The Vital Necessity of Telling War Stories

Norman Rockwell,

Norman Rockwell, “Polley voos Fransay?”

Memorial Day

For Memorial Day I share a slightly shortened version of an excellent essay by a student who is the daughter, granddaughter and niece of U.S.  Marines. Laura Kruse is a first year economics major who took both my Jane Austen Seminar and my Literature in History III survey. Laura describes how Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War novel The Things They Carried has helped her understand the significance of the war stories she grew up with.

As you will see, Laura sees story telling as fulfilling a number of vital functions. We especially see how important it is when we watch one of O’Brien’s characters bottling up his trauma inside. The essay reminds us that one important way to celebrate Memorial Day is to open ourselves to the stories of our veterans.

This is the second time Laura has appeared in the blog. Earlier I described how she saw Anne Elliot in Jane Austen’s Persuasion through her prism of a military child who was always on the move. It made perfect sense to Laura that Anne would prefer to be the mobile wife of a military man than the sedentary wife of an estate owner. 

By Laura Kruse ’16, Economics Major, St. Mary’s College of MD

Growing up, I was surrounded by the war stories of my father and my grandfather and stories of the times they spent away on deployment. I must have heard some of these stories hundreds of times it seems, and I always wondered why they kept telling them. After reading The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, I came to realize that their story telling was not so much for my benefit as their own. The stories were a way for them to deal with the weight of their own experiences.

From the very first pages, the novel takes the reader along a journey through the conflicted and confused minds of soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War. The things that these men carried throughout the war transcended far beyond any physical weight; they carried the weight of their grief, their loss, and their regrets as well. The Things They Carried follows the struggle of various men as they try to find a way to deal and cope with the weight of the horrors they had experienced in Vietnam.

Some of the characters, like Tim O’Brien, find an effective outlet for their feelings through narrative while other men, such as Norman Bowker, are unable to verbalize their feelings and eventually collapse under the tremendous weight of their experiences. The stories aren’t always true but despite this, they still help the men cope with all of their negative emotions and with the trauma of the war. As O’Brien says,

By telling stories, you objectify your own experiences. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain (152).

To have opportunity to clarify and to explain; to separate your experiences from yourself; to have the ability to face your emotions headfirst; to be able to share your feelings with others and make them understand; to not be alone in your own head. All of these reasons and many more are why narrative can be a vital for soldiers coming home from war and for people in general who are dealing with difficult situations. Stories help us to keep going and to survive.

Norman Bowker is a man who never quite finds the words to describe his experiences and who pays the ultimate price for his silence. The chapter “Speaking of Courage” follows the inner conflict within Bowker after he returns from the war. He wants desperately to talk but is unable to get any words out. As Bowker drives around the lake in his hometown, conversations he could have had, stories he could have told, flow through his mind. But just like the circular route he is driving, Bowker always ends up right where he began, without a way out of his silence; a way to tell his story.

Norman Bowker is weighed down by the loss of one of his very close friends, Kiowa, during the war, and it is never something he ever gets over. Bowker is not only weighed down by the trauma of losing a friend but also by the weight of the blame he feels for his own part in Kiowa’s death. During an ambush attack of their camp in a “shit field,” Kiowa slipped under the filth:

How he grabbed Kiowa by the boot and tried to pull him out. He pulled hard but Kiowa was gone, and then suddenly he felt himself going, too. The shit was in his nose and eyes. There were flares and mortar rounds, and the stink was everywhere—it was inside him, in his lungs—and he could no longer tolerate it. Not here, he thought. Not like this. He released Kiowa’s boot and watched it slide away”

. . . On the surface, the story is one of loss, of grief and on some level these emotions are things that most people can empathize or at least sympathize with. But beneath all the filth, Bowker’s story is about how he feels trapped underneath the weight of his silence. Just like Kiowa is lost underneath the shit field, Bowker loses himself that day and never recovers from it. The “terrible killing power of that shit field” parallels the terrible killing power of Bowker’s silence after the war, and just as Kiowa was lost forever under that shit field, Bowker loses himself underneath his silence.

When Bowker writes Tim O’Brien, he “described the problem of finding a meaningful use for his life after the war,” and he struggles to return to a civilian life that seems “too abstract, too distant, with nothing real or tangible at stake, certainly not the stakes of a war.” After Bowker returns from the war, he finds himself left only with these haunting memories that only seem to grow worse as time passes.

Being left alone inside your own head is similar to being left alone in the dark: “the darkness squeezes you inside yourself, you get cut off from the outside world, the imagination takes over” (195). Bowker is trapped inside his own head with these nightmarish memories, is “left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.” . . . Perhaps narrative could have helped saved Bowker but as Linda, O’Brien’s childhood friend who dies of cancer, says to O’Brien, “now and then bad things start growing inside us. Sometimes you can cut them out and other times you can’t. Bowker is never able to separate his experiences from himself, and like a cancer it consumes him.

. . . Tim O’Brien, on the other hand, shows how narrative can be used to as a way to separate your experiences from yourself and as a way to share the burdens you carry so that they are more bearable. Tim O’Brien describes narrative as

a natural, inevitable process, like clearing the throat. Partly catharsis, partly communication, it was a way of grabbing people by the shirt and explaining exactly what had happened to me, how I’d allowed myself to get dragged into a wrong war, all the mistakes I’d made, all the terrible things I had seen and done.

He wants people to know his reasons, his feelings, and his emotions. This is not only so others may understand them but also so that he may understand them himself. O’Brien’s stories are for the most part fictional and do not reflect real events that occurred. But however “untrue” his stories are, O’Brien notes that the point isn’t whether a piece is fictional or nonfictional. The point is that that “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

[Laura then examines a story that at first appears have actually happened—how O’Brien killed a man—and then acknowledges that he didn’t kill him after all. But she notes there’s a therapeutic purpose to stories even when they’re not strictly true.]

The “story-truth” of this is that, although Tim O’Brien never physically killed a man, he still feels as if he had because, as he says, the guilt of his presence was enough. O’Brien had never really looked at the man because he was young and afraid. Tim O’Brien tells a story that illustrates his need to go back and be brave, to be able to look at that man in the face, a face that illustrates all the pain and grief he felt. As the author says:

What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.

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.

…Looking now at the stories that my father and grandfather told me growing up, I’ve been able to appreciate them more. . . Their stories provided [them a way to include us in these experiences, to feel what they felt, as if we were there with them. I don’t think I’ll ever quite know if their stories reflect “happening-truth” or “story-truth,” but what they do reflect is that they are seeking to relieve the pressure they feel from their experiences. It is part of human nature to want to share things with others; whether it is feelings of grief, loss, happiness, or love; we don’t like being alone…

Sharing stories also gives people the means to bring back to life things that they thought had been lost. It assures them that neither they nor their life will be forgotten. Our experiences change us, this is inevitable. With every deployment, my father changed a little bit and his stories gave me insight into these changes and kept me from losing him. I don’t think that my father would have suffered the same fate as Bowker if he hadn’t told his stories—I was never in danger of physically losing him—but his stories did help prevent these changes from transforming him into someone that I no longer knew.

Because he shared his experiences with me, I was able to understand better who he is, both as my father and as a colonel in the Marine Corps. While his stories were partly for his own benefit—they worked as a therapy of sorts—they also helped build a bridge between us. I could understand how war and deployment changed him without having been there with him.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

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