What if he hadn't gone? Had not gotten on the bus in Worthington, his hometown, where the Daily Globe photographer snapped his picture as he departed for Sioux Falls and induction into the United States Army? What if, in the middle of advanced infantry training, he'd taken his passport and the money he'd saved, slipped off base, and hopped a charter flight to Sweden? What if he had refused to take the final midnight walk across the tarmac at Fort Lewis, Wash., onto the plane that would deliver him into the war?
And once he was there in Quang Ngai Province--some escape was possible even then. What if he had simply gone limp, fallen into the red clay on the trail, the mud of the rice paddies? Lain there mutely, inertly on the trail until the rest of Alpha Company gathered him up and deposited him on the chopper that would bring him home? Why not?
Those questions echo throughout the books of Tim O'Brien, who served as a foot soldier in Vietnam from 1969 to 1970, and whose writing since has repeatedly engaged the consequences of a course not taken. These questions also force a paradox of the highest order: O'Brien, then a 21-year-old Macalester grad on his way to the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, was explicitly opposed to the war. He'd written a school paper against it in 10th grade; composed pro forma editorials for his college paper; stood in a few vigils; gone door to door for McCarthy in '68.
Yet when his draft notice came in '69, O'Brien found he could not act on his convictions. "In the end I could not bear the prospect of rejection," the author wrote in a 1994 essay for the New York Times Magazine--"by my family, my country, my friends, my hometown." O'Brien did not make a decision, then, so much as he abnegated all personal agency in the face of embarrassment. "I was a coward," he continues. "I went to Vietnam."
That phrase appears almost verbatim in the story "On the Rainy River" from the largely autobiographical collection The Things They Carried, in which the main character--who is named Tim O'Brien--recounts a flight to the Boundary Waters and the way his conscience failed him there, twisting into a Gordian knot. The same moral dilemma turns up in his first published book, the vivid memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. Together, the works reveal that the trials of combat paled next to the test the author had already failed.
As a result, there is something almost absurd about O'Brien's presence everywhere he goes in Vietnam, from the haunted jungle nights in reeking foxholes to the bent days on the beach spent in dope-dreams of home. He should not be in any of these places, would not be if he had followed his moral compass. Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1975, gives this disconnection a physical incarnation in the person of PFC Cacciato, a grunt gone AWOL on a far-fetched march to Paris. Sent to pursue him is Paul Berlin, a mediocre soldier who has seen most of his company killed.
In point of fact, Cacciato's strange sojourn is nothing more than an elaborate fantasy Berlin conjures while pulling six hours of guard duty one night. Yet the novel builds toward Berlin's eventual arrival in "gay Paree," joined by a Vietnamese lover, Sarkin Aung Wan. In a climactic scene set in a stately Paris hotel, Berlin and Sarkin debate the value of the imaginary world he has created. He can return to the peaceful direction his life should have taken, she suggests: a house, a garden, a wife. "Having dreamed a marvelous dream, I urge you to step boldly into it," she says.
Yet Berlin, like O'Brien, feels bound by the responsibilities he has chosen, if only by default. He lists his obligations "to my family, my friends, my town, my country"--the same litany that delivered the author into Vietnam. "Even in imagination we must be true to our obligations," Berlin says. "Even in imagination, obligations cannot be outrun." The fact that Berlin chooses to accept the actuality of his surroundings does not lessen the meliorative powers of his fantastic escape; the very act of taking an extra night-shift at the observation tower represents an unprecedented devotion to his duties.
This notion is at the center of all O'Brien's writing: that stories present the opportunity to reconfigure what has happened, to revise events so as to strip them of their destructive power. As O'Brien writes in a directly autobiographical note in the middle of The Things They Carried:
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.
So it is that O'Brien concedes to recreating--or rather, freely creating--dialogue in his so-called memoir, while drawing liberally from biography in his fictional works. A story is true, O'Brien has been quoted as saying, when it makes "a believer out of your stomach." To wit, O'Brien titles one short work "How to Tell a True War Story." "A true war story is never moral," he explains. "It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral do not believe it."
That is not to say that O'Brien eschews morality in his writing--not at all--but rather that in Vietnam he finds himself residing in a shadow-world past morality's known borders. So he carries no need, or rather no ability, to pass judgement on the workaday terror that transpires around him. Starting with the moment he mistakenly reported for duty, everything is already wrong.
Yet a man dwells in this nether land at his peril. That's what John Wade discovers in O'Brien's almost hallucinatory novel In the Lake of the Woods (1994). At the beginning of the story, Wade and his wife Kathy have retreated to a cabin at the edge of the Boundary Waters. He's suffered a landslide loss in a Senate race after revelations of his long-hidden involvement in the massacre at My Lai. (O'Brien himself was stationed there with his Alpha Company a year after the killings.) Soon after arriving at the lake, Kathy disappears. Wade emerges as the leading suspect as O'Brien offers different scenarios of what might have caused her absence.
In a broader sense, though, the mystery has less to do with Kathy's whereabouts than Wade's, and his own longtime absence in his married life. He, too, is among the missing. Where was he during My Lai? Where is he now? Through public service, he has "aspired to a condition of virtue," yet his experience has left him with a "simple befuddlement, maybe. Moral disunity. A lost soul... Wade felt an estrangement from the actuality of the world, its basic nowness, and in the end all he could conjure up was an image of illusion itself, pure reflection, a head full of mirrors."
Ultimately, Wade rips the radio out of a borrowed boat and heads due north--the same journey a young O'Brien had lacked the courage to make. Like Paul Berlin in a novel 20 years earlier, Wade is trying to walk away from who he is, who he claims to be, who he has been. Unlike Berlin's, however, his flight might be permanent: He has drifted unmoored for too long. And to this extent, In the Lake of the Woods seems to represent a new conclusion, a new page for its author: The evasive maneuvers of Vietnam cannot be continued indefinitely on the home front.
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