Chapter 2: Vietnam and Tim O’Brien
The Vietnam War and its aftermath ushered in a newfound public and medical focus on war trauma. Trauma cases had remained mostly hidden during the previous American wars, largely because of the negative and cowardly connotations of the terms “shell shock” and “combat fatigue” (Bedford 8). Also, the most popular and mainstream narratives about war prior to Vietnam were largely nationalistic and heroizing in their portrayals of the lives of soldiers. Although one could point to a variety of anti-war examples, the majority of movies, such as The Longest Day, The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen, and Sands of Iwo Jima, offered no representations of trauma to the public, leaving this condition largely in the dark.
The American presence in Viet Nam (I will use the term “Viet Nam” to describe the country itself and “Vietnam” to describe the U.S. war in Viet Nam and its effect on the world) began in the late 1950’s, but the Vietnam War did not truly escalate until the mid 1960’s. By the time the war officially ended, in 1973 (although it unofficially dragged on for several years), the traumatic effect that it had had on U. S. soldiers was undeniable. The public could not help but notice the difficulty that many veterans were having in trying to reintegrate into society. Indeed, since the war, over 700,000 Vietnam veterans have been diagnosed with emotional disturbances or mental illnesses. Trauma has also proven to be responsible for a greater number of deaths than the trauma-inducing violence itself: more than 60,000 veterans have committed suicide since the war, compared to the 58,000 who were actually killed in the war (Bedford 11). These figures, along with the noticeable struggles of returning Vietnam veterans, prompted the field of psychology to focus in earnest on the study of war trauma.
During and immediately following the two World Wars, psychologists throughout Europe and the United States were studying the psychic impact of warfare on the individual. Unfortunately, the United States government and military, in particular, systematically and continually aimed at disparaging and marginalizing the sufferers of this condition despite the evidence that it was an actual medical condition. In one such incident, celebrated General George S. Patton famously slapped and kicked a decorated soldier who had been hospitalized due to the effects of shell shock, calling him a “yellow bastard” and screaming “There's no such thing as shell shock. It's an invention of the Jews" (Shapiro). While this attitude lingered in the military for years, the Vietnam War necessitated progress in the study of trauma. While the war was still being fought, psychologists were rapidly researching war trauma and its symptoms in an effort to provide a consistent medical diagnosis. The American Psychology Association (APA) finally reached consensus on the matter several years after the war had ended in its 1980 Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychology Association by describing the condition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (Trauma: Explorations 4). This universal medicalization of trauma has legitimized the field of trauma studies as a viable area of inquiry. Furthermore, the diagnosis of PTSD has helped to take the shame away from the individuals who suffer from this condition.
PTSD is loosely considered to be an immediate and long-term individual response to a traumatic experience. The symptoms of this condition “are complex, various, and multiple, and their overlap with symptoms of clinical personality disorders as well as schizophrenia has led to frequent misdiagnosis” (Heberle 12). Psychic or emotional numbing, apathy, repressed anger and rage, anxiety, fear, sleeplessness, nightmares, irritability, paranoia, suicidal thoughts, self-destructive behavior, survivor guilt, flashbacks, inability to discuss war experiences, fantasies of destruction, alienation, and a sense of meaninglessness are all among the laundry list of symptoms (12). In its criteria for identifying PTSD, the APA classifies all of the symptoms into three general categories: hyperarousal, constriction, and intrusion. These categories, although fundamentally different, can occur for the sufferer almost simultaneously.
Although PTSD was not officially recognized until 1980, its symptoms entered the public consciousness while the Vietnam War was still going on. Vietnam ushered in a change in the character of warfare from larger battlefields and troop movements, to guerilla warfare and the increased inclusion of noncombatants in violence. As the character of warfare changed, literary representations of trauma also changed. Authors and filmmakers became increasingly interested in the psychological experience of soldiers as well as their post-war experiences attempting to assimilate into civilian society. In the years immediately following the war, various narratives represented the symptoms of the intense trauma felt by soldiers. Michael Herr’s famous journalistic and anecdotal work Dispatches, as well as films such as Apocalypse Now (whose screenplay was also written by Herr) and The Deer Hunter, exposed audiences to the psychological horror of Vietnam. Among the first authors and filmmakers to represent this side of Vietnam in its initial aftermath was Tim O’Brien.
Tim O’Brien’s various works have all touched on the traumatic effects of war. In fact, Mark A. Heberle claims in his book, A Trauma Artist: Tim O’Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam, that all of O’Brien’s works are explicitly focused on the immense effects of trauma. In this chapter, I will examine the representations of trauma in the works of Tim O’Brien by relating them to the three general categories of PTSD symptoms (hyperarousal, constriction, and intrusion) to show how closely O’Brien’s depiction of trauma corresponds to the clinical definition of this condition. I will also discuss O’Brien’s personal relation to his work and characters because he, like Kurt Vonnegut, often writes himself into his narratives in interesting and unique ways. O’Brien’s accurate depictions of PTSD and his unabashed owning of his personal relationship to this condition have helped to move the discourse of trauma away from the pejorative connotations found during the previous American wars. By removing such stigmatization and by bringing the problems of PTSD to the public’s attention, O’Brien and other authors in this field did much to change the public discourse surrounding trauma and how we respond to trauma sufferers themselves.
To begin my study, I will first provide brief synopses of each of Tim O’Brien’s major works to show the extent to which each deals with war and trauma. His first work, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), is what he names his “memoir” of his war experiences. While this is not the only one of his books to have “Tim O’Brien” as the central character, it is the only book that O’Brien classifies as non-fiction. Fragments of If I Die in a Combat Zone were first published as early as 1969, when the Vietnam War was at its climax and O’Brien was still a participant. Additional fragments of this work were published in 1970 and 1972, and the book appeared in its entirety in 1973 (Heberle 41). The narration begins with O’Brien’s life before the war, in his hometown and at college. He then takes us through his army training and his year spent in Vietnam. This memoir is made up of short vignettes that he intended “to be about the ‘realities of war’ in order to fulfill his battlefield vow of writing against armed conflict” (Herzog 40). Although the mood of If I Die in a Combat Zone is extremely dark, there are fewer explicit representations of trauma here than in all of his later work (Heberle 41).
His second work, Northern Lights (1975), was a departure from his war-centered memoir. This work is a novel set in rural northern Minnesota (O’Brien’s home state). The narrative begins with the protagonist, Paul Perry, anxiously awaiting the return of his brother, Harvey, from a tour of duty in Vietnam where he has been wounded in the face, losing sight in one of his eyes. Harvey remains silent about his war experiences and Paul seems largely uninterested. As the plot unfolds, the two brothers decide to embark on a long cross-country ski trip through the Minnesota wilderness. The two get caught in a blizzard and Paul is forced to save the life of his “war hero” brother. While O’Brien himself comments that Northern Lights is “a terrible book” (Herzog 64), it is an important text in that it is “one of the earliest examples of an important subgenre of American Vietnam literature, the veteran’s return from the war to the United States” (Heberle 71). Both brothers are deeply traumatized by their respective pasts: Harvey by the war and Paul by his familial relationships. Although Northern Lights rarely addresses the war in detail, trauma is a salient theme.
Tim O’Brien’s third book, Going After Cacciato (1978), is largely considered his greatest literary achievement. Along with winning the 1979 National Book Award for fiction, this novel “has provoked more critical articles and studies than any other literary representation of Vietnam and has probably been more widely read and more frequently taught in schools and universities” (Heberle 108). The non-linear postmodern narration follows the thoughts and imaginings of an army private, Paul Berlin, during his time in Vietnam. The story alternates between Berlin’s elaborate fantasy world, in which he and the members of his platoon track one of their own who has gone AWOL, and Berlin’s remembering of his traumatic war experiences. These two strands of narrative are intertwined with a series of chapters in which Berlin is standing guard, reflecting on both narratives. The AWOL soldier, Cacciato, is attempting to walk on foot from Viet Nam to Paris. The surreal imaginative fantasy follows the platoon’s journey as they aim to track him down. Going After Cacciato explicitly examines the traumatic experiences of soldiering in Vietnam, and how these experiences affect the emotional and psychic health of the soldiers.
After the critical and public success of Going After Cacciato, O’Brien produced a dark comic novel about the threat of manmade catastrophe. The Nuclear Age (1985) follows the past and present of a severely traumatized man, William Cowling. Cowling, unlike most of O’Brien’s characters, is not traumatized by personal war experiences. Rather, he is troubled by the threat of nuclear annihilation, the disintegration of his marriage, and his experiences of dodging the draft and joining a guerilla anti-war group. As Cowling’s past is revealed, he becomes increasingly obsessed with building a bomb shelter for his wife and daughter. This obsession nearly turns fatal as the protagonist moves closer to complete lunacy.
The Things They Carried (1990), O’Brien’s fifth book, is a return to the struggles of soldiering in Vietnam. The structure of this piece of fiction, which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, is very similar to If I Die in a Combat Zone, in that it presents short vignettes that are often out of chronological order. The protagonist of The Things They Carried is a fictional recreation of the author and aptly shares his name. This closeness between the author and his character blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction. O’Brien has commented that “the genesis of the book was the image of war as something to be carried, a weight of things that derived from his own experiences” (Heberle 178). Many of the themes and vignettes from his previous works, especially If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato, are reworked in The Things They Carried.
O’Brien continued his trend of alternating between narratives set in Viet Nam and those set at home with his next novel, In the Lake of the Woods (1994). The winner of Time’s 1994 Novel of the Year Award, this work blends the genres of “political story, love story, war story, detective story, and, ultimately, mystery” (Heberle 217). In the Lake of the Woods follows an unnamed narrator (presumably another fictional recreation of O’Brien himself) as he is investigating the disappearances of a disgraced politician, John Wade, and his wife, Kathy. It is revealed that John lost an election for Senate because of the disclosure of his involvement in the historic Mai Lai Massacre. In this massacre, several hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians were gunned down by Army soldiers on orders from Second Lieutenant William Calley. After the election is lost, John and Kathy retreat to a cabin in the Minnesota wilderness to escape the public eye. After seven days, Kathy disappears along with a boat and a search ensues. Several days later, John borrows a boat from a friend and disappears as well. This story is revealed through the gathering of “facts” by the narrator. These facts include newspaper clippings, police reports, personal interviews, and actual historical documents. The narrator also provides periodic hypotheses as possible explanations for the disappearances. By the book’s end, John Wade has emerged as an extremely traumatized man who has attempted to erase his past experiences from his life and memory.
O’Brien’s seventh book, Tomcat in Love (1998), returns to the comic voice that he first explored in The Nuclear Age. These two books are also similar in that “each is narrated by a traumatized protagonist who has lost his mind” (Heberle 259). The narrator here is Thomas Chippering, a linguistics professor whose traumatic past prevents him from forging any healthy relationships. This past includes the suicide of his father, a tour of duty in Vietnam, death threats from soldiers he knew in the war, and a failed marriage.
July, July (2002), O’Brien’s most recent work, is a narrative about a 30-year high school class reunion. All of the ensemble cast of characters all seem to be haunted by their pasts, particularly Billy McMann, a draft dodger who fled to Canada, and David Todd, a badly wounded Vietnam veteran. The deaths of loved ones and failed relationships are causes for much of the trauma felt by other characters. For the first time, in July, July O’Brien steps inside of female characters to address the same issues that he has been exploring in male characters throughout his writing career. Some of the characters are brought closer together through their shared traumatic pasts, while others are left irreconcilably apart.
It is clear, through these synopses, that Tim O’Brien has continually tackled issues related to war and, particularly, trauma. In interviews and nonfiction essays, however, O’Brien has continually resisted being categorized as a war writer. This desire to move beyond one defined subject matter is clear with his domestically set books such as The Nuclear Age, Northern Lights, Tomcat in Love, and July, July. However, even in these instances O’Brien’s characters are somehow tied to Vietnam and its effects. As Mark A. Heberle points out, “as his [O’Brien’s] life and his works have moved beyond the war in Viet Nam, traumatic psychic conditions have become more widespread and explicit” in his work (Heberle xix). For O’Brien, war is one of the many experiences that may be potentially traumatic. He often investigates other sites of trauma including childhood fears, deaths of loved ones, and breakdowns of relationships, but, like Kurt Vonnegut, he recognizes that various unrelated traumas often overlap and run together. However, just as in Vonnegut’s work, the war serves as a center for O’Brien’s representations of trauma.
Just as Vonnegut’s work closely mirrored the psychological understandings of trauma following World War II, the trauma represented in the various works of Tim O’Brien closely mirrors the psychological definitions of PTSD. Each of the three categories of symptoms for PTSD, hyperarousal, constriction, and intrusion, are clearly portrayed by many of his characters. While these three categories are intimately linked and often difficult to see as separate entities, there are many instances in O’Brien’s work where each can be identified. I will begin this process of identification and study by focusing on the representations of hyperarousal that appear in these books.
Hyperarousal is often categorized by “chronic and debilitating nervousness, irritation, and sleeplessness” (Heberle 12). It can reproduce “states of self-protective vigilance associated with the original trauma but now maladaptive; at its most destructive, hyperarousal can trigger frenzied homicidal and suicidal episodes” (12). Most of O’Brien’s characters do not exemplify continued states of hyperarousal, but rather isolated outbursts or episodes that reflect these symptoms. There is, however, one of his characters who exemplifies this sustained state: William Cowling of The Nuclear Age.
Cowling’s narration begins with the question to himself, “Am I Crazy?” (Nuclear 3). He quickly concludes, “At the age of forty-nine, after a lifetime of insomnia and midnight peril, the hour has come for seizing control. It isn’t madness. It isn’t a lapse of common sense. Prudence, that’s all it is” (3). This answer and self-justification involves Cowling’s decision to get out of bed in the middle of the night to begin digging a bomb shelter in his back yard. We learn that as a child growing up in the Cold War era, Cowling had an immense fear of nuclear annihilation. As a child, he built a personal ‘bomb shelter’ using his family’s ping pong table and some blankets. Here he would spend hours, refusing to come out. After apparently recovering from this intense fear, the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 causes the 16-year-old Cowling to revisit these fears and suffer from physical and psychological symptoms that include fainting spells. These traumas are later compounded by his experiences of dodging the draft, joining a guerilla anti-war movement, and seeing his marriage begin to fall apart.
Cowling’s hyperarousal is evident through his “endless monologue – manic, paranoid, expressionistic, [and] rhetorically coercive” (Heberle 147). His internal dialogue moves at an unrelenting speed throughout the narration and he continually aims to justify his actions as a sane response to the threat of nuclear war:
The world, I realize, is drugged on metaphor, the opiate of our age. Nobody’s scared. Nobody’s digging. They dress up reality in rhymes and paint on cosmetics and call it fancy names. Why aren’t they out here digging? Nuclear war. It’s no symbol. Nuclear war – is it embarrassing? Too prosaic? Too blunt? Listen – nuclear war – those stiff, brash, trite, everyday syllables. I want to scream it: Nuclear war! Where’s the terror in the world? Scream it: Nuclear war! Take a stance and keep screaming: Nuclear war! Nuclear war! (Nuclear 124)
This crazed, manic internal monologue is the central feature of The Nuclear Age. Cowling is unable to filter his thoughts or control the tone of his internal voice. Throughout the work, Cowling continually has to tell himself things like “Composure” and “Relax” to prevent this internal struggle from reaching the surface. This feature, combined with his persistent and chronic insomnia, shows that O’Brien has crafted Cowling as a hyperaroused trauma sufferer.
William Cowling’s hyperarousal reaches a violent and destructive state as the narrative continues. In an obsessed attempt to ‘save’ his wife and daughter from nuclear war, he physically takes them prisoner in their own home. He matter-of-factly nails two-by-fours to his bedroom door and window while his wife and daughter are inside, all the while reminding himself “I am sane” and “Nuclear war” (Nuclear 128). After barring his family inside, he continues digging his shelter in the backyard. Eventually, his plan turns into a bizarre murder-suicide as he rigs his bomb shelter with sticks of dynamite. We learn that he sees the death of himself and his loved ones as the only escape from the constant fear and pain of his traumatized existence.
This grim plan is aborted at the last moment when Cowling apparently has a moment of clarity and steps outside of his mania. We are left not with a solution or closure to Cowling’s trauma, rather with his resignation to endure his suffering: “To live is to lose everything, which is crazy, but I choose it anyway, which is sane. It’s the force of passion. It’s what we have” (Nuclear 310). He still believes that he is righteous in his fears, yet he resolves not to let them consume his life.
While The Nuclear Age provides an ideal example of a hyperaroused trauma sufferer, the source of Cowling’s trauma is not actual experience in war. To find examples of hyperaroused trauma sufferers in Vietnam, one only needs to turn to the many glimpses and vignettes of soldiering that make up many of O’Brien’s other works. In O’Brien’s actual ‘war stories’ there are countless examples of the symptoms that define hyperarousal. The nervousness and sleeplessness that are indicative of this condition are often mentioned as an inherent part of the life of the soldier. However, it is the violent and destructive aspect of hyperarousal that stands out most prominently in these works.
In O’Brien’s war memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, the author first begins to show how unprovoked violence against civilians and animals was intimately linked to the Vietnam experience. In one such instance, O’Brien describes his Alpha Company walking upon some young boys herding cattle in an ostensible “free-fire zone.” Although the boys were obviously not enemy soldiers, the fact that they were in the free-fire zone allowed for the soldiers to engage them as enemies:
We fired at them, cows and boys together, the whole company, or nearly all of it, like target practice at Fort Lewis. The boys escaped, but one cow stood its ground. Bullets struck its flanks, exploding globs of flesh, boring into its belly. The cow stood parallel to the soldiers, a wonderful profile. It looked away, in a single direction, and it did not move. I did not shoot, but I did endure, without protest, except to ask the man in front of me why he was shooting and smiling. (Combat Zone 139)
The men who were firing away, looking for any outlet for their violent, nervous energy, are symptomatic of hyperarousal.
Similar scenes of brutality are re-imagined by O’Brien in his later works. In Going After Cacciato, a soldier named Stink Harris opens fire on a pair of water buffalo who are harnessed to a cart. In this retelling, the soldiers are in a civilian area, not a free-fire zone. Once again, as the gunman is firing, “He was smiling” (Cacciato 50), suggesting that he viewed it as a reasonable or righteous thing to do.
Another retelling of this experience is constructed in The Things They Carried. In this instance, a soldier named Rat Kiley is attempting to feed a baby water buffalo shortly after his best friend, Curt Lemon, has been killed by a mine. After the buffalo refuses the can of C rations, Kiley opens fire on it, methodically and cruelly shooting off various body parts. All of these scenes are horrifying for the reader in their sheer violence and inhumanity. However, they provide insight into the overwhelming effects of trauma on the minds of soldiers.
While the animal brutality scenes that appear in O’Brien’s works are disturbing in their presentation of seemingly cold-hearted violence, it is the author’s representations of American soldiers murdering civilians that truly show the dangerous potential of hyperarousal. Of these representations, the most noteworthy occurs in In the Lake of the Woods, as it is rooted in the actual Mai Lai Massacre. The novel’s protagonist, John Wade, is fictitiously inserted into the actual Charley Company commanded by Second Lieutenant William Calley. The scene of the massacre, which took place March 16, 1968 in Thuan Yen (Mai Lai was the U.S. military name for the area), is described with brutal realism:
He watched a young man hobbling up the trail, one foot torn away at the ankle. He watched Weatherby shoot two little girls in the face…Simpson was killing children. PFC Weatherby was killing whatever he could kill…Meadlo and the lieutenant were spraying gunfire into a crowd of villagers. They stood side by side, taking turns…The lieutenant shouted something and shot down a dozen women and kids and then reloaded and shot down more and then reloaded and shot down more and then reloaded again. (In the Lake 108-09)
The horror of this event is conveyed with particular attention to the men who seemed to be almost enjoying the carnage. This brand of hyperarousal, with its extremely homicidal outbursts and misdirected violence, shows the actual physical danger that trauma can pose in the life of a soldier and those around him.
While the effects of hyperarousal are often clearly seen through the mania and nervousness of the sufferer, the effects of constriction are usually not quite as salient. The state of hyperarousal “directly contrasts with the shutting down of physiological, emotional, and cognitive responses typical of constriction, which resembles affectless hypnotic trance states in which time and self-consciousness seem to dissolve” (Heberle 12). Constriction is clearly synonymous with the dissociation that had long been related to the study of trauma. Here, trauma sufferers are unable to cognitively or emotionally process the initial source of their trauma.
Constriction appears as a consequence of trauma in all of O’Brien’s works. The countless illustrations of constriction in his work points to the fact that “the ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness” (Herman 1). While any number of O’Brien’s works or characters could be the focus of the study of representations of constriction, none would prove as fruitful as Going After Cacciato. This work is very similar to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five in that it is largely made up of the protagonist’s intricate fantasy world. This surreal, absurd daydream, which occurs in the mind of Paul Berlin, stems from a traumatic experience that causes him great shame and grief.
The narration in Going After Cacciato weaves between the past, the present, and Berlin’s fantasy. The past involves various traumatic experiences that are endured by Berlin, particularly deaths of his fellow soldiers. The present occurs in a series of chapters, all titled “Observation Post,” that are placed between every shift from memory to fantasy. The fantasy itself involves Berlin’s company tracking a deserter, Cacciato, all the way from Viet Nam to Paris. When the narrative is looked at as a whole, it becomes clear that the entirety of the story takes place over the course of one night, in which Berlin has volunteered to man the ‘observation post.’ He is periodically haunted by his past experiences and drifts into a fantasy world of extraordinary incidents and heroic feats.
This elaborate structure begins on the morning that Cacciato, an outsider and ignoramus, has deserted his company. On the previous night, he confided in Berlin that he was going to walk to Paris. The company commander makes the decision to track him down after they determine that he could not have gotten too far in one night. At the end of the first chapter, also titled “Going After Cacciato,” the company overtakes his position and sets up an ambush in order to trap him. From there, we move to the first of the “Observation Post” chapters with Berlin wondering to himself, “What happened, and what might have happened?” (Cacciato 29). The reader does not learn what happened during the ambush until the final chapter, also titled “Going After Cacciato.” We learn that during the ambush Berlin comes upon Cacciato and sustains a complete emotional and physical breakdown. During the breakdown, Berlin “lost control of his weapon and his body, fouling himself and firing his M-16 on full automatic while Cacciato either escaped or was killed – the outcome is uncertain for Berlin, who blanked out during the assault” (Heberle 109).
Berlin’s breakdown is a source of extreme shame and humiliation. His fellow soldiers look upon him in the immediate aftermath saying things like, “Dumb…Stupidest thing I ever seen” (Cacciato 332). Not only did he fire his weapon uncontrollably for a lengthy period of time possibly giving away their position, but he lost control of his bowels in the process. It is this experience that prompts Berlin to begin his dream of walking to Paris that very same night. In his fantasy world, he is no longer the scorn of his fellow soldiers, but an adequate and important member of the company. Also, the fantasy allows for Berlin to explore his own possibility of escape from Vietnam. While the company fantastically is tracking Cacciato through Laos, Mandalay, Delhi, Afghanistan, Tehran, Turkey, Athens, Germany, and, finally, Paris, each soldier is technically AWOL. Berlin can explore his own possibilities of leaving the war behind with his fantasies about following Cacciato.
The dissociative fantasy of Going After Cacciato is an obvious and extreme form of the constriction that is a common experience for sufferers of PTSD. However, constriction takes on many other forms in the work of O’Brien, often times in more subtle ways. In If I Die in a Combat Zone, for example, O’Brien writes with a detached, understated voice that hints at his emotional withdrawal from the war. As I mentioned in the synopsis of this memoir, there are far less obvious representations of trauma in this work than in any of his later works. This feature “may reflect or represent emotional constriction,” as O’Brien wrote much of this piece while he was still in Vietnam, or immediately after he left (Heberle 41). This stands in stark contrast with “most post-traumatic memoirs [which] are written ten years or more after the primal event” (Tal 125). With no time to recover from, or respond to, the emotional constriction that he suffered from in his time in Vietnam, O’Brien can only access his war experiences in If I Die in a Combat Zone in this constricted manner.
Other representations of constriction may be found in some of O’Brien’s characters who seem unable to speak about Vietnam in any significant way. The first such character created by O’Brien is Harvey Perry in Northern Lights. This former football star returns to his rural hometown a wounded veteran from a war no one seems to understand. Whenever any of the other characters begin to broach the subject of Vietnam, or how exactly Harvey lost his eye, the veteran would either drift off into a daydream or change the subject: “he never talked about the war, or how he lost his eye. He would not talk about it. ‘Yes, we’ll go to Nassau,’ he would say instead. ‘Where it’s warm. By god, we’ll have us a lovely time, won’t we?’” (Northern Lights 312). Ultimately, in Northern Lights, “Harvey’s near-silence about Vietnam is symptomatic of traumatic constriction” (Heberle 90).
Constriction of traumatic experience allows for sufferers of PTSD to temporarily block out the source of their suffering. However, “while constriction blocks painful or unbearable trauma-related responses and even effaces memory of the trauma itself, intrusion breaks through the repression, forcing the survivor to relive the horror through fragmentary, asynchronous images and sensations of the original experience, often in the form of nightmares” (Heberle 12). Intrusion is often the most long-term category of symptoms of PTSD, forcing suffers to relive their horrifying experiences continually through flashbacks. Constriction and intrusion, together, form a “cycle of alternating states of numbness and intrusive reexperiencing [that] is common enough in PTSD for most authorities in the field to regard it as intrinsic to the disorder” (Shay 169). This intimate relationship between attempting to forget a traumatic experience, yet being continually haunted by it, is a central theme in much of O’Brien’s work.
O’Brien’s fictional collection of Vietnam vignettes, The Things They Carried, offers countless examples of intrusion. Although the stories in this work are fictionalized, O’Brien has commented that the book was born out of “remembering all of this crap I had on me and inside me, the physical and spiritual burdens” (Lee 200). O’Brien treats his memory, along with his emotions and fears, as a physical weight that must be carried and endured:
They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. (Things 21)
The tangible weight ascribed to memory and emotion reflects the immense intrusive strain that the soldiers could not ignore. This theme is reflected by the many stories within the book, many of which appeared in other forms in O’Brien’s earlier works.
In The Things They Carried, O’Brien rewrites many of the stories he originally represented in If I Die in a Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato. As I mentioned earlier, the killing of water buffalo by soldiers is one such memory that is reworked in each of these texts. The fact that this episode is retold several times reflects its intrusion on the memory of the author. The subject of complete emotional breakdown also makes its way into The Things They Carried, as it did in Going After Cacciato and in the guerilla training of William Cowling in The Nuclear Age. O’Brien’s repetition of subject matter reflects the extent to which intrusive memories have tormented him.
O’Brien not only reflects his own suffering of intrusion in The Things They Carried, he also constructs characters who are haunted by their pasts. In a chapter titled “Speaking of Courage,” O’Brien represents one of the company members’ return to his hometown after the war. This character, Norman Bowker, is endlessly driving a seven-mile loop around a lake thinking about “how he’d almost won the Silver Star for valor” (Things 140). In this haunting memory of Bowker, the soldier who was standing next to him during an ambush, a Native American named Kiowa, has been wounded and is slowly sinking into a field of muck, slime, and human waste next to the Song Tra Bong (river). Bowker feebly attempts to pull Kiowa out of the muck before fearing for his own life and letting Kiowa go. Bowker cannot bring himself to talk about this incident, showing his suffering from constriction, but the intrusion of its memory leaves him unable to forget:
He would’ve talked about this, and how he grabbed Kiowa by the boot and tried to pull him out. He pulled hard but Kiowa was gone, and then suddenly he felt himself going, too. He could taste it. The shit was in his nose and eyes. There were flares and mortar rounds, and the stink was everywhere – it was inside him, in his lungs – and he could no longer tolerate it. Not here, he thought. Not like this. He released Kiowa’s boot and watched it slide away. (Things 149)
Bowker cannot escape from the memory of almost being a hero. O’Brien reveals in the following chapter, titled “Notes,” that “’Speaking of Courage’ was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Norman Bowker, who three years later hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central Iowa” (Things 155). This episode is one of O’Brien’s many representations of the debilitating effects of intrusive traumatic memories.
Another profound representation of intrusion occurs in The Things They Carried, in the chapter titled “The Man I Killed.” O’Brien begins this chapter with a gory detailed description of a young Vietcong soldier who the narrator (the character “Tim O’Brien) has killed with a grenade:
His jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were gone, his one eye was shut, his other eye was a star-shaped hole, his eyebrow’s were thin and arched like a women’s, his nose was undamaged, there was a slight tear at the lobe of one ear, his clean black hair was swept upward into a cowlick at the rear of the skull, his forehead was lightly freckled, his fingernails were clean, the skin at his left cheek was peeled back in three ragged strips, his right cheek was smooth and hairless, there was a butterfly on his chin, his neck was open to the spinal cord and the blood there was thick and shiny and it was this wound that had killed him. (Things 124).
As his fellow soldiers are admiring his kill, O’Brien cannot wash the image from his mind. He begins to project an entire life history onto the dead soldier that includes his indifference to communism and his love for mathematics. This killing, which is described in detail in “The Man I Killed,” is also alluded to in several other chapters including “Love,” “Ambush,” and “Good Form.” O’Brien is haunted by the face-to-face kill in the same way that Bowker was haunted by his inability to save the life of Kiowa.
The continued re-fabrication and retelling of various war stories and memories by Tim O’Brien shows the intrusive quality of his war trauma, as well as that of other soldiers. That is, he cannot bury these painful memories; they forcibly revisit him throughout the course of his life. O’Brien’s representations of this category of symptoms, along with the representations of hyperarousal and constriction, provide poignant and accurate examples of the chronic effects of PTSD. His characters, like the author himself, cannot wash themselves of the burdens brought on by Vietnam. However, O’Brien reflects an attempt to find a level of catharsis or closure to his trauma with his continued revisiting of the source of his suffering. He, like Kurt Vonnegut, metafictionally grounds much of his work in his own experiences. By continually inserting himself into his narratives in creative ways, O’Brien shows his own close relation to his subject matter and unabashedly owns his traumatic experiences. This lack of shame in revisiting his own trauma helps to lift the pejorative connotations placed upon soldiers who suffer from this condition.
The most prevalent technique that O’Brien utilizes to comment on his own traumatic experiences, and how he attempts to move past them, is to describe of the act of storytelling. In fact, one could argue that most of O’Brien’s writing is more about storytelling than it is about the Vietnam War. Many of his characters engage in storytelling as a means of dealing with the horror of their lives. In Going After Cacciato, Paul Berlin knowingly creates an intricate story in order to escape from, or reinscribe, the source of his trauma. Before embarking on his mental fantasy, Berlin thinks to himself, “Yes…a fine idea. Cacciato leading them west through peaceful country, deep country perfumed by lilacs and burning hemp, a boy coaxing them step by step through rich and fertile country toward Paris. It was a splendid idea” (Cacciato 26). Berlin chooses to tell his own story as a means for coping with his trauma.
The Things They Carried offers an even richer source for the trope of storytelling. Two chapters within this text, “Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong” and “Night Life,” are represented by O’Brien as stories told to him by other soldiers. O’Brien reveals that, “Vietnam was full of strange stories, some improbable, some well beyond that” (Things 89). Soldiers tell stories to escape, or to attempt to close, their trauma. O’Brien provides a confession regarding his own storytelling towards the end of The Things They Carried:
It’s time to be blunt. I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented. But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough…But listen. Even that story is made up. I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why the story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth. (Things 179)
O’Brien aims to represent the emotions that he felt during the war, and that he still feels during his writing. For him, this is the essence of trauma. Regardless of whether one can recall or communicate the actual traumatic events of his or her life, the painful emotions and fragmented memories endure. Here, we can see how O’Brien’s literary representations reflect our psychological understanding of the long-term effects of PTSD, as intrusion has been identified as the most chronic and long-term of the categories of PTSD symptoms. For O’Brien, this long-term suffering from traumatic events is the horror of PTSD, and also the motivation for his brand of storytelling. Through this storytelling, O’Brien is able to contribute to the discourse surrounding trauma in ways help to remove the negative connotations from the condition of trauma. By accurately showing how intrusive PTSD symptoms are and by encouraging readers to identify with him and his protagonists, O’Brien has helped increase public understanding of and empathy for the plight of returning veterans.