In my life, I have never been far from war, but I have never been in it. I wanted to spend the summer learning about the Vietnam War. The Afghanistan War wages on and this summer has been one of the deadliest. The US military left a fractured and fragile democracy brewing in old sectarian violence in Iraq. Every day, Syrians confront a civil war measuring in hundreds of deaths and torture while the world stands and watches.
I have read Tim O’Brien innovative style and storytelling in The Things They Carried and his voice struck an anti-war and humane chord through his narrator and characters. If I was to gain a new perspective of war, then I would have to enter his novels. History books do not prepare you for the crushing fear that fiction can produce in just one paragraph. I learned well about the Civil War, Korea, WWI, and Vietnam in my education. Yet I have read few war books written by Americans who actually experienced war. Catch 22, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Slaughterhouse 5 leave gaping holes in how they use narrative techniques, such as sarcasm and silence, to coddle the reader into emotional detachment.
I wanted the experience of war, of Vietnam, and the emotional impact on the citizens involved. O’Brien’s novels render a world of cold steel that does not bend to the desires, needs, and dreams of humanity. The individual leaves broken and confused but understanding that blame and guilt are not associated with experience. We are given a place to plod while circumstance and luck, ill or otherwise, molds our character until they enter an understanding of weakness and helplessness in their persistence to live. This is what O’Brien has taught me this summer.
The Things They Carried
It is not where, who, or what that defines us, but it is what we carry on our shoulders, pockets, and minds each day. For us to live, we must realize that the man next to you carries just as much and the similarities of the objects connect us in our humanity. War makes us forget the humanity of the man across from us. We forget what they carry; we forget what we carry when we are carrying guns. As it falls to a favorite line: “War is the lack of the imagination.”
Dreams define us. They are possible even if the imagination must make them happen. Going to Paris is the opposite of going to war. The city celebrates life in its finest expression and human’s highest ideals of food, art, music, architecture and love. When one man believes strong enough in his vision, his strength is enough to pull everyone with him. Salvation will come from the individual who helps others believe just as strongly.
The impact of war and its scars will not be erased. It is normal for humanity to bury their pain and secrets until there is time to understand and forgive. You can be blamed for doing your duty because it is always the individual who makes the final decision; not a country, not a philosophy, not a friend. We must deal with pain and tragedy and guilt without silence for its weight grows with time until it drowns all the good in the self.
The obsession with self can only be combated with selfless giving. Empathy is the truest ideal of humanity. If we close ourselves to feel only our emotions, understand only our perspective, and experiences only our senses, we ruin the chance to be happy and complete. Man needs society for its companionship and forgiveness more than society needs each individual man. Only man has the power to alienate himself; an action society distains and condemns with impunity.
Time does not change us, but our willingness to forgive impetuous actions and uncontrollable circumstance. We cannot reclaim what is lost or ask others to retreat back before the pain and sadness of living. We can only accept the weakness in our character as universal and accept others as they are. We are never what we wanted to be, as you will find others, but it does not mean we have failed. There is time to be forgiven, to heal, and to accept.
I was looking to learn about war, but O’Brien teaches humanity as it faces its mortality and how we try to distract ourselves from the question of Why. He paints the landscape of American characters in war and out and the reader is enriched by their struggle to be loved, appreciated, safe and free. I learned about war’s impact on the individual from a closer lens of reality. It would have been a successful summer if I just gained that sensitivity. But O’Brien is a modernist with a minimalist style and his realism explores the greatest of the individual motive to persist against nature, society, and even himself. For O’Brien, humanity clings to life through the individual and advances the world even in the face of society and nature’s grimmest horrors. The individual will be the last voice and because of it, there is hope and optimism even in realism.
You can follow James Dugan on facebook and on Twitter @jamesduganlb. Purchase his new book through Amazon What Baseball Teaches: A Poetic Odyssey into 2008 Season of the World Champions Philadelphia Phillies