by Lauren Kay Halloran
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One man (or woman’s) experience of war is just that: limited to one person. By shifting point of view and narrative distance in The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien allows us to see the experience and burdens of war—physical, emotional and spiritual—from different perspectives. On a grand scale, the men of Alpha Company all saw the same basic sliver of the Vietnam War. They endured the same series of events, suffered the same unit casualties. But each man experienced these events and casualties on a unique individual level. The war meant the same things and different things to each man, and affected each man in similar and different ways.
O’Brien uses third person plural to highlight the commonalities of the war experience at the beginning of the book. As he progresses he shifts between first person and third person singular focusing on different characters. He acknowledges the limits of his own perspective and memory and thus allows other characters to add depth. These stories enable O’Brien to communicate some “truth” about war through the actions of another character. When Rat Kiley tortures the water buffalo in the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien doesn’t need to write: “Rat tortured the water buffalo because he was upset and the craziness of war made him do something he wouldn’t normally do.” The sequencing of events and the power of the image says this for us. It’s effective for/in its rawness.
As a military writer, I often struggle to chronicle a place and a situation so few people are familiar with. How can I describe serving in Afghanistan in a way that captures its foreignness but also its humanity? How can I make war relatable? The tactic of changing point of view is obviously more difficult to apply to narrative nonfiction, but the idea of looking outside oneself for insight and variation is something I can utilize to help create cohesion and depth within my own story.
Many of O’Brien’s shifts in point of view come with shifts in narrative distance. For example, the incident of O’Brien killing (or not killing) a young Vietnamese soldier is retold several times throughout the book. We see the scene as it unfolds, feeling the fear and immediacy along with O’Brien. Later, we’re distanced from the incident, reflecting on the man in third person. O’Brien imagines the man’s character and what his life was like (because surely there was more to him than just enemy soldier . . . and more than the mangled body and star-shaped hole where his eye used to be). At the same time there is an intimacy to this scene in the vivid details of the corpse. Later still, we look back with O’Brien 20 years after the war and learn that he may not have killed the man after all. These shifts allow O’Brien (and thus the reader) to examine the incident from different perspectives and see how time and distance shape memory, but how the lingering effects of traumatic events remain. He doesn’t need to say that the incident impacted him profoundly, that he feels guilt over whether or not he directly killed the man, that he’s haunted by the memory. He doesn’t need to say “war is a human experience”—he captures its humanity through a repeated moment of inhumanity.
It’s much easier to tell a “true” story in straight chronology as you remember at the time you sit down to type, but that drastically limits perspective . O’Brien puzzles the same events over and over, through different characters and at different times in his own life. He acknowledges that some of the accounts aren’t completely factual, some are hazy with time, some are made up. The sum of the parts reveals the emotional core of what it means to be at war: “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present,” O’Brien writes. “I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again” (172).
What is the point of war stories? For me, and I think for O’Brien too, discussing war (whether orally or in writing) is both a way of coming to terms with and intellectualizing our experiences—laying our burdens out in a tangible way—and also of educating others on our experiences; thus, sharing our burdens with them. “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it,” O’Brien writes, “hoping that others might then dream along with you” (218).