Tim O'Brien Term Paper

Pages: 7 (2263 words)  ·  Style: MLA  ·  Bibliography Sources: 4  ·  Level: College Sophomore  ·  Topic: Drama - World

War in Literature

At first reading, Things They Carried appears to be a book about the Viet Nam War, especially the negative aspects of this war or conflict. However, Tim O'Brien is going further and actually using this vehicle as a means of demonstrating his feelings against war in general -- the mundane daily activities, the violence falling between these events and the overall disturbing impact on the psychological makeup of those that must partake in this situation. O'Brien is not alone in his use of literature to depict the ways that soldiers are affected by their war experiences. Many poets and novelists throughout Western history have used the written page as a method of expressing their beliefs about warfare through their characters.

In his book the Things They Carried, O'Brien clearly shows his feelings about the Viet Nam War and the draft. He considers running off to Canada, because he was being drafted to fight in a war he hated and "seemed to me wrong" (44). He does not believe the U.S. should be involved with the Vietnamese political situation. Continuing, he recognizes that draft dodging is also dangerous. His disdain for the draft is clearly stated, "I was a liberal, for Christ's sake: If they needed fresh bodies, why not draft some back-to-the-stone-age hawk?" (44). His writing about war is not a concern with the war itself, but rather with what happens psychologically to the individuals because of their involvement. Throughout the book, he describes the inhumanity of war and shows his dislike for the gung-ho war supporters. He shows how war corrupts a person's values and forces them to escape their situation by using drugs.

For example, when O'Brien writes about how the U.S. is justifying its actions in the war, he states that such decisions only create "certainty that summer was moral confusion." Similarly, his concern with memory and re-memory comes partly from his problems of readapting to life after his Viet Nam experience. His behavior is indicative of someone experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, guilt, anxiety, and problems with sleeping. He cannot escape from the past and continually looks and relooks at what took place in his wartime experiences, even decades later. He has yet to resolve the impact that this had on his psyche.

O'Brien's book weaved in and out of fiction and nonfiction. This dichotomy continues today. For example in his real life, O'Brien has expressed himself on the Iraq war and once again reflects on how people are impacted. Like Viet Nam, those involved with Iraq find it difficult to have any kind of resolution, because the problem is becoming more complex and involved rather than less. Also, he says, there is the similarity with the difficulty in finding the enemy. "In Viet Nam, we couldn't find the V.C., they were blended in with the population, and we're having the same problem in Iraq..."

O'Brien uses his authorship to help him handle his own lack of personal resolution and to express how he sees war's impact overall. Other poets and novelists have used their artistic expression for the same reason. For example, in World War I, Wilfred Owen wrote a number of poems about his experiences on the front before being killed at the young age of 25. Three years earlier, he had visited a veteran's hospital, was deeply upset by seeing the state of the wounded, and decided to enlist and lead others as an officer.

In one of Owen's better-known poems, "Dulce Et Decorum Est," as did O'Brien, he describes the impact of war through the experiences of the soldiers: "Bent double, like old beggars under sacks/Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge/Till on the haunting flares we turned out backs/and towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots/but limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind/Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots/of gas-shells dropping softly behind."

Especially in the poem "Mental Cases," he writes about the psychological tragedy of those who fight in the war: These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished/Memory fingers in their hair of murders/Multitudinous murders they once witnessed/Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander/Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter." Like O'Brien, these individuals will return home with unresolved mental problems, depression and trauma.

Courage is another topic that comes up with O'Brien and Owen. The soldiers are placed in a "no-win" situation. They know that it is important to be courageous, but how can that be possible when there is such personal fear of dying, not understanding the reason for the war and bloodshed, and, most importantly, seeing other brave soldiers being killed or crying out in pain with their injuries? Thus, they are torn. If they stay back, they feel guilty, if they move forward, they are wracked with fear.

In the Things They Carried, for example, one of the characters, Norman Bowker, came close to winning the Silver Star for bravery for saving his friend, Kiowa. At the last minute, however, he did not have the ability to follow through. He left Kiowa in the mud of the river bank, because he was overwhelmed by the disgusting odor of the river. When returning home from Viet Nam, he thinks about courage and what the Silver Star represents. It becomes a meaningless symbol, since Kiowa died and his friendship was all that mattered.

Similarly, Owen's poem "Strange Meeting" writes: "Courage was mine, and I had mystery / Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery/to miss the march of this retreating world / Into vain citadels that are not walled/Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels/I would go up and wash them from sweet wells/Even with truths that lie too deep for taint," as he addresses the mixed hells of war. What kind of positive and negative affect does courage have the leaders and the soldiers?

Stephen Crane in the Red Badge of Courage addressed this same problem as it occurred in the Civil War. When the protagonist, Henry, is confronted by the horrors of war, especially in Chapter 6, as Henry become more and more aware after the battle, he and his fellow soldiers experience a reprieve. They believe that the battle is over; their challenges have passed. Yet, when the fighting resumes, they must get up and repeat their earlier actions. Henry loses himself again in the midst of battle, but this time not in a way that leads him to fight. Instead, he feels that he is about to be eaten by "a red and green monster." As the men around him begin to run for their lives, Henry loses his nerve and follows them in terror.

As a justification for his actions, he puts down those individuals who stay and fight. What fools they are to tempt death. Is it not better to run away as he did and stay alive? The officer giving the orders to remain is also an ignorant person who does not know what he is doing. Like the other authors mentioned above, Henry also looks back on his actions in the war. The ending, in fact, was the most difficult part of the book for Crane to write, and had three separate ones. Was he able to overcome his questions about his behavior in the face of war? or, was he plagued by what he had done?

Decades later, Ernest Hemingway addresses the horrors of war in several of his books. During his life, he observed numerous conflicts first as a Red Cross ambulance driver during World War I and then later for a quarter of a century as a Toronto Star newspaper war correspondent. In books such as a Farewell to Arms and for Whom the Bell Tolls about World War I and the Spanish Civil War, like O'Brien and Owen, he clearly depicted the physical and psychological affects of war and the return home. In Across the River and Into the Trees, he writes of a spiritually and emotionally damaged career soldier reflecting in an older age on the nature of war.

As Stewart (2000) says of Hemingway's experiences: "The war left him with a fear of night, a fear said to relate to his abrupt confrontation with his own mortality. It gave him insight into the fragility of the world, and it fostered a deep skepticism towards the grand abstractions that the First World War rendered bitterly ironic." For Hemingway as with other writers, the war was not just the subject matter of one or two stories or books but also the foundation of the author's complete works.

In Hemingway's Big Two-Hearted River, he addresses the life of Nick Adams after he has returned home from World War I as O'Brien does in some of his stories. Also like O'Brien, Nick tries to forget the war and regain his prewar teenage identity by participating in his favorite activity of fishing. However, it quickly is seen that Nick is no… [END OF PREVIEW]

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