Summer reading: Ernest Hemingway & Tim O’Brien

Ernest Hemingway
Soldier’s Home

Tim O’Brien
Speaking of Courage

As a small child I remember hearing my father call out sharply in his sleep; there was no pattern to these nightmares, they just seemed to surface now and then. In the morning, at the breakfast table, my father would apologize, explaining that it had only been a bad dream about the War. That was all he would ever say. He had served in General George Patton’s Third Army during the Battle of Bulge, and more than 15 years later was still struggling with his memories.

My father’s war is now widely considered “The Good War”; the veterans of Korea and Vietnam dealt with their ghosts without the same public sympathy or understanding. In the summer of 1993, in Florida, I listened as a small support group of Vietnam veterans talked about their feelings in advance of President Bill Clinton’s visit to the Vietnam War Memorial Wall in Washington.

Most didn’t really care that Clinton had avoided the draft; a few were cynical or angry. Most in the group cherished the Wall as a much-delayed and much-needed validation of their sacrifices for the country. Speechmaking and presidential visits some nearly 20 years after the fall of Saigon did not move them.

My general impression at the time was that many of the men had not adjusted particularly well to civilian life; some still wore camouflage, others were being treated for mental and physical ailments (more than one blaming their health problems on exposure to Agent Orange). While veterans in a support group are more likely to be troubled (almost by definition), other Vietnam veterans I’ve known have told me that returning from an unpopular war to an indifferent or hostile reception proved very difficult.

Now today’s veterans find themselves rotated back to a country cushioned from the realities of war. Iraq has been a strange conflict, with no clear battlefields and with irregular combatants; military scholars would call it a “low-level intensity war,” but try telling that to American troops who face a dangerous and violent insurgency. Many of those Americans currently serving have been drawn from National Guard units; they are often weekend warriors, middle-aged men and women called into active duty, sent thousands of miles from home, pulled from civilian routines and domestic concerns, sent into harm’s way with little preparation.

Some Iraq veterans have told me of their readjustment troubles—many have a hard time driving in traffic, spooked by oncoming cars after months of anxiety on the roads of Iraq and a constant fear of suicide bombers, ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).

No doubt the experiences of these men, and, increasingly, women (with their de facto introduction into combat) will be reflected in the fiction of the next several decades. Stories are a way of dealing with the past, and the pain; since Homer’s Odyssey authors have touched upon the conflicts a warrior feels in returning to the home he left behind, after what he has seen and done, and how he must take up the threads of an interrupted life. These stories can also have some carthartic effect for both the writer, and the reader, a way (as Aristotle first theorized about the experience of viewing a tragic play) to confront and purge the negativity of the past.

Stories of return

Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Return” focuses on a veteran of the Great War, Harold Krebs, who has made a somewhat delayed return to his hometown in Oklahoma (“the greetings of heros was over”); Tim O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage” (which has a coda in the brief story “Notes”) follows a burnt-out Vietnam veteran, Norman Bowker, on a peaceful July 4th in a Midwestern town.

By the time Hemingway’s story appeared in print, many Americans had soured on the War to End All Wars. It was no longer seen in simple, heroic terms. (Indeed, much of the backing for America First and the isolationist movement before World War Two had its origins in American disenchantment with its first war on European soil.)

At first Harold Krebs “did not want to talk about the war,” but later, when he does, he finds few takers for the truth about Belleau Wood and the Argonne; to be listened to, Hemingway tells us, he must lie. Although he doesn’t do a particularly good job of it, Krebs finds that his exaggerations carry an internal cost.

Krebs acquired the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration, and when he occasionally met another man who had really been a soldier and they talked a few minutes in the dressing room at a dance he fell into the easy pose of the old soldier among other soldiers: that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time…

Krebs has been transformed, hollowed out, by what he has experienced. He is detached, unwilling to engage with anything requiring emotional engagement. He desires the pretty girls he sees on his town’s streets, but will not pursue them because he did not “want to have to do any courting.” Krebs shies from any commitment: “He did not want any consequences. He did not want any consequences ever again.”

Krebs finds comfort only in the adoration of young sister, Helen; he can not deal with his very conventional parents who worry about his lack of interest and ambition. Krebs can not even bring himself to tell his mother that he loves her.

“I don’t love anybody,” Krebs said.
It wasn’t any good. He couldn’t tell her, he couldn’t make her see it. He had only hurt her. ..

Krebs makes a clumsy apology, goes through the motion of praying with him mother, and resolves to move to Kansas City and get a job to silence his parents. It is only, we can see, so that he will not have to engage. “He wanted his life to go smoothly.”

The first time I read O’Brien’s “Speaking of Courage,” I thought immediately of “Soldier’s Return” and how Krebs and Norman Bowker both find that small town America prefers to remain ignorant about the wars fought in their name.

The town could not talk, and would not listen. “How’d you like to hear about the war?” he might have asked, but the place could only blink and shrug. It had no memory, therefore no guilt. The taxes got paid and the voters got counted and the agencies of government did their work briskly and politely. It was a brisk, polite town. It did not know shit about shit, and did not care to know.

Bowker does know, and as he drives his father’s Chevy aimlessly around the town’s lake on Independence Day, he muses about how he “could have won the Silver Star for valor” the rainy night he was pinned down in a flooded “shit field” near the Song Tra Bong river. There is nothing heroic in the horrific scene he remembers—the “terrible stink” and the gruesome death of his buddy, Kiowa—and he is left feeling unclean and not “as brave as he wanted to be.”

We are left with a resolution, of sorts. After Bowker’s “twelfth revolution” around the lake, the fireworks begin (“the sky went crazy with color”) and he stops, parks the Chevy, and wades into the water, “without undressing.” It is a moment of cleansing, of “washing off the shit,” a rebaptism:

The water felt warm against his skin. He put his head under. He opened his lips, very slightly, for the taste, then he stood up and folded his arms and watched the fireworks. For a small town, he decided, it was a pretty good show.

O’Brien will not leave us with this relatively happy closure; for in the very next story in his collection of stories,The Things They Carried, entitled “Notes,” he tells us that “Speaking of Courage” had been revised from its initial version, one inspired by Norman Bowker (we wonder: a real person? A friend of O’Brien’s?) And O’Brien tells us that Bowker had “hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central Iowa;” as he ends this brief epilog, O’Brien (the narrator) confesses that the story of the Song Tra Bong shit field wasn’t drawn from the memories of Bowker, but from his own.

We feel somehow cheated. What is the truth? Is it “Tim O’Brien” (a fictional character) who is relating this to us, or Tim O’Brien (the narrator and author). What are we to believe? We are a long way from the flat, spare tonality of Hemingway’s Harold Krebs. Yet O’Brien has given us a story that, to paraphrase John Updike, has caught the ambiguity and opaqueness of memory, of life itself.

It becomes a story hard to forget.

This is the third in a series of Summer Reading: Short Fictions essays for Summer 2006. I’ve chosen to write about a number of my favorite short stories and their authors:

Short Fictions: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Short Fictions: Doris Lessing

Short Fictions: Ernest Hemingway & Tim O’Brien

(You can find some of my own short fiction here).

The links for the reviewed stories:

Ernest Hemingway: “Complete Short Stories”

Tim O’Brien: “They Things They Carried”

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders

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