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Of Memoirs and Morals

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

War, when taken as a subject, gives a writer many headaches. The worst headache comes from dealing with morality. As I wrote in “No Villains,” great art doesn’t have a message. Great writers know that a thesis belongs in an essay and a moral belongs in a fable; neither belongs in a novel. War multiplies this problem.

The narrator of The Things They Carried agrees:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a rule of thumb you can tell a true war story be its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil...

You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth...”
                                                                        The Things They Carried (pg. 68.)

This passage is beautiful, sad and true.

O'Brien doesn't just tell us about the futility of extracting meaning from war, he shows it to us. Throughout the novel, soldiers ironically extract “morals” from the events around them. Standing over a dead boy, cutting his thumb from his hand, Mitchell Sanders explains why the boy died, “It’s like that old TV show--Paladin. Have gun, will travel.”

Or smoking a dead boy's reefer waiting for his helicopter EVAC, “The moral’s pretty obvious...Stay away from drugs. No joke, they’ll ruin your day every time.” 

Or, simply, “Death sucks.” In other words, there are no morals, or they are ironic, or meaningless, or trite. The soldier's exercise in moralizing is ultimately futile; there is nothing for them to learn.

The problem is, I attacked Jarhead last week for not taking a moral stand. Isn't this a double standard? What does O'Brien do that Swofford does not?

I found the solution in a story on NPR’s On The Media. War correspondent Chris Hedges describes Vasily Grossman's semi-fictional novel about World War II, Life and Fate, as superior to Curzio Malaparte's very similar novel Kaputt because, “Malaparte veers in that long tradition of war pornography. It’s voyeurism. He doesn't have the moral voice that Grossman has. He seeks the extreme, the outrageous...” If I didn’t know better, I’d think he was describing Swofford’s Jarhead.

O’Brien writes a story where the main character cries over killing--or maybe participating in the killing of--a man, about men who come home from war and kill themselves over the guilt. He writes about a father explaining war to a daughter. He writes morally about immorality. O'Brien writes in that moral voice Hedges describes.

Swofford only writes about ugliness and immorality. He writes about rape and perversion, crapping in holes and killing innocent Bedouins, but nothing else. He read about an allegiance to evil and obscenity, and stopped there. O'Brien, on the other hand, knows he and his characters won't find any morals in war, but at least they keep looking.

To close, I want to make a distinction about war, morals and art. Moral art, or propaganda, can be either pro-war or anti-war; neither tells the full truth. Both are moral points of view. As I'll get to in a few weeks, Swofford's book is, I think, an anti-war statement.

three comments

What a coincidence, I just purchased this book. Thanks.


I have just started reading On Violence and, having perused a number of posts, one of the most interesting and valid points raised by the authors is how a memoir is classified as “non-fiction”. As stated on On Violence, it is difficult to contest a personal memoir because it is tantamount to accusing the author of lying, or at least “bending” the truth, presumably in order to make his/her account more compelling to the reader. However, to classify a memoir as “non-fiction” implies it is fact. While it is indeed a fact that a memoir is the personal recollections of the author, it is dubious and possibly dangerous to rely on every such account to be 100% factual. I think we can all agree that it is prudent to combine the reading of a protagonists experiences along with an established historical account to gain both a factual and personal account of war. Failure to consider either of these media would be failure to properly seek understanding of war.

Thanks for making that point – I had never really considered that before.


NA- Thanks for agreeing with the point. While Eric is the one reading and reviewing the memoirs, I sympathize with his points. I try and think back to my experience and I would love to write about it, but I don’t think I could do so truthfully or 100% faithfully.

Which brings me to the genius of Tim O’Brien. Everything he writes captures the feeling of his experience, I got that when I read two of his books. But in a quest for truth, I don’t think personal memoirs can quite capture it.