The Things They Carried & Slaughterhouse 5
War as Factual Fantasy
Both The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut, grapple with a soldiers’ experience of war and what it leaves you with. Through a process of interweaving fiction with fact both of these authors bring to life their unique war experiences that ultimately leave the reader with the same message: War is a nonsensical, humbling entity as valuable to human understanding as it is undefinable. Success then is survival, redemption born of the acceptance of what is undefinable.
Both Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim and the soldiers of O’Brien’s Alpha Company use their authority as war survivors to build a floor beneath your feet. Once the reader has trustingly walked to the center of the floor, it is abruptly pulled out from under them and, like Billy, they become unstuck in time on an irreversible journey of self-discovery. Traveling between Tralfamadore with its four dimensional species and the American familiarity of Ilium, New York to war on the European front and the rubble of Dresden, Vonnegut takes the reader on a ride of massive spatial proportions. O’Brien carries the reader from the fields and forests of Vietnam to suburban bliss in the States to the Rainy River on the border of Canada, each destination rife with secrets all its’ own. Entrenched in fields of war, the reader is confronted with senseless violence, a comrade shot for retrieving a teapot from the rubble, another drowned in a shit field, events that force an admission that war is rarely rational. As horror and grief entreat on the reader’s thoughts, solace and insight are offered through fantasy. The Tralfamadorians teach us that we should focus on pleasant moments, while O’Brien relieves us of the responsibility of truth and comforting us with the idea that immortality is an innate faculty possessed in every human mind. Returned to the soil and structure of their homelands, each author’s character faces the challenge of an altered awareness. Billy Pilgrim dismisses the concerns of his family and doctors to shout his insight from any available platform. Tim O’Brien is 43 years old and can’t stop writing about the war, still trying to reconcile his experience with reason. What each location offers its soldier is a unique perspective of human struggle and understanding. The sum total of these parts is an enlightened realization that truth is relative and that survival by acceptance of the unknown is the path to redemption.
In terms of violence, O’Brien’s narrative had a few very visceral moments that went a long way towards relating the awful reality of war on the ground, “Then he took a peculiar half step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there . . .I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines.” (O’Brien, 79), O’Brien and his comrade Dave Jensen are ordered to climb into the tree too peel Curt Lemon’s body off the branches. Vonnegut and O’Brien both invent narrative based loosely on their personal experiences to relay to the reader just how awful and senseless war is. Conveying the insanity of it all is a necessary building block to get to the rest of what war is about. “A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.” (O’Brien, 74) The gruesome details and names (real or otherwise) or needed for the reader to grow an emotional attachment too and understanding of the degree of violence encountered daily by soldiers. We need to hear about the man O’Brien killed with a grenade in My Khe. The man’s jaw was in his throat, his upper lip and teeth were missing. One eye was shut, and the other looked like a star-shaped hole. The gore and the grief and the frustration O’Brien feels are so relevant to getting the reader to understand the utter senseless nature of war.
After each loss in Slaughterhouse 5 we read the echoed phrase, “And so it goes.” (Vonnegut, 27), four simple words signaling approximately 100 deaths throughout the novel. The depressingly high death toll largely desensitized Billy to the war culture and the effect he might have on it. Edgar Derby is Billy’s most genuine friend and losing him seemed an even larger injustice than the other deaths he’d experienced. Billy is despondent and succinct in his announcing Derby’s senseless murder. “Edgar Derby . . . arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot.” (274) Each new tragedy Billy survives seems to further confirm his lack of control, and he meets each loss with a growing sense of powerlessness and chaos. That is a truth worth holding onto, the powerlessness and utter insanity of war, that it is conveyed through Billy and aliens and other agents of war makes this fact no less true. When Billy asks how a planet can live at peace, he is shocked to learn that they know specifically how the universe ends and he immediately questions them as to whether they can, or will, prevent it. When he is told that prevention is impossible simply because “the moment is structured that way” (Vonnegut, 149), so that it can only occur the way it occurs, it feeds Billy’s growing dissension toward the concept of free will and further encourages him to accept things as they come. Billy’s time spent with the Tralfamadorians cumulates to an extraordinary acceptance of violence and death, largely because serenity makes sense when you have no other options, “to accept the things you cannot change”. Billy’s feelings of powerlessness in the midst of war must mirror Vonnegut real life experiences. Neither Billy nor Vonnegut could change the course of the war. It likely served them best to keep their heads down and focus on survival. Ironically even after the war’s end it was still their goal. It was the addition of fantasy to fact that facilitated this process.
O’Brien used fantasy to better explain reality and to comfort himself too. “You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, “Is it true?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.” (O’Brien, 79) The specifics of a war survivor’s story don’t really matter. No one will dispute that innocents died or that some degree of violence and, by consequence tragedy, were necessary. O’Brien had to use fiction to give the reader the most realistic interpretation of war.
“In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. . . you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” (O’Brien, 67-68)
If a soldier gave a clear and concise version of events on war, his credibility would be questioned. “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness.” (O’Brien, 68) War is not clear, it is not simple, it is not easy. So to give an accurate idea of it, the method by which it is told must be chaos and a form of factual fantasy itself.
To achieve any degree of comfort Billy needed to find meaning or reason for the pain and injustice. His answer to rationalizing war, something you cannot do successfully, “(this story) is a failure, and had to be, since it was written by a pillar of salt.” (Vonnegut, 27), was to create Tralfamadore and its four dimensions. His fantasy made his reality make sense. Tralfamadorians do not believe in free will, to them “all time is all time” (108). Earth with its measly three dimensions can grasp the concept of time only in a linear sense. The little green aliens of Tralfamadore pity earthlings, because human death seems a permanent, inevitable end, their last and only view through the narrow pipe of their dimension. To Tralfamadorians the moment of death is no more permanent than any other moment. “On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments.” (150) Because war, like glaciers, is inevitable, it serves a soldier best who can accept that. Instead of worrying about the unavoidable ugliness and the injustice and nonsense inherent to war, we just need to survive it then spend what time we have left looking for and at the positives. Vonnegut wrote stories and invented fantasy to come to terms with what he’d been through, Billy is the vehicle for Vonnegut’s cathartic journey of survival at home post war. Billy’s fiction laid over Vonnegut’s fact is what makes this novel an enduring read for the mainstream. We know Vonnegut and O’Brien both have the implicit authority that warrants our attention, but it is there manipulation of fact that gives us the most honest understanding.
If the reader is worried about the exact truth of the specifics then they’re missing the message. War isn’t just senseless violence, it isn’t an invented fantasy written with malicious intent. Both O’Brien and Vonnegut sacrificed a lot during their time in service, and even afterward once they returned home. It is the struggle of every veteran to explain war and to explain their place in, as well as what they got or learned from it.
“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also 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.” (O’Brien, 76)
How you come to this realization doesn’t matter, only that you see it, and if O’Brien is good at his writing, maybe you feel it too. O’Brien doesn’t know how to do war justice. He admits throughout the novel that war is a very difficult thing to write about, an impossible concept to make people understand and believe, by interweaving his fact with fantasy, and violence with virtue, O’Brien does a more effective job of telling the story. O’Brien is looking for meaning and purpose for the things he did and the atrocities he saw. He wants it to matter that his friends died, that lives and villages were destroyed. The specific names and locations, the exact truth of the violence, none of it changes the message. Those smaller details don’t change what O’Brien endured or what he learned, and they absolutely cannot detract from the few positives he’s found amidst the chaos. O’Brien blends together fact and fantasy to tell a whole truth, one that gave him comfort to put down on paper, even if it was half truths and ugly and full of failures. War is a unique experience, so perhaps to tell it, requires a unique truth. O’Brien tells his story to help himself as a form of therapy, if a reader gains anything from, then that is an added bonus.
War forces its involuntary participants to constantly redefine their idea of normalcy. Humans seem to possess an inherent need to make things logical, to experience life through a series of definitive concepts, comforted by their familiar expectations. Vonnegut redefines normal with an additional dimension on Tralfamadore, Billy Pilgrim finds solace using alien logic. O’Brien redefines normal through fraternity, the shared experiences and reactions of his comrades. What binds these novels together is their method and message. The message is that the senseless violence and the specifics of truth don’t matter when rationalizing war because war isn’t rational. “Right spills over into wrong. Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery. The vapors suck in. You can’t tell where you are, or why you’re there, and the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity.” (O’Brien, 78) War is a fantastic truth, and as such, requires a method of blending both fantasy and fiction to tell it accurately. War is hellish nonsense, “truth” is a relative term, and to understand war is to accept that you never will. Each author demonstrates these points by taking personal narrative and weaving the outrageous and fantastic through it.
Edward Darby is shot over the theft of a teapot recovered in the rubble of Dresden. Curt Lemon is blown up by a buried mine while horsing around with a friend. Roland Weary dies in a crowded boxcar, his body cradled in the arms of a stranger. Ted Lavender was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe. Billy Pilgrim experiences death for a while, a violet light and a hum. “There isn’t anybody else there. Not even Billy Pilgrim is there.”(Vonnegut, 181)
“The dead were everywhere. Some lay in piles. Some lay alone.” (O’Brien, 229)
“So it goes.” (Vonnegut, 181)
That people die in war is immaterial. Everyone dies, nobody listens and it is the stories that save us. Vonnegut invents the alien planet Tralfamadore with a species that lives in 4 dimensions to better process and share his war experience. O’Brien openly admits to the reader that many parts of his narrative are pure fantasy, it is the telling of the story, not its specifics, that matter. The pervading message the authors leave with the reader by way of their writing is that war is not a clear and simple truth, there’s no concrete reasoning to justify insanity, no moral it can succeed at teaching you. As the Tralfamadorians tell Billy Pilgrim, “There isn’t any particular relationship between the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time.” (Vonnegut, 112) Their only success, if you can call it that, is creating a cathartic vehicle to facilitate their healing. These novels of war are really about the yearning for peace aimed at human understanding, not some definitive understanding of war. As O’Brien begins his last chapter, “But this is true too: stories can save us.” (213) Just by imagining stories that never happened, and embroidering upon some that did, O’Brien and Vonnegut can allow us to experience the terror, the sorrow, the adrenaline, the crazed laughter, and the crippling frustration vicariously. The victims of war are real, and they’re still 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, 213)
O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York. First Mariner Books. 2009. Print.
Vonnegut, Kurt. Slaughterhouse 5. New York. RosettaBooks LLC. 2000. Kindle eBook.