Author explores the truth of war stories (video)
Feb. 16, 2012 at 5:05 p.m.
Updated Feb. 16, 2012 at 8:17 p.m.
He didn't make up the words - the vulgar or the offensive.
His job isn't to "sprinkle Ajax over the world we all live in and clean it up for you," author Tim O'Brien warned the audience at the University of Houston-Victoria.
"Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty," he said. "You don't like bad language, watch how you vote."
O'Brien, speaking at the American Book Review Spring Reading Series, talked a lot about the truth of war - then proceeded to share a story of fiction.
"A true war story is never moral," he said. "It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing things men have always done."
O'Brien was reading from his collection of stories, "The Things They Carried," which chronicles characters fighting in the Vietnam War, where O'Brien served from 1969 to 1970.
An audience of students, veterans and other interested readers squeezed into open floor space in UHV's Alcorn Auditorium to hear O'Brien's tales. At times, the heavy content caved the already crammed room. Other times, the tension was salted with humor.
"On Halloween, this real hot, spooky night, the dude paints up his body all different colors and puts on this weird mask and hikes over to a ville and goes trick-or-treating almost stark naked - just boots and b---- and an M-16," read one line in a letter to a soldier's sister.
The soldier, Curt Lemon, had just been killed. In a much more terrorizing account, O'Brien tells of the booby-trapped artillery round that blew Lemon's body into a tree.
"The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow. The gore was horrible, and stays with me," O'Brien writes from the vantage point of a man decades after the war.
The story is fiction, but the narrator is, after all, named Tim O'Brien. In a question-and-answer session after his reading, O'Brien revealed Lemon's character is based on a real soldier, one who served with O'Brien in Vietnam. The two soldiers literally watched each other's backs, O'Brien said, until the day a booby trap blew his friend into a tree.
A true war story is always tangled by the panicky, "surreal seemingness" of battle, O'Brien said.
Then, he continued with his fiction.
"In many cases, a true war story cannot be believed," he read. "Often, the crazy stuff is true, and the normal stuff isn't because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness. In other cases, you can't even tell a true war story. Sometimes, it's just beyond telling."