A few years ago I heard a lecture by Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried. I attended several functions highlighting this book the focus of the BIG READ in Wichita. I never sensed that audiences grasped the gist of what he was trying to say about the Viet Nam war with which he was intimately familiar, and about war generally.
For some people the city-wide focus on this novel was mostly a nostalgic look at a distant common experience. This was a war that wasn’t really a war. The nation couldn’t agree on it politically, causing huge protests in America, particularly among young people. Today, people protest their right to own firearms more often than the political and moral necessity of going to another country to kill or be killed.
Today I returned to my notes about O’Brien’s lecture.
He told us that the Viet Nam conflict was actually between “two hells” and he, as a conscripted soldier, had to choose to be loyal to his country or to his conscience. As a child he had been taught in church that killing was wrong. He had grown up in a world of absolutes: black versus white. Now he was expected to kill – anything that moved. His moral compass went out of kilter.
He couldn’t reconcile these two disparate views– that one man’s truth was another man’s lie. One side’s terrorist was another side’s freedom fighter. War caused him to do things he was ashamed of.
It ended up with him losing his sense of purpose as he stumbled around in that Asian countryside in a conflict which had no front. Danger was pervasive and unrelenting, success measured in dead bodies. He had no idea what he and his friends were dying for. Why do they make us do this? he asked himself. Reality became blurred. Fact and fiction got intermingled.
Recently I read a newer book by O’Brien: In the Lake of the Woods. He calls it a novel, but like The Things They Carried, you begin reading what you think is fiction, when suddenly you find yourself faced with real life incidents.
This “novel” begins with the fictional John Wade, Viet Nam veteran, successful politician, who, in his campaign for president, is defeated in a humiliating loss. Someone unearthed his Viet Nam record and made it public shortly before the election.
He and wife Kathy retreat to a cabin on one of the Lake of the Woods islands in northern Minnesota to nurse their wounds and mend personal differences sharpened during the tense times of the campaign.
The novel interrupts this story again and again to give excerpts of the court records of the trial of Lt. William Calley and the My Lai massacre during the Viet Nam war when about 300 defenseless villagers, young and old, women and children, even infants, were mercilessly butchered. O’Brien was eyewitness to similar killings. Calley was the only person convicted of the My Lai massacre, according to a footnote in the book.
The earlier novel becomes more understandable after reading this second one. O’Brien has one theme and one only: The after-effects of war. War doesn’t end with a peace treaty.
In In the Lake of the Woods, Kathy disappears during the night, as does the Wade boat. Law enforcement is brought in to conduct a search, with no success.
The novel focuses on the search to find her but backtracks to the wartime experiences of her veteran/turned politician husband. Wade, the presidential hopeful, thought he had put his war experiences behind, but finds he can’t. He had also killed without cause and must rationalize his actions.
The fictional part of the novel asks What happened here? Was Kathy murdered? If so, by whom? Did she commit suicide? Did she get lost during the night among the many little islands, which will soon all have looked alike to her as she motored among them? We never find out about Kathy. Readers are left to decide.
The novel asks the same question about Viet Nam: What happened here? Its story line is a metaphor for the Viet Nam fiasco.
At the lecture, O’Brien commented that people ask him why he blurs fact with fiction in his novels. Reading this second book made that clear to me. He said he did this mixing deliberately to make the point that in situations like Viet Nam, reality get blurred. Who is the enemy? What here is morally right? Morally wrong? What is truth? What is a lie? The outer conflict creates a huge war inside and makes you question who you are.
O’Brien writes, “War has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent. There is no clarity. Everything swirls. The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true.”
Some people have the idea that once one power is defeated, peace will result. O’Brien told us in his lecture that “peace is a shy thing.” I understand his words better now. Peace does not rush forward boldly, defiantly, pronouncing itself as the victor. It remains elusive.
After the conflict, mothers, wives, and children still mourn their dead, still go hungry, still look for warmth and shelter, still ache for life as they once knew it.
After a conflict, those who fought return home, hang up their uniforms but not their memories. What happened to others, to them, still remains murky, still a burden.
“Because there is no end, happy or otherwise. Nothing is fixed, nothing is solved.”
O’Brien writes, “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever” (The Things They Carried). Not in the land. Not in one’s soul.
Peace is a shy thing, a very shy thing.