Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Art of the Art of War: Tim O'Brien

This article was first published at The Compulsive Reader.

Francis Ford Coppola finding it necessary to explain and perhaps justify the "reduxing" of Apocalypse Now talks about the addition of forty nine minutes of footage not used in the original as providing a fuller and presumably more accurate experience of the moral insanity that was Vietnam. Now while in 1979 that might well have been a worthy endeavor, one wonders if, with the passage of time, that particular message has been made superfluous having been repeated many times over the ensuing twenty years.

And though it is certainly important to take a moral position on war in general as well as on each and every particular war, to create a work of art that points out that war is hell is not exactly what you would call breaking new ground. Who is it out there saying that war is a good thing, that what we need is more wars? Even the military today see it as a last resort, something to be avoided if possible, at least for public consumption. And to point out that a war some thirty odd years old was an evil nightmare, while useful from the doomed to relive forgotten history school of thought, some would argue is more propaganda than moral imperative.

War has spawned works of art, great and not so great, and the measure of that greatness was not necessarily the message they espoused. If Homer glories in its heroes, Joseph Heller rails at its insanities, all twenty two of them. For every Wilfred Owen, there's a charging light brigade; for every saved Private Ryan, there's a Gunga Din. For every Henry V, there are a few good men. Still the message of a work of art has to be a significant part of its value.
One of the most memorable "anti war" stories I ever read never mentions war. It's about a dentist. William Carlos Williams' short story "The Use of Force" - popular some forty or so years ago, shows how using force even for good, dehumanizes those who use it. The dentist prying open a terrified little girl's mouth to fix her teeth becomes a brutalizing monster no matter how well intentioned he might have been when he started.

And is this not the point of Apocalypse Now? When you descend to the heart of darkness you do not return unscathed. The horror that you find contaminates. That was Conrad's vision and it is that vision that forms the mythic underpinning of Coppola's film. War is hell and when you descend into hell something happens and that something is not good. Like Kurtz, you become the savage you sought to civilize. At best you become callous, indifferent, at worst you become a butcher, a beast. The hell of war is as much about what killing does to the killer as it is about the killing itself.

And while Col. Kurtz may have been the best the army had produced, indeed like Conrad's Kurtz the best that Western civilization has produced, - a poet warrior in the classic sense - like his namesake, he has found the horror and it is him.
Which brings me to Tim O'Brien.

The first I read of Tim O'Brien were some selections from his novel (some would call it a short story collection), The Things They Carried. One story particularly caught my attention: "The Lives of the Dead." Like the Williams story it is not so much about war or even force, it is about how one deals with the horrors that war brings. But the significant thing about this story is that it recognizes that these horrors are not the special province of war alone, they are in fact part of the baggage of everyday life. O'Brien does this by counterpointing the deaths of his war buddies against the death of a nine year old girl, his first date, from cancer. Ultimately the story asks what is it we can turn to, to help us to deal with these horrors we all must face.

And there is an answer: ". . .in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world."

It is in art that there is solace in a world where youth is no defense against death and
insanity becomes the norm: "I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, still dreaming Linda alive. . . .She's not the embodied Linda; she's mostly made up. . . .Her real name doesn't matter. She was nine years old. I loved her and 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. . . .I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I'm young and happy. I'll never die. I'm skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story."

Linda, his comrades in Vietnam, the author himself, their lives are saved in the story, in the imagination.
This is not simply ars longa in modern dress, nor is it escapism. For O'Brien there is salvation in art. Indeed that is the central theme of his 1979 National Book Award winning novel, Going After Cacciato. Paul Berlin, the voice of the novel, sitting alone in the isolation of guard duty in Vietnam, sends his unit off in his mind in pursuit of an AWOL Cacciato who has set off on foot for Paris. "Paul Berlin, whose only goal was to live long enough to establish goals worth living for still longer, stood high in the tower by the sea. . . and wondered, not for the first time, about the immense powers of his own imagination. A truly awesome notion. Not a dream, an idea. An idea to develop, to tinker with and build and sustain, to draw out as an artist draws out his vision." It is in the imagination, then, that there is a reason to go on living in the face of the absurd horror that is war, that is life.
Imagination creates golden helmets out of barber's trays, giants out of windmills, and glorious Dulcineas; it takes all that is ignoble and horrifying in this life and makes of it something beautiful and noble. It transforms a strange almost simple soldier walking off into the night and away from battle into a holy grail floating always just beyond the reach of those taking up the quest. Like Arthur's knights, Berlin imagines that he and his unit are on a quest, seeking an ideal that is always to be strived for but never reached, and it is the imagining that is important, because in the imagining there is sanity.

They can travel the paddies and mountains of Vietnam, the streets of Mandalay, move from Asia to Europe and eventually to Paris always with the moon faced Cacciato one step ahead, not quite catchable. But catching Cacciato really isn't important, imagining going after Cacciato is essential.
Tim O'Brien was in Vietnam. He knows what he writes about and that knowledge is evident on every page of his book, and one thing he knows is that war is hell, but when you are the one stuck in the middle of one with your buddies dying around you, saying so isn't really all that useful.

And herein lies the difference between Coppola and O'Brien. What Coppola shows us is that war is hell, and it contaminates everyone who participates in it. What O'Brien shows us is how to keep that from happening. He shows us how to live sanely when living is intolerable, and this is a lesson worth learning, for there is the intolerable in life, even when the war is over.

O'Brien shows us how not to be a Kurtz.

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