War Story

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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.” (Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried) Ah, war stories . . . tales of heroism, bravery, and friendship forged in the heat of combat; a sweet homecoming won by a hair’s breath; and an uplifting moral. If these are the ingredients you want in a war story, check out your latest Hollywood war flick. The war stories you’re about to read are much less morally satisfying, and so much more fulfilling.
True war stories are not about war. So tells us Tim O’Brien, a master in the art of war stories. What they are about is life, love, family, loss, grief, and “the little things,” like having electricity, or a dry cigarette. O’Brien’s The Things They Carried takes you as close as you can get to war without actually enlisting: These autobiographical stories are not about the Vietnam war, they’re about what it feels and looks and smells like to be in the Vietnam war. Speaking of true war stories, a very different wartime testimony “from the other side,” the side of the occupied people, is Riverbend’s Baghdad Burning, the best story out there, fictional or non, to understand what’s happening in Iraq today. What O’Brien and Riverbend have in common is that they take you inside the war zone so effectively that in the midst of reading you’ll jump at the sound of a car starting and wonder for a split second if the shelling has begun again. Two stories in O’Brien’s The Things They Carried will stick with you long after you’ve read them. “On the Rainy River” is O’Brien’s true confession of how he got drafted. The year is 1968 and Tim is a successful college student, on his way to Harvard graduate school, politically and morally opposed to the Vietnam War. Yet, he is also a small-town boy raised to be...
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