and invites the reader to share his own headspace, so that they too may free themselves from the need for absolute answers to the unanswerable.

In The Things They Carried, O’Brien does not shy away from the ambiguities of a pointless and unreasonable war. Instead he clasps onto the uncertainty with both hands and uses it to tell his own emotional truth. O’Brien’s method is similar to what the English poet John Keats calls ‘negative capability’, which is “when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason” (Bate 249). Keats elucidates further on this stating, “The only means of strengthening one’s intellect is to make up ones mind about nothing—to let the mind be a thoroughfare for all thoughts…” (Bate 249). O’Brien says nearly as much when interviewed about his process, affirming that, “the best literature is always explorative. It’s searching for answers and never finding them…. Fiction is a way of testing possibilities and testing hypotheses, and not defining” (O’Brien). By retelling and reshaping the story of Kiowa’s death, O’Brien searches for the truth of the moment, not regarding the procedural impulse for accurate testimony. This works in multiple ways on the reader, as “O’Brien draws the reader into the text, calling the reader’s attention to the process of invention and challenging him to determine which, if any, of the stories are true” (Calloway 249). Making the reader an active participant in the narrative by foisting upon them the responsibility of assembling the pieces themselves brings them closer to the mysteries that form O’Brien’s experience. O’Brien obliquely refers to the inner calculus needed to decipher war stories in “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” by having one character tell the tallest sounding, but most earnestly told tale one could imagine. The narrator prefaces the story with, “when you listened to one of his stories, you’d find yourself performing rapid calculations in your head, subtracting superlatives, figuring the square root of an absolute and then multiplying by maybe” (O’Brien 85-86). This passage foreshadows the eventual story-truth confession and arms the reader with an underlying skepticism, first learned to doubt a character’s story, now ready to be used against the author. This makes The Things They Carried a type of metafiction and indeed the novel would not work as well without this aspect to it. With no room for doubt, the novel would instead be reinforced with the same false certainty of which other war memoirs are so thoroughly riddled. By “creating a metafiction to compete with televised ‘reality’ reporting of the war” (Liparulo 74), O’Brien makes sure that the unreasonable war does not get reasoned away and compartmentalized. The simplistic remembrances of Vietnam are parried away by using new story-truths to continually shock and inspire new emotions, with O’Brien searching for new raw nerves to strike to keep the war out of the dusty attics of the mind. Ironically, the emotional truths that O’Brien desperately wanted to relate would also ring more hollow and sound more false despite their fabrication being hidden away. Without the metafictional element of the story-truth and the reader’s knowledge of it, the reader could not share in the mindset of Keats’ negative capability and would expect some narrative resolution. However, as O’Brien reminds the reader, “you can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever” (72).

The sights and sounds of Vietnam have been replayed again and again, from the bombastic roar of napalm on the silver screen to the grounding war photography of napalm’s actual victims. However, these details do not describe the feeling of the war, the feeling of being left physically and morally directionless in the thick of it, of trooping endlessly from village to mountain to riverbank to cesspit, of never knowing when the time would come for your ticket would get punched. This feeling cannot be captured by watching Walter Cronkite on the CBS Evening News, nor from the battle map laden and factually based war memoir. No, the greatest truth comes from “the reality of the imagination. There is the truth of fiction—if it is recognized as fiction” (Ringnalda 99). Without stories, the Vietnam War exists only as a documentary, a non-fiction account emotionally detached and mentally discarded as something alien and unrelatable. The unreal is only made real through the translation of experience into story. That is the power of story-truth.

Works Cited

Bate, Walter Jackson. John Keats. Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard UP, 1963. Web.

Calloway, Catherine. "`How To Tell A True War Story': Metafiction in The Things They Carried." Critique 36.4 (1995): 249. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

Ciocia, Stefania. Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O'Brien and the Power of Storytelling. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2012. Print.

Kaplan, Steven. "The Undying Uncertainty of the Narrator in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried." Critique 35.1 (1993): 43.Academic Search Premier. Web. 21 Nov. 2014.

Liparulo, Steven P. "Incense and Ashes": The Postmodern Work of Refutation in Three Vietnam War Novels." War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities 15.1/2 (2003): 71-94. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2014.

O'Brien, Tim. "An Interview with Tim O'Brien." Interview by Martin Naparsteck. Contemporary Literature Vol. 32, Spring 1991: 1-11. Web.

---. "Good Form." The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 171-172. Print.

---. "How to Tell a True War Story." The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 64-81. Print.

---. "In the Field." The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 155-170. Print.

---. "Notes." The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 149-154. Print.

---. "Speaking of Courage." The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 131-148. Print.

---. "Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong." The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 85-110. Print.

---. "The Things They Carried." The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1990. 1-25. Print.

Ringnalda, Don. Fighting and Writing the Vietnam War. Jackson, Miss.: U of Mississippi, 1994. Web.


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