Posts Tagged ‘war’
February 2, 2016 | by Matt Gallagher
Falling in—and falling out—with Hemingway.
As a young man of a certain kind, I read a lot of Hemingway growing up. My sixteen-year-old self, full of angst and emo aches, found a kindred spirit in Jake Barnes, even if Jake’s brooding was much deeper, darker, and more significant than my own. The northern Michigan of the Nick Adams stories bore a passing resemblance to the Tahoe Basin, where I grew up, and my earliest attempts at creative work were pale imitations of “The End of Something” and “The Three-Day Blow.” The Old Man and the Sea bored me to video games the first time I tried it, but that didn’t stop me from extolling Santiago’s badassness at the dinner table.
This was pre-9/11 America, in a suburban, white-collar community far removed from battle or turmoil. My parents were both children of World War II veterans, and both had protested the Vietnam War; as a result, my brother and I had been raised with a healthy respect for the military, mixed with a healthy skepticism toward the application of military force. While my Hemingway obsession did confuse my mom a bit, she later told me she figured at least it wasn’t drugs, or French philosophy. Read More »
November 2, 2015 | by Sadie Stein
I have friends who rhapsodize about their new relationships with unabashed stars in their eyes. “How’s it going?” you ask a few weeks later, only to be told, “Oh—he was a sociopath!” Then you listen as your friend eviscerates this former paragon with the same enthusiasm she once brought to his glorification. I always marvel, half horrified, half admiring, at the full commitment to poor judgment, the anger unmitigated by any self-reproach or, indeed, self-consciousness. To be so free! To think not “it’s amazing that we came this far” but merely “they have let us down.”
I’ve never really understood the rage that comes after a tough sports loss. Frustration, sure. Disappointment, of course. Even some heartbreak. But if sports are like war—and we’re constantly told they are—it’s an odd thing to turn on our proxies with such venom. It’s as though they go off to fight in World War II and return in the Vietnam era, heroism transformed into cynicism. AMAZIN’ DISGRACE! shrieked the New York Post. “Of course it will be hard to feel anything but anger and fury and devastation for now, and for a good long while,” wrote that paper’s Mike Vaccaro. Read More »
January 21, 2015 | by Dan Piepenbring
- “They lost their identity … We’re going to give it back to them.” In which the New York City medical examiner’s office teams up with fine art students in a last-ditch effort to ID crime victims: “Each student was given a skull—a replica made by the medical examiner’s office of each victim—and a block of clay to sculpt a face. The students were told to incorporate whatever information investigators recorded in finding and examining the skeleton, including estimates of the victim’s age and height, maybe a hair type or style, and possible clothing sizes.” (Listen to the sound of hundreds of television executives thinking, Could this be our next big crime series?)
- Leslie Jamison on the enigma of natural beauty in Whitman’s Specimen Days: “Part of our pleasure in reading his book … is not just feeling close to his sensory perceptions, but feeling invited more deeply into our own—to feel the world more fully in all its snorting ice and malachite cabbages and whirling locusts and wriggling worms.”
- In the thirties, a Grade A swinging-dick asshole named Harry Anslinger took over the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, then on the verge of being dissolved. So he set himself a reasonable goal: lock away Billie Holiday for drug abuse. Jazz to him sounded “like the jungles in the dead of night.” His agents wrote that “many among the jazzmen think they are playing magnificently when under the influence of marihuana but they are actually becoming hopelessly confused and playing horribly.”
- In sci-fi, where exactly do the science and fiction collide? “Science writing isn’t the same as fiction writing. Sometimes people who read popular science about scientific theories like loop quantum gravity say ‘it’s like reading science fiction.’ But no, it isn’t.”
- Painting and boozing in Belgium: Two years after Waterloo, J. M. W. Turner “visited the Belgian battlefield where the Brits, Prussians, Dutch and Belgians finally put paid to Napoleon’s dreams of empire. The resulting painting, an unnerving clash between dark, roiling clouds and corpses illuminated by the torches of the bereaved, is no paean to victory … What does a thirsty man—which Turner was, by all accounts—drink after a day sketching carnage?”
August 25, 2014 | by Robert Pranzatelli
Given the recent centennial of the beginning of the Great War (as it was then known), I’ve found myself thinking again of Lucien Métivet, the French artist I wrote about here last year, best known for his works from the 1890s. The advent of the war brought an abrupt halt to the publication of Le Rire (Laughter), the weekly journal of humor to which Métivet was a regular contributor, but its publisher, Félix Juven, soon relaunched it with a small but significant change of title: now it was Le Rire Rouge (The Red Laugh), presumably in recognition of the blood of France’s soldiers and the dark nature of the times.
It had become customary for Le Rire to start each issue with Métivet’s drawings up front, and in the journal’s first new issue, of November 21, 1914, his was the opening image: an energetic, optimistic young conscript. The picture’s cheerleading join-the-war-effort ambience is given a discreetly poignant touch by a telling detail just outside the frame: to the upper right we see the typeset words “Au conscrit Maurice Juven”—a dedication to a young conscript whose surname suggests a close relationship to the magazine’s publisher, a longtime friend of the artist. Clearly this dedicatee was, like all soldiers, carrying with him into danger the hearts of those who loved him. With this single, seemingly exuberant image, the very personal stakes for the creators of Le Rire Rouge, and indeed for all of France, were acknowledged. Read More »
March 4, 2014 | by Matt Gallagher
In late 2011, Phil Klay, a former Marine officer who served in Iraq during the Surge, published “Redeployment,” a harrowing short story about a group of Marines returning stateside from the war. It drew praise for its subject matter, its lean prose, and its psychological acuity. Klay’s first collection, also titled Redeployment, is out this week. Its twelve stories revolve around war and its aftermath. Klay’s narrators include a State Department official charged with popularizing baseball in Iraq and a military chaplain offering spiritual guidance to an out-of-control unit.
Like a young professor who is still as comfortable in the world as he is in the library, Klay has an easygoing warmth. He exudes a passion for and knowledge of his craft. He is also unfailingly punctual. Last month, we sat down over coffee to discuss his book, the state of contemporary war literature, and the pitfalls of drawing too much from personal experience when writing fiction.
First books by vet-writers often read as rough autobiography, but in your collection, every story has a different narrator. Was this is a deliberate choice?
It was. When I first came back from Iraq, I of course found myself thinking a lot about it. Not just my experiences, but those of people I talked to, friends, and colleagues. What did our deployment mean, where did it fit into the broader perspective of what we as a country were doing? What was it like going out and making condolence payments to Iraqi families? What about the artilleryman who sent rounds downrange but never saw the effects of what happened, didn’t know how to conceptualize the bodies of those he helped kill, but wanted to? Even in my earliest stories, I knew I wasn’t writing about myself.
It also felt important to convey that modern war is this huge industrial-scale process with a lot of parts making the machinery work. There’s an incredible diversity of experience. We have a tendency to think of war as this quasi-mystical thing, and that interpretation flattens the experience—by using different perspectives, I wanted to open a place for readers to compare and contrast, to make judgments, to engage.
“Prayer in the Furnace” is narrated by a military chaplain in Ramadi during one of the most violent periods of the war. How did that story come about?
A lot of the great pieces of journalism from Iraq showed how important command influence was in violent, aggressive environments, where Marines and soldiers had a constrained set of choices to make in sudden moments. Sometimes that command influence was positive. Sometimes it wasn’t. So as “Prayer in the Furnace” developed in my mind, I decided to tell it from the perspective of someone who is sympathetic to those men and the decisions they make, but removed enough to adopt a more contemplative stance. An observer who’s with them, but not of them.Read More »
October 30, 2012 | by Sarah Funke Butler
Tim O’Brien was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam on April 5, 1969, to serve with the Third Platoon, Company A, Fifth Battalion, Forty-Sixth Infantry Division. What he saw in battle has been so well documented that while reading his memoir I expected each page to be his last, anticipating the report of his own death. After eight months he secured a coveted rear job where his most onerous task was the preparation of The Professional, “a weekly authorized publication of the 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry, APO 96219,” of which he said this:
The newsletter was one of my assigned duties as battalion clerk, the job to which I was assigned after 8 months in the field with Alpha Company. By that point in my tour, as I discussed in some detail in If I Die… I was no longer doing infantry stuff, just the typical things you might expect of a clerk—typing letters and reports, filing paperwork, counting casualties, etc. (I despised the job, and I especially despised that ridiculous newsletter. But it beat getting shot dead.)
After the war O’Brien went for a graduate degree at Harvard, where he prepared his memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone. Not much draft material survives for that book, but we never doubt its veracity. In his archive, now ensconced at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, there are letters home, to his parents; there are photographs; there is a uniform; there are medals. There is a lot of material from the nineties as he tracked down fellow members of Alpha Company, and as he revisited Vietnam. And there are two copies of The Professional: October 11 and October 20, 1969. The first issue, two pages from which are reproduced here, includes illustrations, cartoons, Vietnamese-English vocabulary lists, stories, and news. It also prints a story by O’Brien entitled “Trick or Treat,” portions of which appear verbatim in If I Die.
The Professional is a remarkable survival, especially given the handful of specific objects O’Brien mentions in the memoir which have not surfaced: letters from a girl he loves, unrequitedly, who sends him a poem by Auden, and who tells him, he writes, that he “created her out of the mind. The mind, she said, can make wonderful changes in the real stuff.” A letter to his parents, asking for his passport and immunization card, as he considers the appeal of Europe over Vietnam. Escape plans he kept folded up in his wallet. A journal he began, “vaguely hoping it will never be read.” And, perhaps most interesting, two letters from his first army friend, Erik Hansen, transcribed into the book. None of these narrative prompts within If I Die appear to have survived.
Perhaps surprisingly, much more of the more fictional The Things They Carried is documented by material in the archive. Why surprising? He's prepared us to believe it's as true as it isn't. He writes that, “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth,” and “But only to say another truth will I let the half-truths stand.” In the chapter “How to Tell a True War Story,” O’Brien writes that a “true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” In the chapter “Notes,” he explains, “By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened … and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.” In “Good Form”: “It’s time to be blunt. I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented.”
And yet, it’s not, not from the opening line:
“First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl name Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey.” Tim O’Brien carried letters from a girl named Gayle, and carried them back to civilization, and preserved them for decades. He also saved a letter he wrote to her on October 17, 1968, but never mailed. In his youthful, tense, inconsistent hand, he is already conscious of the disconnect and unity between reality and his presentation of it:
The very form of the letters and words here (my penmanship is straight & jerky & kinda childlike) conveys wrong things now. Add to that the fact that the thoughts themselves, the substance I put down, is inaccurate to reality, and you have a real problem. … I can go over to Vietnam, set up shop, and try to keep bullets & shrapnel & blood off my body & hands; the other choice is desertion, pure and simple. No, just pure. Not so simple, if you think about it, and I admit that I have done that. All night after getting the news.
Martha of the first chapter, the reader eventually learns, was not Jimmy’s—or even O’Brien’s—first love. That place of honor was held by the nine-year-old Linda of the last chapter: his fourth-grade sweetheart who died of a brain tumor in the summer of 1956, before returning for the fifth grade. Linda, the book version of a girl named Lorna Lou Moeller with whom O’Brien had been in love at the age of nine, incites and dominates the book’s final chapter, “The Lives of the Dead,” which appeared on its own (as did several chapters of the book) in Esquire. After publication O’Brien received a five-page letter from Mrs. Moeller, who had read the chapter, recognized her daughter, and remembered the O’Brien boys. She sent O’Brien a dozen photos of Lorna Lou, and a clipping documenting the too short life of a girl who would occupy space in O’Brien’s consciousness throughout his teens and adulthood. Moeller recalls her daughter’s feelings for the O’Brien siblings, and recounts the course of her illness and death.
In “The Lives of the Dead” O’Brien had written, “It is now 1990. I’m forty-three years old, which would’ve seemed impossible to a fourth grader … And as a writer now, I want to save Linda’s life. Not her body—her life.” These thoughts dated back, though, to the late fifties: two stories, composed in high school, have been preserved, in which he grapples with Lorna Lou’s illness and inevitable death. In “Two Minutes,” composed on seven leaves of his father’s letterhead from the Equitable Life Assurance Society, he recounts his futile attempt to save “Nancy,” who killed herself because “I’d persuaded her—no forced her would be a better word—to come with me to New York from her Indiana farm.” He races home in his car, knowing she is at death’s door, hoping he’ll make it in time to save her. Another story, called “Tulips,” filling twenty-two leaves of letterhead, is about a girl named Linda and a boy named Tim. O’Brien writes in 1990 that he had, in his youth, “saved” Lorna Lou in his dreams, always seeing her alive, sometimes discussing her death with her. In one dream he asks her what it’s like to be dead. She responds, “I guess it’s like being inside a book that nobody’s reading.”
By the time O’Brien came to write The Things They Carried, he had experienced staggering death and loss as an adult, but his mind returned, still, to the nine-year-old girl:
And then it becomes 1990. I’m forty-three years old, and a writer now, still dreaming Linda alive in exactly the same way. She’s not the embodied Linda; she’s mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name … She was nine years old. I loved her and then she died. And yet right here, in the spell of memory and imagination, I can still see her as if through ice, as if I’m gazing into some other world a place where there are no brain tumors and no funeral homes, where there are no bodies at all.
He can also see his dead Company mates, Kiowa, Ted Lavender, Curt Lemon. “And sometimes I can ever see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy I’ll never die.”
In response to my description of The Things They Carried as “(perhaps marginally) more fictional than If I Die,” O’Brien commented,
by any ordinary standard the vast bulk of TTTC is invented and is fiction. Even the Gayle/Martha material is almost entirely the product of my imagination, both in terms of its detail and in its rendering of events. The Lorna Lou/Linda stuff calls more heavily on actual events, yet 80 or 90 percent of the chapter is completely invented. As a novelist, I have ruthlessly (and joyously) sacrificed the so-called ‘real world’ for the sake of story.
What interests me, then, is the process by which O’Brien cast and shaped and finessed objects, facts, memories, and dreams into a compelling narrative. Working papers for this—though not for If I Die—proliferate in his archive. In addition to raw drafts of individual chapters and two annotated rounds of the complete manuscript, I saw page proofs, with O’Brien’s final autograph revisions throughout.
He put his hand to eighty-five pages, sometimes adding, dropping, or changing a word, other times, revising an entire speech or paragraph or striking through a line or series of lines. He seems to have had the most difficulty settling on text in “In the Field” and its complement, “Field Trip,” but the distribution of the balance of revisions is fairly even throughout the book.
Where we’ve all seen “Joint Chiefs of Staff,” he originally had “Bobby Kennedy.” The “orange glow of napalm” was originally black. Bad breath had been fever blisters, and before that, acne. An aluminum suitcase turned into a cardboard box, and then back, to “a metal suitcase.” A banyan tree became a palm tree. Was it “hot and steamy,” or, better, “cold and steamy?” High school had been college, and a “lacy red blouse” had originally been a pink T-shirt. More substantively, he deletes “I was a coward” and a discussion of gallantry, and rewrites a sentence about losing the Silver Star. Such examples convey the spirit of this final round of revision and show a fair sampling of the sort of changes that could be either alterations to enhance the story, or more simply reversions to accuracy (after all, if Faulkner was right, “memory believes before knowing remembers”).
O’Brien has played so much, and so successfully, with genre that I wonder that we bother to acknowledge some of the distinctions that seem so important to the publishing sales force and the bookstore buyers and the talk-show hosts. Does it make any kind of sense to separate If I Die from The Things They Carried and even Going After Cacciato in the bookstore? Clearly, someone thinks we as readers care. I’d argue strenuously that we should not. We should simply take a page out of one of O’Brien’s books: “The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head.”
Sarah Funke Butler is a literary archivist and agent at Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc.