Some stories grab you by the throat, give you a shake, and knock the breath right out of you. I recently re-read Tim O’Brien’s “How to tell a true war story,” an oft-anthologized chapter from O’Brien’s emotionally eviscerating novel, The Things They Carried. People call The Things They Carried a novel because it’s book-length and loosely fictionalized, an account of the Vietnam War that seems to overlap with O’Brien’s own experience but which he never outright claims as autobiography. Sometimes the truest stories, O’Brien suggests, didn’t actually happen: sometimes you have to change the names, places, and other details–the facts of mere biography–to express a larger truth.
In my first-year writing classes at Framingham State, we’re discussing David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers, this year’s common reading. Finkel’s book is “true” in a way that O’Brien’s book never claims to be. Finkel is a journalist who spent eight months embedded in an Army unit stationed in Iraq during the 2007 Surge: the exact point of American occupation when everyone had pretty much given up on the war. Finkel’s account of the 2-16 and their leader, Ralph Kauzlarich, is based on fact, as journalism is supposed to be. The names of the men in the 2-16 are real, as are the appendix photos of the 14 soldiers who were killed during their deployment. Finkel traveled with the 2-16 to Iraq–he lived with them at FOB Rustamiyah, a part of Iraq most Americans never see–and he made additional fact-finding trips to places like Fort Riley and the Brooke Army Medical Center to follow-up with the men he wrote about. Finkel, in other words, takes great pains to get his facts straight, as journalists are expected to do.
These facts matter, but they aren’t the part of the book that sticks with you. This is what O’Brien, for one, understood. Finkel gets his fact straight because history is built on facts, and it’s important to honor the legacy of those who fought and those who died. But when you walk away from a book like Finkel’s, those detailed facts are the first thing you forget.
At our first class session, I asked my students a seemingly simple question. Thinking back on The Good Soldiers, regardless of how far you got into the book, what do you remember? I didn’t quiz my students on names, dates, or other details (as they had feared) since I’m notoriously forgetful about those things, too. Walking away from a book like Finkel’s, I don’t remember the names or the dates: that’s why the names are listed in the appendix and why the date is listed at the start of every chapter. These details are important, but they aren’t what you remember.
What you remember after reading a book like Finkel’s is the same as what you remember after reading a book like O’Brien’s. You remember the stories and the scenes that moved you, viscerally. In Finkel’s book, my students remembered the same scenes I did: the part where a soldier shoots a man in the head, only to realize a terrified Iraqi girl witnessed the killing. The part where the soldiers’ Iraqi translator brings his daughter to the U.S. military base for medical treatment. The part where Finkel visits a young soldier who is hospitalized after losing multiple limbs and sustaining severe brain damage. The part where the soldiers try to figure out how to retrieve an Iraqi corpse floating in a sewage tank. My students and I remember these scenes not because we remember all the specifics: we forget the names of the people to whom these things happened, and we forget other factual details. What we remember, though, is an emotional response: a vivid, imagined sense of how we might feel if we were in a similar situation.
My students have been painstakingly schooled in a particular way of reading. According to this training, their job when they read is to find and memorize minute textual details, for these are the things teachers ask on tests and quizzes. What was the first name of the leader of the 2-16? What was the name of the first soldier to die? On what date did General David Petraeus visit FOB Rustamiyah, and on what date did the battalion finally go home? These are important details, and I’m glad David Finkel took great pains to get them right, because they’re in the book whenever I need to look them up. But when I walk away from The Good Soldiers, those details aren’t what stay in my head, because those details aren’t what matter to my heart.
What matters in my heart is that both Finkel and O’Brien, in their own, different ways, give me a viscerally vivid sense of something I have never witnessed myself. Reading either book, I learn that I don’t want to experience the things these men experience, and I don’t want anyone else to have to experience these things, either. Both Finkel and O’Brien describe events that are literally unimaginable: what does the rest of your life look like if you’re a young veteran who has lost multiple limbs and sustained severe brain damage, or what is it like to come home from war with your head full of nightmares? What remains after I’ve finished both Finkel’s nonfiction narrative and O’Brien’s novel is a clear, unassailable sense that war is entirely unlike all the pious platitudes we use to describe it. If you haven’t experienced war, you can’t really “get” it, but at the same time, it’s of vital, utmost importance that these stories be told, not so the tellers can “move on,” but so the stories themselves be remembered, emblazoned in our collective memory. It’s imperative that you know this is what happened, even if you can’t fully understand it.
So, how do you read a true war story? You let go of your desire to remember all the dates and names. This isn’t a history class; these things will not be on the quiz. Instead, you read with an open heart and an inquisitive mind, allowing thorny, troubling questions to take full root in your consciousness. Why exactly did we fight this war? Why exactly do we fight any war? How are soldiers, civilians, and people who literally get caught in the crossfire changed by the experience? How can you tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” in a scenario where everything seems hopelessly complicated and confused? How can we honor the sacrifice of soldiers who serve, and how can we provide them with the support they need when they come home, forever changed by experiences we can’t possibly imagine?
One of the scenes I remember from The Good Soldiers, for instance, involves a soldier who finally opens up to his wife about what he has seen, prefacing his remarks with “How much do you want to know?” In another scene, a soldier tries to describe to his family the kind of place Rustamiyah is–a place where people literally live in shit, the ground being covered with trash and raw sewage–and his grandmother walks away, unable to stomach his descriptions. Neither The Good Soldiers nor The Things They Carried is an easy, enjoyable book: given the choice to turn away and ignore the stories they tell, you might decide you don’t want to know any of this. But one of the morals behind both books, I think, is that these are stories that need to be told. How can you claim to be informed about the world we live in–how can you claim to be an informed American citizen–if you have no idea what has been done in our name across the world, both to our presumed enemies and to our own troops?
One of the points that O’Brien makes in “How to Tell a True War Story” is that a war story is seldom what it seems. The chapter tells a pair of horrific stories: in one, a soldier named Lemon steps on a booby trap that shreds his body and leaves pieces of his flesh hanging in a nearby tree, and in the other, a soldier named Rat–Lemon’s best friend–repeatedly shoots a baby water buffalo just to watch it suffer. O’Brien describes how audiences of well-intentioned readers invariably misinterpret these stories, fixating on the pain inflicted on the baby water buffalo–an innocent creature–and in the process missing the story’s real point. This isn’t a war story, O’Brien explains; it’s a love story. The moral isn’t that war causes people to do horrifying things, but that love does. If Rat didn’t love Lemon, there would be no need to shoot the water buffalo. The tragedy of war isn’t simply that it is violent and deadly, but that it is also the setting for profoundly life-changing relationships. War, O’Brien suggests, is both hell and heaven, filled with an inexplicable mix of pain and poignancy.
One of the challenges in reading The Good Soldiers is advertised in the title itself: what exactly is a “good” soldier? If you’re fixated on memorizing the names and dates, you’ll miss that question: you’ll miss, in fact, the whole point of Finkel’s narrative. On the first day of class, I raised a question my students and I will continue to grapple with in coming weeks: why did Finkel write this book, and what does he want readers to get from it? This isn’t an easy question; the answer isn’t something you can locate in the text and then memorize. The people Finkel describes are a mix of good and bad, so it’s difficult to tell exactly who the “good guys” are. Opening each chapter with a quote from President George W. Bush that gives the politically-correct version of what happened during a given week in Iraq, Finkel then juxtaposes that scrubbed and sanitary account with what actually happened to the 2-16 at that same time. Given multiple versions of the truth, which one is “truly true”? Is Bush a bad president for giving the American people an optimistic and upbeat version of a deeply troubling war, or is Bush a good leader for trying to bolster military moral however he can, even if that means claiming victory when all the facts seem to suggest otherwise?
Ralph Kauzlarich deeply cares for the men of the 2-16 but seems over-optimistic, naïve, or even offensively insensitive when he intones his favorite saying, “It’s all good,” even in the face of tragedy. Seeking to strengthen ties with his Iraqi allies, Kauzlarich befriends the leader of an Iraqi police battalion who fears retaliation from neighbors who resent his involvement with Americans. Whenever one of Kauzlarich’s men is killed by a roadside bomb, his loyalty toward his Iraqi allies is tested. Kauzlarich wants to help the Iraqi people, but he also finds himself occasionally hating the very people he is trying to help. If you desperately want to believe your involvement in the war is “all good” because you are making a difference in the Iraqi people’s lives, you’re going to struggle with existential doubt and despair every time you realize how intractable the problems you face truly are. Winning over the Iraqi people isn’t as easy as handing out soccer balls to local children; when you can’t accurately assess who is your friend and who is your foe, you’re going to respond to even the most innocuous encounters with suspicion, dread, and fear.
I suspect my students think they were assigned to read The Good Soldiers so they could be better informed about the war in Iraq, and presumably that is part of the common reading’s purpose. But a good book, like a true war story, does so much more than merely inform. Given the pictures that both Finkel and O’Brien paint of war, what does either writer want us to “do” with that information? Once you get a vivid taste of what war was like for a particular group of soldiers at a particular time, how does that awareness change you as a reader and a citizen?
A good book, like a true war story, can help you become better informed, but it also can (and perhaps should) make you a more earnest asker of questions. Forget about what happened in Vietnam or Iraq; instead, raise the question of why it happened. If there is a lesson to be learned in any war (or in any war story), what are those lessons, and have we learned them? Getting the facts straight is difficult enough; grappling with the trickier question of why is infinitely more difficult. The Good Soldiers is sure about its facts but not nearly as sure about its conclusions. Given a true war story, how to you make sense of it, and what do you do with that information once you’ve received it?
Click here for more photos from Newton Cemetery, shot this past Memorial Day.
If you’re looking for an eye-opening, nuanced account of the 2007 Iraq War surge from an embedded perspective, I’d strongly recommend David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers. If you’re looking for a novel about the Vietnam War that will break your heart time and again, I’d strongly recommend Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.