I read about crime and murder and mystery, and the intersection of life and death on the line in all these. It's part of my ongoing education, and it rarely gets under my skin, and I don't know why that is. Well, I have an idea: I think there's a deep and truthful humanity in these eternal subjects of interest. Gruesome, sure. But we can't look away. Even so, my dad and I have long conversations about things many people might find unpleasant. And it's not that we find them pleasant, but that they are real, and they happened, and continue to happen, will always.
I started reading The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. He floats around in the same kind of murky waters, with unpleasant things that we all pretend maybe don't happen, especially not to our military men fighting the wars we send them to, but they do happen, and they are uncomfortable.
Maybe that's it: the discomfort. There is real power in telling a story from the uncomfortable place. Going where it makes your mother nervous to go, and not coming back up for air just yet. One of my most favorite concepts is the Grey Area.
Everything is Grey Area to me. What REALLY happened, and what's not true?
You're looking at it all wrong. That's not the point, that's not the important part of the story.
So imagine my delight when Tim O'Brien, in his defining novel on Vietnam, spends an entire chapter weaving a True War Story where what's truth is not obvious, for the same reason I've just said. That's not the point. It's OK if you're uncomfortable in the Grey Area. Maybe you spend all your time in the mathematical certainties of life. Alive, dead, no in between. Good, bad, no in between. We are both and we are neither, every day and every minute, and this passage says that for me in a way few things I've read has quite accomplished.
I'm going to skip around, because if you want the entire True War Story, there are several million dog-eared copies of the book in any school library. They read it a lot in high schools, I think, though this has been my first read. Anyway, you can find a copy for the whole bloody Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon tale.
[quote cite="Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried, 1990." url="http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=125128156"]
In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed.
In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It's a question of credulity. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn't, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.
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 men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil. Listen to Rat Kiley. Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman or girl. He says cooze. Then he spits and stares. He's nineteen years old--it's too much for him--so he looks at you with those big sad gentle killer eyes and says cooze, because his friend is dead, and because it's so incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back.
You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.
Listen to Rat: "Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fuckin' letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back."
How do you generalize?
War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth, war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can't help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. ... Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of moral indifference--a powerful, implacable beauty--and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. At its core, perhaps, war is just another word for death, and yet any soldier will tell you, if he tells the truth, that proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a firefight there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil--everything.
Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.