War Stories

The soldier sat on a hill and assembled his missile. It was daylight, but he could do it in pure darkness just as easily and just as fast. His crewmate — who also served as his best friend and missile spotter — had been complaining quietly about his girlfriend the entire morning, but was now silent as he handed the soldier the pieces he needed, one by one. They had done this many times before; no words were necessary. The soldier’s commander knelt three steps behind them, checking radio communications. The soldier finished setting up the missile, pressed his eye into the viewfinder and quickly oriented himself within the Palestinian city of Nablus of the West Bank in Israel. He found the cafe where the terrorist was scheduled to be, according to good intelligence. This would be the most difficult and complicated shot he had ever taken; shooting the missile from one-and-a-half kilometers through electricity wires and poles, through the window of the cafe, and into the number one terrorist of Hamas. They all waited. Fifteen minutes later the terrorist entered the coffee shop and sat near the window. The soldier switched the safety off of the missile and waited for the green light to fire.

Thirty seven years beforehand, another soldier in a different war also killed a man. The soldier was an American named Tim O’Brien, and the war was Vietnam. In his seemingly autobiographical memoir, The Things They Carried, O’Brien describes in great detail the Vietnamese man he had killed with a grenade during an ambush. After the explosion, the man lay dead on the trail, his one eye shut, the other a “star-shaped hole” (118). In a later chapter, O’Brien describes when his daughter, Kathleen, asks him if he had ever killed anyone. O’Brien sits her on his lap and says, “Of course not.” Later, O’Brien admits that he didn’t actually kill the man with a star-shaped hole for an eye, but rather that he “watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe.” O’Brien says, “I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough.” In other words, O’Brien lies when he says that he killed the man, but then admits that he lied. O’Brien goes on to explain that there are two truths: “story-truth” and “happening-truth.” The “happening-truth” is the real occurrence: what actually, literally happened. The “story-truth” is the reshaping of what actually happened in order for the story to convey the emotional core of the real occurrence; the “story-truth” often has to do more with the feeling of what happened than the facts of what happened. In terms of O’Brien killing a man, the “happening-truth” is that O’Brian was a soldier in Vietnam, afraid to look at all the bodies. The “story-truth” is “a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty” lying on a trail with a star-shaped hole for an eye. Because of the combination of these two truths, when O’Brien’s daughter asks him if he has ever killed anybody, O’Brien concludes that he can honestly say, “Of course not” — since he didn’t actually kill anyone — or he can honestly say, “Yes,” since in his mind, simply being a part of the war made him complicit enough in killing (172). O’Brien distinguishes between two different kinds of truth in order to better represent the war, and perhaps even his own trauma. While O’Brien’s method of conveying “story-truth” as “happening-truth” is intellectually understandable — in the sense that I understand that it can be an effective technique to tell a story — it is also emotionally painful to encounter.

It is not just O’Brien’s redefinition of truth that is problematic in his representation of war, but also the form in which he conveys these different truths; sometimes he tells us which truth he’s conveying, and sometimes he doesn’t. In a chapter called “On the Rainy River” in The Things They Carried, O’Brien tells a story about eighty-one-year-old Elroy Berdahl, the man O’Brien describes as “the hero of [his] life” (47). On his way to Canada to dodge the draft, O’Brien spent six days at the lodge with Elroy, and on his last day at the lodge, Elroy took him out fishing on the Rainy River. At some point they crossed into Canadian water, and twenty meters from the Canadian shore, Elroy cut the boat engine. O’Brien writes about sitting on that boat, looking at the border in front of him: “I could’ve done it. I could’ve jumped and started swimming for my life. Inside me, in my chest, I felt a terrible squeezing pressure. Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it” (54). Crying, O’Brien realized he couldn’t run away to Canada and the next day he left the lodge and went to fight in the war.

The moral freeze that O’Brien experiences on that boat is familiar to me. I went through two years of training in the Israeli Navy Seals, and I often wrestled with myself over the idea of quitting. I would run both scenarios through my head — quitting and staying — neither one very appealing. Saturday evenings, an hour before our weekend was over and my own personal hell resumed, I would lock myself in a bathroom stall and cry. I didn’t want to stay, I didn’t know how to quit. I didn’t want people to think badly of me. I knew the tightness O’Brien felt in his chest. I felt it during basic training as my dad drove me back to base, like a lamb to the slaughter, neither one of us saying a word. What O’Brien must have felt on that boat with Elroy, looking at the Canadian border, so close to freedom yet so far, having a choice but not having one at all, is what I felt as my father drove along the highway and I saw us passing exit after exit after exit. This chapter meant something personal to me.

Because of this personal connection, it was particularly difficult for me to listen to O’Brien’s 1999 President’s Lecture at Brown University. He retold his story with Elroy and concluded by telling the students that “none of [the story] is true… It’s invented. No Elroy, no Tip-Top Lodge… I’ve never been to the Rainy River in my life” (O’Brien). Elroy Berdahl does not exist. O’Brien never sat on that boat and cried. The entire chapter was made up. I felt cheated.

My feeling of betrayal was the beginning of the problem I encountered with O’Brien’s use of “story-truth” versus “happening-truth.” It is one thing to lie to me about killing a man, then tell me you lied about it. But the Berdahl story seemed different to me, in the sense that here, O’Brien doesn’t tell us he’s lying. While the book has been considered fiction by bookstores, and even by O’Brien’s publishers, O’Brien seems to use techniques that we typically associate with memoirs. He uses his own name, and the story takes place in a war he fought, within Alpha Company, where he served in real life. It is here where I felt O’Brien broke a contract he had with me, his reader, a contract that states that he’s going to use his name and talk about his experience in Vietnam, and I’m going to believe him.

In “Representation,” W.J.T. Mitchell discusses this social contract as part of the inherent problematic nature of representation of literary works. Mitchell raises the “issue of representation as a problem that runs throughout the history of literary production,” and describes representation as an “elastic notion” that can include, in literary terms, “a novel representing a day in the life of several Dubliners,” or, as in O’Brien’s case, a novel representing war (330-334). Mitchell thinks of representation as a triangular relationship “of something or someone, by something or someone, to someone.” As such, representation, Mitchell feels, can act both as a means of communication, and a “potential obstacle to it” (330). The triangular relationship may act as a barrier in the communication between the one representing and the ones he is representing to, leading to the “possibility of misunderstanding, error, or downright falsehood” (330). This miscommunication is apparent in O’Brien’s form as he chooses when to communicate his falsehoods to us. Mitchell makes the point that when “something stands for something to somebody, it does so by virtue of a kind of social agreement — ‘let us agree that this will stand for that’” (331). But O’Brien ignores this social agreement and doesn’t tell us that “this stands for that.” He doesn’t tell us that Elroy stands for anything other than Elroy, who is presented as real. It is the ignoring of the social agreement, as well as O’Brien’s miscommunication with his reader, that creates a problem with O’Brien’s use of “story-truth” and “happening-truth” as a way of representing war.

The Things They Carried is not O’Brien’s first work about war, and it seems to have taken him a few attempts to arrive at his use of “happening-truth” and “story-truth” that allows him to satisfactorily (for him, at least) represent war as he experienced it. His first book was a memoir called If I Die in a Combat Zone, which he admittedly based on his own experiences in Vietnam. Four years after publishing his memoir, he wrote Going After Cacciato, a novel that is imagined through the mind of a fictional character — it’s fiction within fiction. Both of these books allow their readers to settle on a truth — “this really happened, this is imagined” — which The Things They Carried doesn’t allow. It’s almost as if O’Brien’s first memoir, something about his own experience, couldn’t quite capture the truth, perhaps because he was too close to the material. And so he wrote a fictional novel, grounding it in real war and real events, but using his imagination to get at deeper truths. And perhaps even that lacked something he needed to say because he was too distant from the material. The Things They Carried seems like a mixture of the two: not quite novel, not quite memoir; not quite fiction, not quite non-fiction. It’s particularly distant from the material since he uses his real name and real places, yet it’s not particularly close to the material either since he changes the stories of what he went through.

But not only does O’Brien change the stories and fail to tell us what he changed, he also makes up stories about how he came to write the made-up story. Even after learning that the book was fiction and that Elroy did not exist, I still did not question the validity of Norman Bowker when I read the chapter called “Speaking of Courage.” O’Brien tells the story of his friend Bowker’s return from the war, describing Bowker driving around his town lake in his father’s truck, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to — not his dad, not his former girlfriend who was married and lived in a blue house, not even the checkout intercom at the drive through. He’s completely lost. In the following chapter, “Notes,” O’Brien tells of how he came to write the chapter about Bowker. In 1975 he received a 17-page letter from Bowker, who described how hard it was to find meaning in his life after the war. Bowker told O’Brien he should write a story about a “guy who feels like he got zapped over in that shithole. A guy who can’t get his act together… This guy wants to talk about it, but he can’t” (151). The letter hit O’Brien hard, and he sat down to write the story. Eight months after he first published the story in 1978, Bowker killed himself. Bowker’s mother sent O’Brien a note explaining how he had used a jumprope to hang himself at the Y after a game of basketball. “I don’t think [Bowker] would mind that his real name appears,” O’Brien says at the end of the chapter, indicating that Bowker’s is the only name —along with O’Brien’s — that wasn’t changed for the purpose of the book (154).

Like “On the Rainy River,” these chapters about Norman Bowker hit hard. The idea of leaving the army and not finding meaning in life; the suicidal tendencies of soldiers without a war to fight or an enemy to kill; the feeling of responsibility when a friend dies. But in an interview, Daniel Bourne and Debra Shostak ask O’Brien whether or not we can believe “Notes” is nonfiction since O’Brien is “giving us the truth about what went on in the composition of another story.” O’Brien answers, “You ought not to believe it. In fact, it’s utterly and absolutely invented… No Norman Bowker, and no mother” (77).

With the Bowker chapter, O’Brien comes out from behind the curtain, breaks the “fourth wall,” and removes all distance between himself and the reader. It feels he is confiding in us — not as the character “Tim O’Brien,” but as the author — how he wrote the chapter, how much Bowker had meant to him, how Bowker wouldn’t mind O’Brien using his real name. For crying out loud, O’Brien “lovingly” dedicates the book to Bowker! He never tells us the story is made up. O’Brien blurs the line between “happening-truth” and “story-truth,” leading me to feel as if I fell victim to a practical joke. More than feeling cheated, I felt angry. Here, it seems like O’Brien takes his use of “happening-truth” and “story-truth” beyond the desire to relate a truth, and into some kind of desire to be shocking.

But O’Brien says he doesn’t lie to us to be mean or shocking, but rather for him, it’s the most effective way to show us something about himself and what he went through. O’Brien tells Bourne and Shostak, “In fact I do truly love you, I’m not just tricking you, I’m letting you in on my game, letting you in on who I am… All these lies are the surface of something. I have to lie to you and explain why I am lying to you, why I’m making these things up, in order to get you to know me… And it’s going to hurt now and then, and you’re going to get angry now and then, but I want to do it to you anyway — and for you. That’s the point of the book” (75). That’s hard for me to accept in the sense that there should be a way to represent war in a form that doesn’t make us angry or hurt; it’s hard for me to accept that O’Brien — who I come to care for through reading his experiences — deliberately hurts and angers me in trying to do what he feels is best for me, without even knowing me. And it further angers me when, in his lecture at Brown University, O’Brien points out that we never read Huckleberry Finn and complain that it isn’t true — the same way we don’t watch The Godfather and say, “no horse head” (O’Brien). But Mark Twain didn’t name his character “Mark Twain,” the same way the Godfather’s name wasn’t Mario Puzo, and Mario Puzo wasn’t known for being in the mafia. O’Brien seems to intentionally want us to believe his book is a true memoir, whereas Twain and Puzo never did.

The question that then came to my mind was, does it matter? Should it really make a difference to me whether or not O’Brien actually sat on that boat with Elroy and cried, or whether or not Bowker existed? O’Brien put me there and made me feel what he felt. Does that make his methods legitimate? But still the question that most nagged at me was why I felt so hurt.

Here’s a story. The soldier at the beginning of the essay is me, and on July 17, 2006, I sat on a hill on the outskirts of Nablus and had the number one terrorist of Hamas in between my sights. We received confirmation to shoot and right before I pressed the trigger, a four-year-old boy jumped into the terrorist’s lap. We waited. The boy never left his lap.

“Mission’s scrapped. It’s a no-go,” my commander said and got up. I pretended not to hear. I kept my eye in the missile viewfinder, kept the terrorist within my sights. “Bezalel, did you hear me? There’s no shot. Pack it up.” I couldn’t turn my head away from the missile. I was afraid to let anyone see my face. I was so angry that I was almost crying. I was being denied my opportunity to make a difference, to save lives, to do what I was trained to do.

I asked my commander to let me take the shot. He called me crazy and told me for the third time to pack up and go. He reminded me that there was a four-year-old boy down there. I didn’t care. Only a year before, a Palestinian sniper had shot a six-month-old baby in the head. Right or wrong, in my mind at that moment, the life of a Palestinian boy did not balance out against the lives of my friends and families. I wanted to take that shot because I wanted to win. Just once, I wanted to win. That’s what years of fighting had done to me: they made me not want to be the bigger man when I should have been. Made me want to surrender the higher ground when it was — and remains — what separates me from the terrorists. But at that moment, on that hill, all that frustration boiled up inside of me and I couldn’t just pack up my missile and go home. The answer was still no. We hauled our packs on our backs and walked down the hill. We never got the terrorist.

I’ve never written this story down in words but I’ve told it many times to several people. It’s a true story. And it never happened.

Elements of it are real. The “happening-truth” is that I was a Navy Seal and a missile specialist. The number one terrorist of Hamas had come to that coffee shop every day and we were planning on assassinating him with a missile I was supposed to shoot. We trained three full days for this mission in simulators, but intelligence came through that the terrorist kept a four-year-old boy on him at all times and we wouldn’t have the shot. The mission was scrapped; we never left the base. So many of the facts aren’t true in my “story-truth” version above, but the sentiment is still there. The feeling is true. All I said about what war does is true.

I always thought I told the story that way because I was a writer and I felt the need to dramatize the story. The story works better when we’re on the hill. But when I think about O’Brien “want[ing] us to feel it too,” I realize that perhaps I embellished because I wanted to put my listener in my place, to make him feel what I felt, and I couldn’t make my listener feel that without putting him in that position through me, sitting on that hill. Just as O’Brien wanted you to feel that tightness in your chest, I want you to feel that impotence of being so close to firing and not being allowed to. I want you to feel that frustration. Because the frustration I felt when the mission was scrapped was true. The frustration of fighting against guerrilla warfare: truth. And you weren’t going to feel that from a simulation room. So in a sense, I’m guilty of doing the same thing I’m angry at O’Brien for doing.

I have told this story to several people — usually to people who aren’t Israeli, were never in the military, and have never seen war. After reading the story, a friend asked me why I felt the need to tell it in the way that I have, beyond it being a better story or because it helps the reader feel too. What was I hoping to accomplish?

In a sense, in my inner experience, it doesn’t matter whether I was in the simulator or on the hill, whether I killed a child or not; to me, just thinking about it, knowing in my mind that I was capable, was guilt enough. I think I feel so guilty about just even thinking about killing a child, that I perhaps tell people the made-up version of the story in order to receive validation from them. If they can understand me and not blame me for having those thoughts, then maybe I’ll be able to not blame myself. But telling them the story as it happened — I was in a simulator and the mission was scratched and we went on with our day— doesn’t implicate me as much as I feel it should, as much as I implicate myself through the story I make up. Killing that child was a thought, but by changing the story the way I do, I externalize the thought of killing a child into an actual action I’m about to take on that hill — an action that is later hard for me to look back on. I am guilty through thought, if not through action, and that is enough. Maybe O’Brien goes through the same thing: he probably had the thought that he would kill, and from then on, in a sense, it didn’t matter whether he killed that Vietnamese man or not. Perhaps by making up or changing the stories, O’Brien externalizes his thoughts in order to represent the experience of war in a more powerful way. He turns it from the hypothetical to the actual. It is the difference in immediacy between saying, “If I ever have kids I don’t know what I’ll say to them” — a thought — and “My daughter asked me if I’ve ever killed someone and I sat her on my lap” — an action. I never felt uncomfortable about the fact that I told this story and didn’t tell people it wasn’t true until O’Brien had done it to me.

In five years in the Navy Seals, I did many things, yet I focus on this one story that isn’t true. I don’t like the fact that I lied about it, but I realize that the version of the story I made up permitted me to represent my internal experience of war more effectively than if I were to have recounted my actual actions. O’Brien and I both told fiction from the same motivation of giving a clearer, stronger sense of war. Yet when I told those people that story about being on the hill, I was lying to them. And I’m uncomfortable because I’m a good person and I care about people and I care about things and I try to do the right thing and I would have killed that child. That wouldn’t have been the right thing to do but I would have killed that child. And that doesn’t go away. The knowledge of this action that I would have taken doesn’t go away. And O’Brien reminds me of that. And so maybe it’s not O’Brien I’m angry with, but myself and the reality I lived in and experienced that brought me to that point. And none of this would have come across from a simulator, so you understand now why I had to lie to you and tell you this false story, and I don’t want you to be mad at me for that either. And I don’t want to feel bad anymore about thinking of killing that child, and I don’t want you to think badly of me because of that. I want you to tell me it’s okay, and that you understand, and that I’m still a good person, and to say to me, “Of course, Omri, that’s what war does. It wasn’t you, it was the situation. That isn’t who you are. And I understand that now. You made me understand. You’re okay. Everything’s okay.”

As Mitchell says, representation is inherently problematic in that it is a copy of the original (337). I can never give you the original experience of what I went through in war because that experience was gone the minute it was over. All O’Brien and I can do is try and represent it through stories. But because it’s not the “original” experience, in every representation there will be some kind of “lost immediacy, presence, or truth, in the form of a gap between intention and realization, original and copy” (338). Both O’Brien and I lost a certain aspect of truth once we changed our stories and moved away from “happening-truth” in order to better represent war and our experiences as soldiers. But even if we tried to relate something exactly as it happened, something would still be lost; we would automatically lose a part of the “happening-truth” just by trying to represent it.

But maybe it’s not a question of representation as much as it is about processing. Perhaps it’s a matter of processing guilt. Maybe O’Brien redefines truth not in order to better represent war, but in order to better process his own guilt and move on. Perhaps he processes his guilt of both almost dodging the draft and actually going to war by writing the story of Elroy. He processes his guilt of not being able to help his friends who couldn’t adapt to life after the war through the story of Bowker. He processes his guilt of participating in the death of people through the conversation with his daughter and describing a Vietnamese man with a star-shaped hole for an eye. I can’t say for sure, but it seems to me this is what he might be doing, as I realize now it is what I have done. I have found my own way of representing war and processing my experience and guilt through telling “story-truth” and honestly sharing the thoughts I had during the war that are hard for me to look back on today. In this way, I begin to process my guilt over thinking of killing a child in order to also kill a terrorist. I process it by placing myself on a hill with a missile in my hands, about to press the trigger. By being on that hill and conveying something other than the “happening-truth,” I am able to distance myself from the experience. But at the same time, I put my name in the story — my finger on the trigger — implicating myself, trying to get as close as I can to conveying the feeling of that actual thought. I try to bring my reader right there with me and my thought, and closer to my experience than he could have otherwise been.

People tend to think that service begins the day you enlist and ends the day you are discharged. But that’s not true. Service begins the moment you decide to enlist, and it never ends. This is service, here. The Things They Carried is still part of O’Brien’s service, left over from Vietnam. The trauma and the subsequent attempt to represent war and what it does is part of serving your country. As long as war exists — and it will always exist — so too will there be soldiers who come out of war, who long to hear “I understand now,” and “you’re okay.” Soldiers who will attempt — each in his or her own way — to represent that traumatic experience not only to those who are fortunate enough to have others pay the price of their freedom, but also to themselves. Their representation will never be their original experience, but it will probably be what they need it to be in order to process the experience, and to heal. This is what war does.

Works Cited

Bourne, Daniel and Debra Shostak. Interview with Tim O’Brien. Artful Dodge 22/23 (1992): 74-90. Print.

Mitchell, W.J.T. “Representation.” Writing the Essay: Art in the World, the World Through Art. Ed. Darlene A. Forrest, Benjamin W. Stewart, and Randy Martin. McGraw Hill Education, 2013. 329-338. Print.

O’Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. New York: Broadway Book, 1999. Print.

—. If I Die in a Combat Zone. New York: Broadway Books, 1999. Print.

—. The Things They Carried. New York: Mariner Books, 2009. Print.

—. “Writing Vietnam.” Brown University. Providence, RI. 21 April 1999. President’s   Lecture.

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