Learning Compassion from Story-Truth: Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

Empathy is one of humanity’s best qualities. And it can also be the most neglected. When insurmountable obstacles confront a community, understanding and compassion from neighbors is often just enough to pull them through.

But what if the obstacle is something few can understand? What if it’s trauma from a perplexing and complicated war?

Earlier this year, ArtsWestchester featured Tim O’Brien’s war novel The Things They Carried as part of The Big Read, a program designed to encourage reading in communities nationwide. Attempting to increase in understanding and compassion, O’Brien’s partially-autobiographical work was intentionally chosen by ArtsWestchester so that readers could encounter some of the issues our servicemen and women face.

O’Brien himself explains that the similarities between the war in Iraq and the war in Vietnam are not primarily political, but human:

“Obviously there are differences [between the war in Iraq and Vietnam]” he said, “chief among them the absence of the draft. But there are enough similarities. These are wars in which there are no uniforms, no front, no rear. Who’s the enemy? What do you shoot back at? Whom do you trust? At the bottom, all wars are the same because they involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.”

Distancing his work from politics, O’Brien’s writing and public comments have continuously centered on the personal nature of war and its effect on individuals and relationships. Even in Hollywood, a move has begun from the mere “reenactment of battles” towards the personal.

While a war may be considered justifiable, the negative impact combat has upon the human soul is poorly understood. O’Brien attempts to draw out the truths of this impact by issuing his readers into the experience.

Rather than merely recounting events, O’Brien modifies the “facts” of his own memories, shifts the chronology of the story and emphasizes mystery and confusion, forcing his readers to emotionally face the psychological shock of his experience.

He explains his technique in The Things They Carried by distinguishing between happening-truth and story-truth. The former pertains solely to facts, whereas the latter attends to emotional truth and the pursuit of meaning.

The two “types of truth” seem pretty clear. Yet literary critic Tobey C. Herzog reports that O’Brien blurs the lines not merely in his writing but also in his public life.

In front of an audience at Wabash College, while O’Brien elaborated on an event depicted in his book, he allowed listeners to assume that the details he related were actually true. Because The Things They Carried is based on his life, the audience implicitly believed (without evidence to the contrary) that the events O’Brien described had actually transpired:

. . . O’Brien paused as the Wabash audience nodded knowingly at the story’s conclusion: Tim O’Brien had chosen to enter the army, to fight, and not to flee across the river into Canada. Then, after a dramatic pause, O’Brien confessed: the story was made up . . . the incidents on the Rainy River, so realistically described, simply did not occur in O’Brien’s own life.

According to Herzog, O’Brien argues that this deception introduces audiences to “the complex intermingling of facts, fiction, truth, lies, memory, and imagination . . .”  The realization of abstract truth is “truer” than facts; the human element deeper than the form.

O’ Brien recognizes that human beings empathize best when they share in other’s experiences. Since fictionalized stories convey abstract truths in a noticeably defined way than mere reporting, his work uniquely functions by “cutting to the chase.” He forces us to view trauma in war on a deeply personal level by rapidly putting us in uncomfortable positions as we read.

Many listeners in the Wabash audience were understandably offended by O’Brien’s trick, wanting to hear his “actual war-related experiences,” instead of grossly elaborated ones.

But at this time in our nation’s history, as we watch our friends and family go off on their tour of duty, seeking understanding of their war experiences may be one of the most compassionate thing we can do. O’Brien’s story-truth brings to light some of these experiences and ushers us into emotional realities otherwise inaccessible to civilians. ‘