The Things They Carried book cover

As the Memorial Day weekend approaches in the United States, war stories become part of an annual narrative commemorating those who served and died in battle. The stories often are woven from threads of horror and honor, of despair and romance. They are told in the hope we won’t forget. They are told in the hope that we might, someday, learn from our pasts.

There are, tragically, no end of such stories. I have a substantial section of my bookshelf devoted to war stories — fiction and nonfiction and essay. Some recount moments in the American Revolution. Some chronicle moments of World War II, especially in the Pacific Theater, where my father fought as a young man and returned home, silent and scarred. From World War I there is “One of Ours,” by Willa Cather, which won the 1923 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. One shelf of my war section holds books of conflict throughout the history of Ireland, where my partner has ancestral roots. I have books on apartheid in South Africa, the genocide in Rwanda, the war in the Balkans. (I especially recommend “Love They Neighbor,” by former Washington Post reporter Peter Maass.) I have book after book, story after story, from America’s Civil War, which seems never to stay in our past and still, I hope, has lessons we can learn from.

But most of my war books focus on the Vietnam War, formally considered the Second Indochina War. As I understand it, the Vietnamese refer to it as the American War, or the Resistance War Against America. (Those names alone tell a conflicted story of conflict.)

Author Tim O'Brien

Author Tim O'Brien

The most read and thumbed and dogeared of these books is “The Things They Carried,” by Minnesota native Tim O’Brien, first published in 1990. It sits on many lists of the 100 most important American books of the 20th Century. It was supported by a fellowship through the National Endowment of Arts, and won a National Book Award, The first chapter alone offers a master class for any writer — lessons in foreshadow, tension, character development, scene, description, detail, metaphor, and word play. I teach from that chapter often in workshops, and reread it myself every six months, scribbling even more notes in the margins as I notice something new — or read it in a new way.

But the passage that always stops me — and that I sometimes avoid — comes a bit later in the book, in a chapter called “How to Tell A True War Story.” The searing sentence:

A true war story is never moral.

The sentence stops me because it makes me reconsider all stories of war — whether told in books or movies, whether labeled as fiction or nonfiction — and question the “truths” I take from them. It makes me think of the power of narrative, and how it is used to reconstruct the inevitable narrative power of war, which holds, in reality, all the elements O’Brien draws on as literary inspiration.

At the most fundamental level, that short sentence is a marvel. The tension in it is extreme. It seems to talk back to itself. Aren’t we taught that it is the lie that is immoral? Doesn’t it then follow that what is true must be moral? It forces me to think in the strained ways my college philosophy classes did — thinking that never seemed to arrived at a sure destination, but kept leading me down yet another path of thought and questioning, and made me question my ability to really know anything.

Beyond that, O’Brien’s sentence opens the door to deeper questions about war itself, and about the stories we tell of war. That challenge underpins his entire book which, almost 30 years after it was published, is still debated as to its literary category. Is it creative journalism? Memoir? Extrapolated nonfiction? Pure fiction? A meditation? A fantasy?

In that way, maybe it perfectly reflects the unending philosophical conflict of war — and of our narratives of war. O’Brien scolds us for clinging to his story even as he pulls us along. Here is the entire passage:

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.

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