Tuesday, November 11, 2008


It's Veterans Day, so we're telling war stories. Everyone loves war stories. Life, death, courage, you know the drill. We grew up playing war games. Some went off to actual wars to kill or be killed. Here are some war stories interwoven with the words of Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran and author of The Things They Carried, and Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1979. I was fortunate to study with O'Brien at the Sewanee Writers Conference in Tennessee, where he meticulously line-edited 75 pages of my novel-in-progress. I can assure you, the man is obsessed with "getting it right," and his work reflects a precision of emotion and truth one rarely encounters in writing of any kind. O'Brien has written extensively about his experiences in Vietnam, the moral dimension as well as the combat, and he often speaks about the difference between "story-truth" and "truth-truth."

"A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done." -Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried

"You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let's say, and afterward you ask, 'Is it true?' and if the answer matters, you've got your answer.

For example, we've all heard this one. Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast and saves his three buddies.

Is it true?

The answer matters."

"You'd feel cheated if it never happened. Without the grounding reality, it's just a trite bit of puffery, pure Hollywood, untrue in the way all such stories are untrue. Yet even if it did happen - and maybe it did, anything's possible even then you know it can't be true, because a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead guys says, 'The fuck you do that for?' and the jumper says, 'Story of my life, man,' and the other guy starts to smile but he's dead. That's a true story that never happened."

"Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn’t hit you until, say, twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you’ve forgotten the point again. And then for a long time you lie there watching the story happen in your head. You listen to your wife’s breathing. The war’s over. You close your eyes. You smile and think, Christ, what’s the point?"

Read Tim O'Brien's books. Buy them here and here.


Anonymous said...

powerful clip. There are a lot of stories like this that should be told, and should be heard.

support the troops and let them be heard. Fuck the war.

Bob Rini said...

Thanks for the comment. It's too bad that a lot of people who "support the troops" don't really want to hear from them again. It's like just shut up and do your job, and don't question the mission.

It's taken a while--maybe we're slow learners--but I think a lot of people are finally turning against this war.