postmodern de/constructions
5th Interdisciplinary, International Graduate Conference
at the University of Erlangen/Nuremberg
November 22 - 24, 2002




War and War: Love in the Postmodern War Fiction of Tim O'Brien


Minka Paraskevova, M. A.

St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia

Yordan Kosturkov, Litt. M., Doctoral Candidate

The Paisii Hilendarski University of Plovdiv


A typical hesitation is observed in defining today a classical type of prose - the war prose. It seems more appropriate to refer to it as anti-war, and in US literature and literary criticism a very common definition, related to a major event of the 20th c. political history, is Vietnam prose. If we go back to the title of this paper, there is a certain ambiguity and suggested multiplicity in the concept. The cultural reference is to "War and Peace" but in the perception of war in the second half of the 20th and in the early decade of the 21st century there does not seem to be peace as a necessary part of the dichotomy. This absence of peace seems to us a very logical one in a world "fighting for peace" - since World War 1 and World War 2, perhaps. In the study we propose that war - not peace, is the true product for consumption, as war products seem the only products to consume. Peace cannot be itemized and remains a moral category, an ideal, vague and elusive, as any ideal seems to be in the consumer society.

            We have the perfect examples of war prose already in the 18th and 19th c. literature with the emergence of the genre of the modern novel: Smollett, Sterne, Stendhal, Balzac, Zola, Tolstoy are of course the emblematic names we refer to. However, the theme of war would be dated indeed to the times of the beginnings of literature, and in the 20th and 21st c. ("Blitz", "total", "local" etc.) what with the changing concept of "war", the challenge would be shifting to a very new and different definition. It would take a whole theory perhaps to actually specify what would be a real war novel today, since few works of prose both in the past and today focus exclusively on military action, without touching upon, or including other themes and motifs, one  of the most common (as if immanent to literature at large) being the theme of love.

            Before we go on to analyze some of these themes. Motifs and aspects, we may remember some of the wars of the past few decades - the Gulf War, Somalia, the Strikes in Kossovo, or the War on Terror, to see how what the military theoreticians and the political scientists try hard to explain in strategic and tactical terms is so flexible and ontologically very much a simulacrum. A war in these theories should be humane, bloodless, without casualties and perhaps with only necessary material destruction that could be the theme of another "development"; euphoristic, televisable, homely.

            It did not start so only recently. Going back to the war in Vietnam - and that is our primary subject  for discussion - or its reflection in prose, it is unclear today, to the 21st century younger generation what the "Vietnam syndrome" was meant to mean. The military historians and political scientists may go as much as they like back to the 1960s, and 1970s, and 1980s and document their efforts, yet both newer generations and contemporaries popularly will continue to argue if that war was won, or lost, or what. A satisfactory explanation seems to be the war was not actually lost but became financially so disastrous that it was just as well to lose it, or discontinue it . Which is a good consumerist justification and validation. Vietnam was perhaps the first recognizably consumer war (maybe because we are unaware what the cost and profits of earlier wars were, or maybe because they were meant to be of a different, "classical", "traditional" type) and were documented - and portrayed in that way for posterity. Whatever we think of that and however we re-interpret it, the key thing is the feeling of uncertainty that definitely is deconstructive.

            Our paper ambitiously is dedicated to the deconstruction of the feeling of love in postmodern war prose. There seem to be two obvious lines of discussion. One are the changes in the perception of war/anti-war prose that we would like to briefly summarize to start with. In the Enlightenment and 19th c. school of realism (naturalism included) war typically is viewed "realistically" and despite of its atrocities is considered just, noble, justified, even as "the war that shall put and end to all wars". Its pathos varies between triumph and despair, yet its characters are the classical heroes of romance. And again typically that is justified not only by a vague glorious cause, identifiable by an Enlightenment sense of reason, but also decorated with the laurels of heroism of men, so seemingly attractive - as were their uniforms and weapons, to the opposite gender. In other words war and its heroes were the emblematic environment for romance.

            Already with the The Red Badge of Courage, or Farewell to Arms, or The Thin Red Line, or The Naked and the Dead we observe some of the major features of the realist novel challenged, until with the postmodern war novel we have in fact a parody of the genre (pastiche): a good example of this decoded and demystified "war" we find in Joseph Heller's Catch 22. In the modernist novel war is alienation itself, with all its epistemologically alienated characters and the sense of romance cannot survive in this modernist environment of loveless sex .

With the first attempts of postmodern treatment of war technically there are no heroes to fight a war, or perform acts of heroism, and the overall meaning of the war is obviously obscure to the soldiers who do not possess the credentials and have no credit to be the glorified males who were meant to be the heroes of romance. Tragedy here is absurd and absurd is more something of a dark comedy (Catch 22 along with other novels of the period was often qualified as "black humor"). Love is practically absent, physical, sexual love included, and sexual activity is as far as possible from any classical definition of either the agape, or the eros.

Although Vietnam does not seem yet to have produced an important novel, the excellent  framed short stories of Tim O'Brien can perfectly illustrate some of the points in our analysis to continue on trends suggested with Catch 22, a novel that seems to us to be on the division line (on the divide) between modernism and postmodernism.

            The second line of discussion - and central in our analysis - are the changes and modifications in the subsidiary/auxiliary theme of love, as such. Again, keeping in mind the achievements (and the approach) of Tolstoy, Stendhal, Hemingway etc. - realists and modernists, clearly with the postmodern war novels (Joseph Heller and others) and the Vietnam prose of Tim O'Brien we have convincing examples of the deconstruction of the feeling. In itself it contributes to the analysis of postmodernism itself.

            Here is a brief and incomplete list of categories of love in realist war prose: faithfulness, betrayal, incest, extramarital relations, depth and intensity of feeling, love consequences, drama, loyalty, marriage, and specifically all these are depicted not only through the action and the plot but through the portraiture and language with its specific terms of endearment (canonical love discourse, one may define it).

            In the modernist war/anti-war prose many of these are preserved, although as a whole love plays a lesser role, and thus we can include here: the extremities of  the feeling, the acceptance of what used to be considered perversity, the psychological analysis of the feeling - usually (and unexpectedly) with a touch of sentimentalism. Essentially, modernist love at war is very much the feelings, emotions and sentiments we are familiar with from realism - with a modernist twist.

            In postmodern fiction all the categories of love in realism and modernism are clearly subject to deconstruction, as is the feeling itself: the feeling is play, the feeling is not shared, the feeling is most commonly absent; there are no hero and no heroine, or if there are, they are as far as possible from the illustrious characters of romance. While realists and modernists tend to be fleshy and erotic in their description, postmodernism vulgarizes sex and indeed de-sexes love. While even today war remains very much a macho, a male act (and a theme for Freudian analysts in that), there are opportunities for gender inclusion, or at least for new roles.

Tim O’Brien's works are focused mainly on war not as a historic, or as a political event but rather as a personal reflection and more specifically as an individual experience of something distant and obscure. The characters of his short stories {"The Things They Carried" and "To Tell a True War Story") are demystified as heroes - they are not strong in body or mind, they are not courageous in the traditional sense, as are the heroes of ancient history or realistic literature, they are not even romantic, or real, and to some extend they are more fictional than the brave hearts of  the past. This ironical attitude is sophistically expressed by the fragile age of the "soldiers" - 19-22 year old, who do not even understand fully well what the word "war" means. As "soldiers" they use funnily even their weapons and military items - to play games, as if. This childish innocence has, however, acquired the most rude and blasphemous lingo, represented by the words soldiers use: "cooze", "motherfucker" etc. It is a language more real than the real, and typical at that, though seldom, if ever, employed in the realistic or even modernist prose. Neither the language, nor the characters create a sensation of comedy, but it is not a complete tragedy either. This decline from the conventional image of war is skillfully demonstrated by the appearance of death which is not heroic, nor anti-heroic  - in both stories analyzed we have young boys dying ridiculously not in battle, fighting for a glorious patriotic cause but on their way back from having taken a piss. War here is the "thin red line" (to ironize the title of the modernist novel of James Jones) where normal and abnormal meet and man loses one's sense of social and ethical norms, there are no norms and thus no norms are violated: the postmodern war character cannot or does not want to distinguish between right (and) or wrong, and the only instinct that keeps him alive is the instinct for survival, driven by fear (which can be subject to neo-Freudean analysis).

Both stories begin with a letter. In "To Tell a True War Story" Rat is writing a letter to Lemon's sister to inform her of her brother's death and to offer her his help. It is a very abnormal letter, sardonically glorifying a soldier of the war as the truest "buddy", while Rat himself thought of his dead comrade as nutty, though a great partner in games, describing him as someone with "stainless still balls", " crazy in a good way, a real daredevil", "a tremendous human being, pretty nutso sometimes, but you could trust him with your life" ("trust", "soul mates", "twins", they all have a lot in common).

Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in "The Things They Carried" "humped" his penfriend-blinddate Martha's letters and wished them to be love letters, or pretended he thought them to be that. Martha more than obviously seems to have been informative and polite in her correspondence. Cross, in charge of the platoon, is again very young, a 22 year-old boy, who absurdly and sentimentally craves for love in the midst of a crazy loveless hell, or maybe that is the way it has to be. Neither Lemon's sister nor Martha answer the pathos of the letters - there is nothing to respond to, there is no real feeling, the feeling is subject to deconstruction.

The stories very much reflect a true situation from two sides - the "soldiers" of the war - the real "players", and the far away "motherland":  their families, their loved ones. The lack of contact and communication is in itself an appeal for contact and communication: one-sided, unable to respond. The effect is in the sense of pain, despair and in the unreal reality.

Tim O’Brien  uses interesting un-short- story-like structures for his "tales": thus he starts "To Tell a True War Story" several times over again and presents each time a different lay-out of the facts. But in the center of the text he tells another story which is told by a character - Sanders, revealed as the "wise guy", who provides the "moral". All the while we listen to the author, who is protesting that "nobody listened".

Vanity, loneliness, fear, panic emotionally are the merged feelings that harmonize this senseless war action where the soldiers use their grenades to destroy and put to fire the place where the enemy may have been seen. This scene is just as awful, as it is also a scene of inaction, of helplessness. The author makes a verbal play of words like true, truth, believe, war, peace and love. Not the love of lovers but common human love, the love of life, aching love is expressed through violence - the absurd mutilation and killing of the baby buffalo, that no one objects to, all watching silently this dark "aesthetic" act performed by Rat. His comrades knew Rat wanted to hurt because he himself was hurt, having lost his best friend. Accordingly no one from "the other side" wanted to know his true feelings, even his sister. The romantic aspect of his action, if it could be named, is that "They were kids; they just didn’t know. A nature hike, they thought, not even a war" and used their grenades to play a game in which "whoever chickened out was a motherfucker".

The synchronic course of the text is disrupted by passages theorizing what a true war story is: a matter of credibility - and the very same thing happens with love, or the love O'Brien tells us of. In the end the war story is declared to be a love story. Love deconstructed and impossible, love that was never meant to be close to what we are used to - in life, in literature, in the pre-postmodern literature, that is.

War is not viewed as either good or bad, war is complex: not just rummaging, destruction, death but also beauty and love in the middle of this environment, war is seen - not represented! - as a fight between abstract life and death where man can realize one's personal desire for all good things and see more clearly himself despite all the horrors.

"The Things They Carried" starts more as a typical romantic  story. Lieutenant Cross spends every free minute of his time at war thinking of love, dreaming, touching the places where his imagined girlfriend's fingers and tongue may have been felt. This imitative, simulated behavior of a real lover is dethroned later in the story by revealing the real thoughts and feelings of doubt and duality. Cross is uncertain whether his beloved is sincere enough in signing her letters with "love" and believes it to be a mechanical way of expressing the "feeling", or rather an assumed standard of writing. His obsession with Martha's virginity ("if Martha is a virgin") causes him unbearable sufferings for no reason whatsoever. We never know how to interpret it - as a 22-year old boy's dreams of a real, profound and pure love; as his more abstract need of trust, human warmth, and understanding, as near religious ecstasy - because later on in the story he feels a desire that she may not be a virgin to indulge his fantasies, being one at the same time. This playfulness of thought and desire builds a dynamic, tentative, passionate  image of the character's nature, and the uncertainty completely deconstructs a normal traditional pre-postmodern feeling.

Cross is both a man in love and a leader. This duality of duty is affected by the duality of character - Cross is a sober soldier in military action and a dreamy lover at the same time. But the most grotesque aspect here is that his dreams are all imaginative because Martha had never responded to his feelings. She remained "uninvolved". Her portrait - in her photo - is also uninvolved: "Why that grayness in her eyes? Why so alone? Not lonely, just alone… Even dancing, she danced alone…when he kissed her, she received the kiss without returning it, her eyes wide open, not afraid, not a virgin's eyes, just flat, and uninvolved... Her eyes were gray and neutral". Cross silently "humped" this love for Martha - carrying two pictures of her. On one she is in her volleyball outfit. The sentimental approach of a "traditional" consistent lover is described in this short passage where in details Cross remembers her left knee and almost as an artist gives way to his past experience and dreamful behavior by imagining all the "new things he should've done". In reality the "event" was rather common - a boy touching the leg of a girl - but this physical touch gives him an opportunity to bring higher intimacy to their (imagined) relationship and to express his "true" feelings which even then remained unshared. The climax of this imagined love affair is in the middle of the story where the second plane also reaches its high point with the death of the soldier Lavender. Martha had sent Cross a pebble as a "token of her truest feelings for him". This act was accepted as a proof of some loving and his imagination fired up extensively. He lived with the thought and the dreams of her - "barefoot", both of them spending their time somewhere on the Jersey shore "carrying nothing" etc. and could not in his hallucinatory dreams concentrate on his wartime real duties. The result was the death of Lavender and that brought him back to the much hated "unwanted" reality. This is the turning point in the story where war served till that moment as a background in his life, an unwanted, yet real background. Until then the happy moments of love day-dreaming were the moments of relief because itemizing "the things they carried" the idea implied is of a burden, quite heavy for the fragile kids' shoulders who have known nothing of life but now know death, horror, fear. They had become insensitive to war's consequences though in most times they lost temper, did silly, immature things. The fact that they participated in the war was not because they were driven by patriotism but by "the greatest soldier's fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor." They are not courageous in that sense but simply afraid not to be accused of weakness and cowardice. That is why they find their special own way of surviving - "spoke bitterly of guys who had found release by shooting off their own toes or fingers. Pussies, they'd say. Candyasses", "They used a hard vocabulary to contain softness. Greased, they'd say, Offed, lit up, zapped while zipping. It wasn't cruelty, just stage presence", "they kicked corpses. They cut off thumbs. They talked grunt lingo". This tough humor-antihumor helped them bear the whole situation. They daydream of a way out in the "freedom birds", as they called the military planes which could take them out of there. Then all they carried would lose its weight because they would go home far away from the place of pain and hell.

As in his first story here again an act of human despair, pain and violence is produced. After the absurd death of Lavender, they all stood waiting for the chopper to come and take him up  and smoked of his dope and then they attacked the village of Than Khe and burnt everything, even called in artillery and watched. But this did not replace the feeling of helplessness. These actions could not bring back the dead man. In this tense moment Cross realizes the emptiness  of his illusions. He now accepts that Martha has never loved him and would never do it in the future. It was love doomed to  perish, as they all were. Soberness won over fantasy, real life came to existence. Cross burned all Martha's letters and decided to become involved in the war. In the real war love has no place, it belongs to another world, as did Martha. Cross changes, war changed him. Knowing that it will not help the dead but he could be of help to the living he goes back to his soldier's duty of being a leader - for his obligation was, "not to be loved but to lead". This should have been the mature thinking and behavior of a grown-up person,  determined to assume the responsibility of his deeds. Should have.

In conclusion there is a lot more to be added. In fact, as we try to generalize, there is always a threat of packing up thoughts and recollections, or even interpretations, in a convenient pattern, or adapting them to existing ones. The hardest task of the analyst who wants to pursue this analysis would be to disengage oneself from one's real self that may be neither modern, nor postmodern but very, very traditional. In fact, what we are discussing here are mere observations and as such they should be valid. In reality, war and love and the peace we discarded very easily in the beginning may be performed as a postmodern play, and be as surface-superficial as we like but there are certainly deep cultural roots in all this that are not so easy to deconstruct.




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