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.

Iraq by the Numbers: On the Road with Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives

PitreMichael Pitre’s Iraq War novel Fives and Twenty-Fives blends elements of Roxana Robinson’s Sparta and Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya’s The Watch. Similar to Sparta, Fives and Twenty-Fives features a disaffected war-ravaged ex-Marine Corps officer apathetically making his way through graduate school while frustrating the concern—not to forget the desire—of a smart, beautiful woman many times too good for him. As in The Watch, Pitre’s novel’s narration is multi-voiced and non-linear. Besides Peter Donovan, the alienated Marine Corps officer, Fives and Twenty-Fives relates events through the eyes of an enlisted medic named Lester Pleasant and an Iraqi interpreter named Kateb al-Hariri, nicknamed “Dodge,” who both served in Donavan’s platoon in Iraq. Not only are an officer, a medic, and an interpreter dominant characters in The Watch, but narration in Fives and Twenty-Fives, as it does in The Watch, skips around among the three principals and back-and-forth between events transpiring in-theater and in America afterwards. As if these nods to literary predecessors weren’t enough, the climatic action of Fives and Twenty-Fives repurposes events writ large in American military history over the past two decades. Not to give away anything, but think wounded and surrounded American soldiers, helicopter rescue missions, and enemy Rocket Propelled Grenades.

Unoriginal as it may be in some ways, Fives and Twenty-Fives in other ways beautifully expands the range and deepens the texture of contemporary war fiction. For one, it features as much or more of a plot as we’ve seen from any contemporary war novel. Pitre forges characters and unfolds events in ways that seem plausible, artificed, unpredictable, and inevitable all at the same time. Donovan’s platoon is charged with filling potholes created by IED blasts on the “main supply routes” between Baghdad and Ramadi. But the deadly Groundhog Day-like routine of the mission is upset by personality conflicts within the platoon and the press of new missions, and then spills over into the post-war lives lived by Donovan and Pleasant in Louisiana and Dodge in Tunisia during the time of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The interesting storyline is the least of Fives and Twenty-Fives’s virtues, however. For example, each pothole Donovan’s Marines fill is booby-trapped with another IED, which adds to the danger of the platoon’s mission and necessitates the careful vigilance of always checking first five meters out, then twenty-five, that the Marines employ when they are on-the-ground, outside-the-wire. Here, and at many other places, Pitre describes how military duty and danger mandates new, carefully controlled, much more precise ways to perceive the world. Combat, we surmise, not only requires reorganization and regulation of typical speech patterns and the adaptation of new, non-standard lingo—as in radio transmissions and commands given during crisis—but demands the same of watching, listening, smelling, and mentally processing all sensory perceptions.

Fives and Twenty-Fives also excels in its descriptions of Donovan’s platoon as they execute their missions driving dangerous Iraq roads in their armored trucks. Contrary to what any Sebastian Junger film or any Navy SEAL or sniper memoir would tell you, the characteristic experience of combat for most in Iraq and Afghanistan was not battle on a combat outpost, a midnight raid, or a helicopter air assault. Rather, it was the “CONOP,” or convoy operation: movement in tactical formation in military vehicles whose names–Up-Armored HUMVEEs, MRAPS, and Cougars—mean little to the general American public, but were the world in which 1000s of fighting men and women lived most intensively while in Iraq and Afghanistan. One can get a sense of what French intellectual smarty-pants Pierre Bourdieu would call the habitus—the lived experience of everyday life—of tactical military vehicle movement by watching Bomb Patrol, an Esquire channel series about a Navy Explosives Ordnance Detachment in Afghanistan that features in-truck camera shots of the unit’s members as they roll down the road toward IEDs and ambushes. Or, one might read retired Lieutenant General Dan Bolger’s Why We Lost, which includes a long, detailed description of a CONOP in western Afghanistan. Why it takes the Esquire channel and a 3-star general to tell the world these things, I don’t know, but their accounts ring true to hundreds of hours I spent in armored vehicles on the roads in Afghanistan. War novelists have taken a while picking up on this, but Pitre thankfully everywhere is alert to the procedures of tactical vehicle movement as well as the material feel of it, to say nothing of the ambiance binding the occupants within a vehicle and with those in other vehicles in the formation.

Another correspondence to my own deployment experience came in the form of a fourth character in Fives and Twenty-Fives—one not given the benefit of her own speaking voice, unfortunately, though she looms large in the recollections of other characters. Sergeant Michelle Gomez is the de facto leader of Donovan’s platoon. Though the only woman, she is by far more experienced, decisive, and determined than Donovan and his weak-unit gunnery sergeant. Sergeant Gomez’s take-charge ability, in my experience, makes her not atypical but typical of the military women I met downrange, especially the sergeants, all of whom that I saw had no problem asserting their willpower over the soldiers under them or gaining the respect of the chain-of-command. In the hubbub of debate about the victimization of women in the military—and I’ve heard many first-hand accounts, so do not underestimate the problem—the ability of strong, strident women such as Sergeant Gomez to prosper in uniform is often overlooked. Adding to my interest in Sergeant Gomez was the descriptive detail that she was a Texan. I’m not sure how these things came to pass, but for a while in Afghanistan I was on a FOB with three Mexican-American women, each a sergeant, and each from a different Rio Grande valley town. All three possessed a good-natured competence that was so far above the norm it was almost unfathomable—a fact that immeasurably increased my respect for whatever’s cooking in the cultural stew of places like McAllen, Del Rio, and El Paso.

But Pitre’s greatest accomplishment in Fives and Twenty-Fives is the Iraqi interpreter Dodge. Initially somewhat of a cartoon figure, what with his goofy nickname and love for heavy metal and Huckleberry Finn, over the course of the book he grows exponentially in terms of interest and complexity. Pitre’s feat here to fully imagine a history for Dodge pre- and post-experience working with Americans that is both haunted and resonant with connections and implications. The war begins with Dodge, the son of a Saddam government bureaucrat, on the run from Shia death squads and Al Qaeda killers, and ends with him in Tunisia at the outbreak of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. What Pitre is suggesting by having his hero, the rebellious America-loving son of Baathist insiders, meet defeat in his own country only to become one of the avatars of Arabian democracy is hard to fathom. Is there a thought process that connects the aborted stab at freedom in Iraqi and the promise of true freedom in another country? I’m not sure, but the beauty of Pitre’s characterization is generated not so much by political symbolism, but by intimate portraits of Dodge’s relationship with his family and friends and the edge (or lack of edge) that his education in American literature gives him in the face of dealing with real Americans.

Donovan doesn’t bring much new to the brooding, erratic war-veteran table, but instead reliably mopes about until restored to life by reconnection with Pleasant and Dodge, and the kindling of a romance with a grad school compadre named Paige (nice play-on-words, you clever writing guy author!). Paige, pretty, smart, and totally together, foregoes her preppy rich New Orleans crowd for Donovan, which seems a stretch, but so it often goes in the fantasy realm of novels. Describing the connection between Donovan and Paige, Pitre writes in words that most vets will understand:

She knew just what to say. Just how to get me telling stories. This is a problem.

It’s not smart for me to tell stories. Makes people uncomfortable. But with a few bourbons in me, everything takes on a gallows humor and I just want to share, share, share. It’s why I drink alone, mostly. I don’t have the discipline to drink around people and answer their simple questions without saying something awful. Even the memories that seem funny in my head come out sounding like the summer vacation of a psychopath.

It’s even worse, though, when I just sit there quietly and refuse to discuss the war all. People get the impression that I’m the stereotypical brooding vet. That’s why I always keep two or three stories on deck, harmless and cute, to distract and move the conversation elsewhere.

Sand Queen author Helen Benedict, in her review of Fives and Twenty-Fives for the British paper The Guardian, asserts that there are only two questions that matter about any war novel. Is it honest, one, and does it glorify war, two? Benedict generally approves of Fives and Twenty-Fives, but with reservations. In Benedict’s thinking, honesty acknowledges that native Iraqis and Afghans suffered far more than Americans, and glorification is the result of schmoozy authorial love for military jargon, gear, tactics, and obsessive male concerns such as glory, patriotism, bravery, and soldierly camaraderie. Benedict’s points are good ones, though perhaps a bit dogmatic and restrictive. But honestly, I don’t think you could write a war novel grim enough to convince a young man, or nowadays, a young woman, to not enlist who wasn’t already disinclined to serve. A writer even shrewder than Benedict, the 18th-century Englishman Samuel Johnson, proclaimed that “no one ever regretted serving as a soldier or a sailor.” Johnson seemed to be blissfully dismissive of those killed or grievously maimed in battle, but his pronouncement rings true nonetheless. “Get some” the saying goes, or, as Jimi Hendrix asked, “Are you experienced?”  The force of those phrases’ application still applies today to those possessed by the itch to see combat, those who want to write about it, those who want to read about it, the characters in Fives and Twenty-Fives, and I’m betting Pitre himself, no matter how harrowing the ride.

Michael Pitre’s Fives and Twenty-Fives. Bloomsbury, 2014. Thanks to Adam Karr for lending me his copy of Fives and Twenty-Fives.  Karr’s own review of the novel can be found here, at the Make Literary Magazine website.

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