“A true war story is never moral,” says Tim O’Brien in The Things They Carried. “If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, “ he continues, “then you have been made a victim of a very old and terrible lie.” A nice idea. I thought of it after finishing Ben Fountain’s novel, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Certainly I did not feel uplifted in the sense that I wanted to go and fight a war. But the story quite clearly had a moral, even if I couldn’t quite put the moral into words. Would this book be proscribed according to O’Brien’s ideal? Would O’Brien’s own book? Were they in fact true war stories or did fiction circumvent this requirement? For some time now, Americans have been caught in a frustratingly circular conversation about war movies and war literature (see here and here for examples of those using O’Brien to break the impasse). The debate is not so much pro-war versus anti-war, but the authentic versus the non-authentic, with each side accusing each other of the same lack of authenticity. I blame Tim O’Brien. A true war story is always moral. Encouraging young writers, young soldiers and young civilians to believe such amoral stories exist or might be someday written is a dangerous American tradition that we would be well advised to stop.
Though nominally a work of fiction, The Things They Carried obsesses over the idea of a true war story. One chapter – appropriately titled “How to Tell a True War Story” – goes so far as to layer successive, often contradictory, arguments as to what makes a war story true.