Friday, October 2, 2015

Notable Quotable: Tim O'Brien on War

I heard these word's being read yesterday by Garrison Keillor on his radio feature, Writer's Almanac, and GK's distinctive gravelly baritone seemed perfect for this passage. 

The author is Tim O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran whose book  The Things They Carried, is essential reading for trying to understand the experience of war.  I would put it in the same category as Crane's Red Badge of Courage, Raemaker's All Quiet on the Western Front, and a recent book, Phil Klay's Redeployment.

Tim O'Brien in Vietnam

How do you generalize?
War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is 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.
The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference — a powerful, implacable beauty — and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.
To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.


Service Ration Distribution (Hobby) said...

There is a time for everything under the sun, but miss the Son and you've missed everything.

Thomas Nissvik said...

As someone who wrote an essay comparing The Things They Carried with Red Badge Of Courage from the perspective of one writer being a combat vet and the other not but both being held in high regard by readers who are veterans, I really enjoyed this post. Garrisons voice was perfect for this.
I shall have to check out Redeployment.

Mad Padre

Mad Padre
Opinions expressed within are in no way the responsibility of anyone's employers or facilitating agencies and should by rights be taken as nothing more than one person's notional musings, attempted witticisms, and prayerful posturings.


Blog Archive