Essay: War Is War in Tim O'Brien

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¶ … War is War

In Tim O'Brien's the Things They Carried and the stand-alone chapter, the Man I Killed, the main character is a noble soldier who is disillusioned by the harsh realities of war. In Brian Turner's poems, Here, Bullet and Sadiq the same theme is prevalent. While O'Brien's novel take place during the Vietnam War and Turner's poems are set during the Iraq War, both works capture the agonizing distress involved in fighting for a cause that is not really understood by either side.

The Things They Carried

The Things They Carried is told from a semi-fictional autobiographical perspective in which the main character is so personal to the author that he bears his own name. This is deliberate on the part of author Tim O'Brien, in that through a first-person perspective, the complexities of the main character and his experiences can be infinitely explored. It is for this same reason that O'Brien's novel is so complexly ordered, as opposed to a straightforward storytelling style. By jumping from past to present and from storytelling to commentary on storytelling, O'Brien not only illustrates the complexities of war through plot and character development, but through literary style as well.

O'Brien writes: "By telling stories, you objectify your own experience" (O'Brien 158). Thus by telling many, interrelated yet non-sequential stories, the author is not only objectifying his own experience, but that of the reader; We become as bemused as he is about which events are told accurately and which are merely perceived as being accurate. O'Brien is also quoted as saying that he is "a believer in the power of stories whether they're true, or embellished, or exaggerated, or utterly made up. A good story has a power that . . . transcends the question of factuality or actuality" (Lomperis 53).

This literary tactic would be an implausible component in a more unambiguous, third person storytelling style because those types of narrations leave no room for question or doubt as to their authenticity in relaying the experiences of the characters. O'Brien, on the other hand, not only encourages interpretation, but also provides the reader with his views about what those interpretations might be. For example, in the chapter "How to Tell a True War Story" O'Brien essentially comes right out and tells the reader that any interpretation of war or war stories other than as a manifestation of 'evil' is erroneous:

"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 if rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil" (O'Brien 68-69).

Not only does O'Brien expose the discrepancies between false perceptions of nobility and the harsh realities associated with war, but he emphasizes this point by interweaving fantasy and reality. This is something the author considers to be an essential ingredient in any war novel. In a 1982 interview with the Chicago Review, O'Brien explained that an element of fantasy is necessary in order to be able to absorb the true horrors of war:

"In war, the rational faculty begins to diminish ... And what takes over is surrealism, the life of the imagination. The mind of the soldier becomes part of the experience -- the brain seems to flow out of your head, joining the elements around you on the battlefield. it's like stepping outside yourself. War is a surreal experience, therefore it seems quite natural and proper for a writer to render some of its aspects in a surreal way" (McCaffrey 135).

The "surreal way" in which O'Brien relays the experiences of the war is representative of the type of detached feelings that often accompany the witnessing of tragedy. Many people put in harrowing situations describe the event as if they were having an 'out of body experience' -- as if they were a third party watching themselves from the outside. Thus, O'Brien uses his confusion between reality and fantasy not only as a literary device, but also as a way of conveying the type of detached mindset that is necessary to mentally survive the unspeakable acts he is forced to both observe and participate in.

The Man I Killed

The Man I Killed is the tenth chapter in O'Brien's the Things They Carried, but it is so profound that it is often analyzed as a stand-alone piece of literature. The chapter is essentially the protagonist's confession of a murder to which he attaches a surplus load of guilt by reconstructing his victim's life in his own mind. By imagining what the man's life must have been like, he is viewing his victim as an actual human being rather than just a target. The government only sees targets and numbers, but the people out there fighting the war see real people who have dreams, and who write poetry, and who fall in love with their classmates - just like him.

While O'Brien could have painted the picture of the man he killed as an evil barbarian in order to relieve his guilt, he surprisingly chooses to portray him as an innocent farmer's son who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One would think that this would make the protagonist feel even worse than he should have but, for some inexplicable reason, it seems to comfort him more than it seems to distress him. This is not to say that he does not feel extreme guilt for the killing. It is simply odd the manner in which he chooses to deal with it, as it would seem the most natural way to assuage guilt would be to tell yourself that the man deserved to die. But perhaps O'Brien is not looking to assuage his guilt. Perhaps he wants to experience his remorse to its fullest depths to ensure that he does not become an uncaring, unfeeling beast like some of his comrades had.

Comparison with Turner

One of the primary similarities here is that the conflict in both O'Brien's and Turner's works is not only portrayed in its literal sense, but in a metaphorical sense as well. The inner-conflict between right and wrong, good and evil and strength and weakness is evident in all four works. Both authors' chief concern is with what they perceive to be a betrayal of patriotism vs. what they experience in betrayals of the human condition.

Both Turner and O'Brien also use symbolism relating to the title of their works. The "bullet" in Turner's Here, Bullet represents the violent, murderous mindset of the government and the military. The title Sadiq, which means "friend" in Arabic, is a sardonic use of the word that is symbolized in the idea that the government that sends its citizens off to war pretends to be your friend when in truth, it is the true enemy. The "things carried" in O'Brien's novel represent not only the supplies carried on the soldiers' backs for survival, but the psychological baggage they carried around with them as a result of their horrific experiences.

Also similar between the works of O'Brien and Turner is their ability to make the most graphic and gruesome scenes sound poetic -- almost beautiful. For example, the passage in which O'Brien describes the dead man in the Man I Killed has a deep literary… [END OF PREVIEW]

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