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The Fog of War

In the last week, I’ve read four books on war and dozens of articles from the New Yorker, National Geographic, Vanity Fair, Foreign Policy and Foreign Affairs. Since starting this blog, I’ve spent hours reading both pro-war and anti-war blogs, FP and IR and Military Affairs websites while listening to NPR and the PBS’ NewsHour. Since I moved to Italy, I’ve talked to Soldiers and Officers, some liberal, some conservative, some pro-war, some anti-war.
Despite this research, this week a friend told me I couldn’t understand war because I’ve never been there. He was half correct; I don’t understand war. Despite all this reading, watching, listening, and talking, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what war is, and what violence means. I don’t think I ever will understand it.

But he was also half wrong. He made the assumption that you can understand war. I don’t think you can. Soldier, officer, war reporter, civilian, politician, academic; none of us has a clue what war is actually about. We all have bits and pieces of the same jig saw puzzle, but none of us can see the full picture.

This isn’t unique to war. In the film Waking Life, a character describes the difficulty in describing anything. Think about a “tiger” and you picture a tiger. But is your tiger, the picture in your head, anything like the tiger in my head? What about concepts like love, truth or beauty? The gap only grows larger when our ideas/concepts become more complicated. War is both concept and thing, is life and reality multiplied. It is immense, almost past our conception.

I recently re-read O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. This is a book by someone who has been to war (Vietnam), a war about as ugly as any war can get. And, he doesn’t understand it himself.

“It’s difficult,” O’Brien writes, “to separate what happened from what seemed to happen...there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue but which represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.”

In his way, O’Brien attempts to recreate his feelings and experiences in Vietnam, as best and as feebly as he can. The main theme of The Things They Carried is how hard it is to understand war, or to describe it. “To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.”

In one interview, O’Brien explains how the mundane details were made up, but the incredible details were based in fact. “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.”
Why does this matter? Ultimately, it is because of the subject matter. War, and the decision to go to war, is not some small, trivial thing. It matters, it's literally a matter of life and death.

No, I’ve never been to war, and I never will go to war. Still, I'm trying to understand it even though I probably never will.

six comments

It’s an interesting read, but one I struggled with particularly because the author did admit to fabricating some of the stories (a fact a soldier of the Vietnam war was quick to point out when they saw I was reading the book). I particularly remember a portion where O’Brien recalls an enemy combatant he killed with a grenade. He focused on humanizing the man and considering who he may have been prior to war; a poet or scholar. I thought this a strange reaction at the time.

When you’re friend and you say you’ve “never been to war,” what are you defining war as? Are you saying Afghanistan or Iraq doesn’t count?

Disregard my last.

Matt- O’Brien struggles with telling the truth and capturing the true emotion of the event throughout his work, and that struggle gives some of the novel its character and conflict.

Will- To clarify, Eric C wrote this post, the one half of On Violence that has not been to war.

@Matty P: It’s interesting you brought up how O’Brien “made things up”, because this is what most novelists do. Even memoir writers must selectively choose what the want to write about, and what to exaggerate or leave out. I love that O’Brien is honest about what he is doing, writing a novel, which is what the book is labeled as. The fact that it feels true, and reads true, is a testament to his skill.

@ Will: Specifially, the above post was written back in May, and the conversation was about COIN with a friend who had been to Afghanistan.

One of the most beautiful pieces of writing in O’Brien’s book involves his discussion about what a war story is and is not – this erases for me the question of fiction vs. fact and the legitimacy of his fictionalized stories. I believe but may be wrong as I read the book some years ago, that his discussion of “war stories” involves the story of Rat, the death of Rat’s buddy, Rat’s letter to the buddy’s sister, her non response, Rat’s reaction to her rejection of his heartfelt letter, including his torturing of the water buffalo. In the end O’Brien points out that Rat’s story is not a war story but a love story. Some war stories are love stories in disguise.