The immensely powerful lessons and themes at the core of each of these seemingly simple, but carefully constructed stories is what takes this collection from 4 into solid 5-star range for me. Each one encloses a fragile heart that beats with emotional truth. Each is tightly focused on a brief moment in time, a key turning point or choice, a scene or relationship, sometimes in just 2 or 3 pages, and without exception each packs an enormous emotional and intellectual wallop.
Case in point: Bowker's circling the lake for hours in "Speaking of Courage," ruminating on the past, the futility of expressing his pain, and then carrying that to its logical extreme. Bowker becomes the archetypical post-Vietnam vet in his isolation and inability to (re-)connect with life and those who love him after returning home. He carries the past with him as an anchor, and it eventually weighs him down. The quiet desperation of his individual struggle is palpable and paints in relief society's failure to nurture and reintegrate the many soldiers who fought in such an unpopular, and unjust, war. It took many platoons of Bowkers for us to realize what we had to do to lessen the pain of future generations of soldiers--starting with being able to hold simultaneously two previously irreconcilable beliefs: that we can be anti-war without being anti-soldier.
The nebulous, shape-shifting middle-ground that O'Brien carves out between real truth and fictional or emotional truth is aided by his 'break through the fourth wall' technique of naming a central character Tim O'Brien, while being explicit that it is not the author. But it is
the author--kind of. It is the author as everyman, as the unknown soldier, as a part of our collective unconscious. Blurring the lines between truth and fiction transforms the stories from a memoirist's reminiscences to a morality play that resonates with every reader, not just those who wore/wear a uniform. And this is important, because too often war stories, even the most powerful ones, alienate the average reader by creating a closed society of pain, horror and shared experience that those who have not lived through a war first-hand cannot enter. And if we all can't share the horror and bear the burden equally, then we cannot heal and we cannot learn the lessons of history to avoid repeating them.
There is no such artificial barrier here in this collection of short stories that so evocatively describe the small and large cruelties of war, and the soul-destroying but also life-affirming possibilities inherent in facing random, unexpected death while fighting a war that neither the soldiers nor the general population believed in. O'Brien's explorations of courage and cowardice; camaraderie and cruelty; the friendships created and betrayed during war and after it are accessible to all. Where there is ambiguity of purpose, and lies to create a false justification for killing, there is apathy, depression and psychological damage. Character and integrity, or the lack of it--or in other words, human nature--is revealed.
I've not read anything else O'Brien has written (although I will be adding the rest of his work to my 'to-read' list), and so I may be wrong on this, but it is my sense that this is exactly the kind of writing about Vietnam that let a nation so badly scarred by the conflict begin the process of healing. There is a set of books and movies that escalated that process, and I suspect that this one--published in 1990--was among the most important.
In 2008, as the U.S. fights on in Iraq, these lessons will need to be re-taught and the healing will need to begin ... again.