A couple of weeks back the Virginian-Pilot interviewed Tim O’Brien about his books, more specifically his novels and stories about Vietnam. Even more specifically, he discussed the role that truth-bending plays in any narrative about war. He explains, for instance, why he chose to have a narrator in 1990’s The Things They Carried named Tim O’Brien:
I’ve intentionally used my own name (as a character) and tried to blur the line a little more. To get my readers to think about what’s true or what’s not, why does it matter to me, and to think about can a story be literally true but emotionally false, or vice versa. Truth is a fluid and volatile thing. Truths about our country that were believed 150 years ago have evolved, and they evolve every day. With our sense of what’s true about ourselves and our country, we learn things about ourselves that we didn’t know yesterday.
I’ve had this idea on the brain lately, between finishing up David Simon‘s HBO miniseries on the Iraq invasion, Generation Kill, and reading Mark Danner‘s latest dispatch on the Red Cross report on torture in the New York Review of Books. One’s a fiction and one’s fact, but both get at how slippery the truth becomes in a war zone, and perhaps more important, how arbitrarily human lives become valued in a war; they shift radically depending on the conditions of the moment.
I’m many years away from my first reading of Going After Cacciato, so I don’t recall just how much soldiers’ pride and insecurity played into the lies that get told about war. But it certainly has a prominent place in a more recent, unfortunately neglected nonfiction book: Tracy Kidder‘s My Detachment, his 2005 memoir about his experiences during Vietnam (and his failed attempts to write a novel about it). I suspect that part of the reason why the book didn’t get much heat was because there’s not a lot of action in it; it doesn’t allow the reader to fall into the shoot-‘em-up fantasies about war that even Generation Kill indulges in every so often. (Kidder didn’t see combat. He was what infantrymen called a REMF—“rear echelon motherfucker.”) But what it does get into is how those fantasies start, and how frustrating it is to be in a war zone and not get to participate in any actual fighting. Kidder writes of the letters, full of evasions about how much he was doing, he sent back home. “For months I’d been trying to convince myself, by convincing everyone back home, that in the crucible of war I’d made that great transition,” he writes. Later, he writes a letter to his increasingly distant girlfriend, acting out his aggression and piling on the b.s., closing:
“I have nothing to lose. I really lost my virginity over here. I shot a man through the head and little pieces of his brain and a great quantity of blood colored by gun and my clothes and my face. I never cried so hard over you. But, not unlike you, I am becoming a whore of a different sort. I like it. I LIKE it. You filthy, rotten bitch. One letter from you at any one time would have done so much for me. You fucking bitch.”
Kidder at least had the good sense not to send the letter.