Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel

Do war stories need militarily-accurate detail to be compelling? Lots of contemporary war fiction bandies the author’s familiarity with up-to-the-minute jargon, gear, and nomenclature, as if the story’s success depended on readers tipping their hats to the author’s first-hand knowledge of what an MRAP, IFAK, or ETT might be. And why not? Iraq and Afghanistan were different from Vietnam, Korea, and World War II, and some of that difference is reflected in the gear, tactics, and language used by those who fought it. Why shouldn’t authors include a little bit or a lotta-bit of verisimilar detail in their stories?

But that’s not all there is to the question. Could one say that some contemporary war fiction is overly dependent on the insider knowledge that comes with “having been there, and done that”? Waving their litanies of military lingo and equipment as badges of authenticity, they distract attention from the author’s story-telling chops, attract gullible, easily-impressed readers, and repel discriminating ones who resent callous efforts at being manipulated.

thingstheycarriedTim O’Brien, the most important pre-9/11 writer to the contemporary war lit scene, defines these issues most succinctly. In the magnificent “The Things They Carried,” he itemizes the gear carried by infantrymen in Vietnam in long lists that stand-alone from the explicit events of the story. The effect is not only intoxicating, but groundbreaking. I don’t think the generation of World War II authors—Mailer, Styron, Heller, and Jones—ever slowed down the narrative flow of their novels in such a way to focus attention on the equipment and verbiage that enveloped their characters. But after O’Brien, almost every American vet and civilian author of Iraq and Afghanistan war fiction that I can think of somewhere makes such a move. Even a lefty-feminist poet such as Juliana Spahr, in her poem “This Connection of Everyone with Lungs” can’t resist name-checking the precise, specific equipment that help define how we fight now.  Other arch-examples of the tendency include Phil Klay’s story “Frago” and Paul Wasserman’s poem  “15 Months, 22 Days.”  Klay’s and Wasserman’s works are self-conscious commentaries on the practice, and so too is Spahr’s, but for other authors the tendency seems to be more unknowing, or even craven.

Is any of this necessary? Tim O’Brien, again, leads the way in helping us understand. In an Atlantic magazine essay titled “Telling Tales,” he derides an over-reliance on verisimilar detail and instead argues that a story above all must be an original, striking act of the imagination. For O’Brien, realistic description is only a secondary attribute of fiction, one bound to eventually bore the reader unless the tale starts tickling the fancy through its artistic and fanciful rendering, or even contorting, of reality. Helen Benedict, in her review of Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives, takes another approach by arguing that reveling in military-specific jargon, equipment, and tactics amounts to glorifying war. I half-suspect she’s right, even as I wait for war writers to expand their reach to more and different realms of the Iraq and Afghanistan war experience, a move that can only be made by bringing the material and linguistic reality of the wars into view.

A good case in point in this discussion is Fives and Twenty-Fives itself. I praised it in my last post for subjecting the world of military movement in armored vehicles in Iraq to artistic rendering. I also hinted that Pitre was very observant about how military service shapes the habits of perception of service members. It’s not just what soldiers and Marines see and experience, it’s how they are trained to see and experience by military method and the danger of war. A chapter titled “The Rule” in Fives and Twenty-Fives illustrates by vividly portraying a small-unit patrol brief and the ensuing patrol. Almost every detail offered by Pitre suggests the ways that the Marines in the story have been altered by their service.

The platoon sergeant, Gunny Stout, proclaims, “Five and twenty-five’s the rule,” by which he means that the Marines on patrol will not look at just whatever they want to, but at assigned fields of vision, first five meters out, then 25. But Gunny Stout himself has also been changed. The body armor and sunglasses he wears, by hiding his middle-age flab and wrinkles, takes years off his appearance: “he looked like he could’ve been in grade school.” Gunny Stout, smart as a gunny should be, directs at every turn the absorption of patrol brief information by the Marines. He commands the platoon medic to stand next to the bomb-defusing technician, because it “helped the Marines” by inspiring confidence and unity. “Everyone stood still when [Gunny] talked,” “staring at the dirt during the convoy brief.” But when Gunny Stout commands, “Eyes up,” everyone directs their gaze his way. The platoon’s attention during the patrol brief is also monitored by the second sergeant in the chain-of-command, Michelle Gomez. Sergeant Gomez is “the only Marine allowed to move around during the convoy brief.” “She circled us,” Pitre’s narrator tells us, “like a sheepdog, making sure we all paid attention.”

Feminist critics remind us that oppression of women is often manifested through control of their bodies. They would have a field day with a scene in which Sergeant Gomez, prior to going on duty, works her long hair into a bun to meet the demands of military grooming standards. But Sergeant Gomez, no one’s victim or object of suppression, circumvents easy categorizing. When the narrator catches her fixing her hair, Sergeant Gomez fires back: “She notices me and narrowed her eyes, all mad. Like, what the fuck you looking at? Turn around. Get back to work, asshole.” The narrator, a young male medic, is unconcerned. He actually likes being spoken to like that. He’s smart enough to notice the contortions wrought on civility by military service, but in the context of actually being a Marine in the middle of a war he totally understands where Sergeant Gomez is coming from. And there is no one, absolutely no one, whom he trusts more than Gunny Stout and Sergeant Gomez to roll out the gate with on the unit’s daily mission to defuse and fill booby-trapped IED craters.

The scene strikingly portrays the flows of deference, obedience, and resistance characteristic of enlisted life in the service. Gunny Stout, the senior non-commissioned officer in the platoon, is the master of passive-aggressive instantiation of chain-of-command orders and policies, no matter how much they are hated. After the platoon leader, Lieutenant Donovan, directs the platoon to stop writing obscene and derogatory graffiti in the FOB port-a-johns, Gunny Stout affirms the directive, but modifies it in terms the junior troops appreciate:

Then, his voice so low the lieutenant couldn’t hear, Gunny Stout said to us, “I’m running over to the shitters after we break. In fact, I’ll give the whole platoon three minutes to do the same. You know that glistening, goddamn beautiful cock in the last stall on the right? I want a picture before it’s gone forever. One of you miscreants is a regular Leonardo da Vinci of dicks, and I’d hate to see the evidence erased for all time. Fucking tragedy.”

The platoon executes not just dutifully but laughingly, and the story doesn’t end there. On patrol, a sergeant named Marceau requests the other two sergeants in the platoon, one of whom is Sergeant Gomez, to switch to an unauthorized radio frequency the NCOs use to communicate freely out of earshot of the officers.

“Listen,’ I heard Marceau say. ‘You two deserve to know that most of those penis murals are mine. And I’ll be honest—I don’t think I can quit cold turkey. Over.”

Zahn and Gomez, in separate vehicles, both keyed their radios just to let Marceau hear them laughing.

Marceau, kept going, deadpan. “So here’s my compromise: I’ll keep drawing penises, and you can go ahead and put me down as a volunteer for the overnight shitter watch. Out.”

And so Pitre continues, eloquently dancing on the boundary line between realistic rendering and novelistic possibility. When we think of Sergeant Gomez, what do we think? True-to-life portrayal? Fantastical embellishment? A male fantasy? Or a well-drawn representation of how it is to be a woman soldier or Marine in the military today? Would we like the story more if it were written by a woman? Would a woman write such a scene? Has Pitre’s own service rendered him an insider’s advantage on life inside a small unit? Does it lend his story credibility? Or, could he have told the story just as well after reading lots of memoirs and watching YouTube clips? Tim O’Brien writes in a story titled “Good Form” of “story-truth” and “happening-truth” and asserts that story-truth, or emotional truth, is far more important than happening-truth, or realistic depiction. But how do you know story truth when you see it, and how far can you take it?

UPDATE:  Adam Karr’s review of Fives and Twenty-Fives for Make Literary Magazine also riffs off the legacy of Tim O’Brien and the importance of realistic detail in war fiction. Karr’s review was in circulation before mine, and though I was not thinking of his review when I wrote this post, Karr should be given all credit for first raising this important issue, especially as it pertains to Fives and Twenty-Fives.

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4 Comments on “Tim O’Brien’s “Story Truth” and “Happening Truth” in the Contemporary War Novel”

  1. Dave Says:

    I’m not sure there is any need to identify story-truth when we encounter it. And I don’t know that we should ever collectively distinguish between story-truth and happening-truth. O’Brien raises one above the other, but he also scoffs at any attempt to identify which is which or to rely on that status for epistomological supremacy (I’m thinking of the scene in which his daughter asks if he killed anyone in the war, page 172). It is hard to admit that it doesn’t necessarily require experience to achieve credibility in art, especially when war and dead soldiers are concerned. But perhaps, once we admit that such a novel is possible and can be equally effective and whatnot, or contemporary war lit can advance beyond reportage and memorialization.

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    Dave, thanks. Maybe worse than an excess of military detail is a military detail gotten wrong. Non-vet authors use vets to “glitch-proof” their stories to ensure technical accuracy. And I’ve been told by several authors that realistic detail in their stories about combat, military ceremonies, and other aspects of service life came from close watching of YouTube videos.

  3. Dave Says:

    I think subject matter experts (of any subject) and their nit-picking of meaningless details hurt any reception of art. In war lit’s case, I think it even creates an anxiety in the non-vet-author and keeps some good art from being written. As you point out, civilians like Katey Schultz used Youtube to verify details. It worked. Her stories resonate way more than many others that are chock full of slang and whatnot. Just because the “migs” at the end of Top Gun were really F-5s didn’t stop me from watching that movie a few dozen times.

  4. Peter Molin Says:

    Agreed. I read Pat Barker’s Regeneration recently–about World War I–and I noted how stripped of insider lingo were its descriptions of battle. Makes me want to go back and read The Red Badge of Courage to see how Stephen Crane handled such things.


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