They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the river and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet.
O'Brien describes the monotony of war. Though the common thread of the story is Lieutenant Jimmy Cross's picture of Martha, O'Brien also touches on the death of Ted Lavender and weaves it through these bulky… (200 more words in this explanation)
For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them.
No one is immune from reacting in wartime, O'Brien suggests here. The men all displayed these exceptional reactions in their behavior. Reduced to a pure survival instinct, they did things they would otherwise be ashamed… (112 more words in this explanation)
Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame.
Lieutenant Jimmy Cross burns all of his letters from his sweetheart, Martha, back in the United States. He is riddled with guilt over Ted Lavender's death. He believes that had he not been so distracted… (170 more words in this explanation)
This was not Mount Sebastian, it was another world, where there were no pretty poems or midterm exams, a place where men died because of carelessness and gross stupidity. Kiowa was right. Boom-down, and you were dead. Never partly dead.
The rules of life have changed for Lieutenant Jimmy Cross. In his life before the war, big events centered around things like pretty poems and midterm exams. His social obligations were tied to school, family… (139 more words in this explanation)
For a few moments he considered asking her to his room, but instead he laughed and told her how back in college he'd almost done something very brave. It was after seeing Bonnie and Clyde, he said, and on this same spot he'd almost picked her up and carried her to his room and tied her to the bed and put his hand on her knee and just held it there all night long. It came close, he told her—he'd almost done it. Martha shut her eyes. She crossed her arms at her chest, as if suddenly cold, rocking slightly, then after a time she looked at him and said she was glad he hadn't tried it. She didn't understand how men could do those things. What things? he asked, and Martha said, The things men do. Then he nodded. It began to form. Oh, he said, those things.
Lieutenant Cross is visiting with Tim O'Brien many years after the war has ended and they have both returned home. He is telling O'Brien about how since he returned from the war, he saw his… (358 more words in this explanation)
The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over and over.
The memories of the war never stop replaying for O'Brien. It is like a tape on loop. O'Brien cannot look back on death as an event—instead he lives with the constant recall of the moments… (77 more words in this explanation)
But the thing about remembering is that you don't forget. You take your material where you find it, which is in your life, at the intersection of past and present. The memory-traffic feeds into a rotary up on your head, where it goes in circles for a while, then pretty soon imagination flows in and the traffic merges and shoots off down a thousand different streets. As a writer, all you can do is pick a street and go for the ride, putting things down as they come at you. That's the real obsession. All those stories.
O'Brien often feels guilty for still writing war stories. He is forty-three years old and his daughter, Kathleen, asks him why he won't write stories about getting her a pony. At forty-three, O'Brien is years… (150 more words in this explanation)
That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
Stories defy life and death—something very important to O'Brien, particularly in the face of the deaths he has witnessed in war. As he claims here, stories exist as entities unto themselves that can be passed… (121 more words in this explanation)
I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.
O'Brien is on a boat with Elroy Berdahl, who is housing him near the Canadian border. O'Brien has fled from his town and his job in a panic, to prevent being sent to Vietnam after… (156 more words in this explanation)
The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.
O'Brien here fast-forwards through his drive back home from the Canadian border, through the settings of the war itself, and back to America, where he returned after surviving combat. This is not a happy ending… (89 more words in this explanation)
A true war story is never moral. 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. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.
According to O'Brien, war stories do not abide by conventional rules of storytelling, in the sense that the moral and factual truth is not fixed. O'Brien provides a calculus for determining whether a war story… (163 more words in this explanation)
In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the threat that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe "Oh."
O'Brien claims that if, for some reason, you take away a moral from a war story, then it becomes impossible to divorce a lesson away from the whole story. He likens this to the impossibility… (150 more words in this explanation)
It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.
O'Brien presents a claim which seems to be internally inconsistent: war stories do not generalize. That statement is, itself, a generalization, but O'Brien also contends that war stories do not have rules. War is inherently… (127 more words in this explanation)
You're never more alive than when you're almost dead.
O'Brien contends that war is fundamentally contradictory, that things are true and false at the same time. One never feels closer to life and death than when they are at war. Death, though, is ultimately… (89 more words in this explanation)
In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But all he could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up too fast.
O'Brien weaves in episodic reflections about the the Vietnamese youth he killed in the war, as Kiowa tries to comfort him in the battlefield. In reflecting on the man, O'Brien finds himself giving the man… (307 more words in this explanation)
I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour. I was terrified. There were not thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my head go empty and then felt it fill up again. I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it.
O'Brien prefaces the story by saying that he lied to his daughter, Kathleen, about not killing a man in Vietnam. He takes this story as an occasion to tell the "adult" version of what really… (214 more words in this explanation)
Courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave. In certain situations you could do incredible things, you could advance toward enemy fire, but in other situations, which were not nearly so bad, you had trouble keeping your eyes open. Sometimes, like that night in the shit field, the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid.
O'Brien tells this story from the perspective of his platoon member Norman Bowker after he has returned to the small town in which he grew up after the war. Norman is still consumed with guilt… (286 more words in this explanation)
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, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.
After O'Brien receives a letter from Norman Bowker years after the two fought together in Vietnam, he realizes the important role writing has played in his life and development following the war. Bowker is in… (185 more words in this explanation)
Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.
O'Brien reflects on writing "Speaking of Courage" about Norman Bowker, and he now wants to go beyond that story to actually change it in hindsight. He feels it necessary to insist upon the fact that… (224 more words in this explanation)
"Daddy, tell the truth," Kathleen can say, "did you ever kill anybody?" And I can say honestly, "Of course not." Or I can say, honestly, "Yes."
O'Brien uses this extremely short story as a direct address to the reader. This is one of the most obvious times that O'Brien writes with awareness of an audience in the book. He spends the… (192 more words in this explanation)
He said he'd done his best. He'd tried to be a decent medic. Win some and lose some, he said, but he'd tried hard. Briefly then, rambling a little, he talked about a few of the guys who were gone now, Curt Lemon and Kiowa and Ted Lavender, and how crazy it was that people who were so incredibly alive could get so incredibly dead.
The evening before Rat Kiley shoots himself in the foot so that he can be taken in a chopper to Japan, he admits to the platoon in near-tears that he is at the end of… (208 more words in this explanation)
But this is true too: stories can save us. I'm forty-three years old, and a writer now, and even still, right here, I keep dreaming Linda alive. And Ted Lavender, too, and Kiowa, and Curt Lemon, and a slim young man I killed, and an old man sprawled beside a pigpen, and several others whose bodies I once lifted and dumped into a truck. They're all dead. But in a story, which is a kind of dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.
O'Brien opens the story this way following the title "The Lives of the Dead," as a thesis to argue the point of the story itself. The title itself is somewhat ironic, since death is not… (68 more words in this explanation)
The thing about a story is that you dream it as you tell it, hoping that others might then dream along with you, and in this way memory and imagination and language combine to make spirits in the head. There is the illusion of aliveness.
Tim reflects on his memory of attending the movies with his friend Linda when they were children, and his memories of Ted Lavender popping tranquilizer pills every morning in Vietnam. These figures in O'Brien's life… (163 more words in this explanation)
It was a kind of self-hypnosis. Partly willpower, partly faith, which is how stories arrive.
A young Tim O'Brien recalls conversations he dreamed that he had with his deceased friend Linda. Before sleep, Tim would fabricate elaborate schemes in order to conjure Linda in his dreams. As a child, he… (229 more words in this explanation)
Well, right now I'm not dead. But when I am, it's like…I don't know, I guess it's like being inside a book that nobody's reading.
An old one. It's up on a library shelf, so you're safe and everything, but the book hasn't been checked out for a long, long time. All you can do is wait. Just hope somebody'll pick it up and start reading.
A young Tim begins going to sleep earlier so that he may see his recently deceased friend Linda in his dreams. In those dreams, she appears as a dead girl, and likens her experience of… (237 more words in this explanation)