The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried Warfare: The Vietnam War Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Story Title.Paragraph)
War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead. […] You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination of rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket's red glare. […] You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not […] Any battle or bombing or raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty—and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly. (How to Tell a True War Story.85-6)
Here, as in the earlier quote about war being boredom, O'Brien is skewering the conventional wisdom that war is hell. The eye appreciates the aesthetic beauty of things like napalm and rockets—they're like fireworks!—and it's not like you can shut that part of you off. Just because something is beautiful doesn't mean it's nice.
And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war […] It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen. (How to Tell a True War Story.106)
We've got the "civilians will never understand" thing again with the part about sisters who don't write back and people who don't listen, but we also have the idea that war, at its heart, isn't about war. It's about the people who are caught up in war, with their love and their memories and their sadness.
[Norman] could not talk about it and never would. The evening was smooth and warm.
If it had been possible, which it wasn't, he would have explained how his friend Kiowa slipped away that night beneath the dark swampy field. He was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste. (Speaking of Courage.123-124)
Bowker keeps saying he wants someone to talk to about what happened to Kiowa, but he just can't. Even when the intercom at the A&W asks him to talk—an inanimate and therefore non-judgmental object with all the time in the world—he's still unable to speak. And finally, he realizes it. Unable to speak, he is folded into the war just as much as Kiowa is.