A True War Story
Vela / May 2013
Columbus, Georgia, is, above all else, an Army infantry town, and it showed in the crowd on the Friday night that Tim O’Brien came to tell war stories: it was an audience of windbreakers and baseball hats marked by military insignia; square jaws and tattoo sleeves from shoulder to wrist; and my husband next to me, just back from his first deployment to Afghanistan, his shoulders bigger, his hair cropped short on the sides. I fit in better with the rest of the turnout at the historic Springer Opera House, the awkward literary types in skinny ties, middle-aged women draped in long necklaces, book bags clutched on their laps. I’d left New York City for Columbus just a couple months ago and I was surprised—and relieved—to see this rare species, my species, out of hibernation for what was, admittedly, a rare occasion in Columbus. I hadn’t known they existed here until now.
O’Brien stood slightly hunched at the podium, his characteristic ball cap pulled down over his eyes as he relayed an anecdote that seemed, at first, out of leftfield. “Recently, my five-year-old son, who is old enough to know better, peed into the trash can in our bathroom instead of the toilet,” he said. When O’Brien asked him why he’d do such a thing, he was startled by the insight of his son’s answer.
“It’s like I had two heads,” he told his dad. “One was saying, ‘daddy’s not going to like this.’ But the other was saying, this is gonna be a lot of fun!” The crowd laughed.
“Two heads,” O’Brien said. “Two voices pulling in him equal but opposing directions.” This O’Brien could understand. He’d had two heads the summer of 1968, he told us, a summer where the only certainty in the country was “moral confusion.” It was a divided time: in his conservative household, his mother was for the war, and his father, a World War II veteran, was against it. He was scheduled to go to Harvard for graduate studies on scholarship when he received the draft notice to fight in Vietnam, a war he felt he was too good for, too smart for, a war that just didn’t add up.
“You have to be pretty sure about why you’re going to war, and as far as I could tell, certain blood was being shed for uncertain reasons,” he said, pausing for a moment. “In some ways, it’s not so different from these wars.”
I looked around the room, watching for signs of soldiers or vets bristling at this remark— a raised eyebrow, a smug look, a shaking head. Many of these guys, after all, had been, or still were volunteer soldiers. And this was a conservative military town. Years before, I’d marched in San Francisco against the war in Iraq, gotten in harmless arguments in college about whether or not we had any business being there, but my opposition had always been vague and comfortable. I’d grown up in a liberal household in California’s Bay Area, where, just as we didn’t talk about God, we didn’t talk about war. It wasn’t part of my world; I thought I had no stake in its complexities and concerns, and continued not to when I lived in New York, among journalists, struggling writers and musicians. The distance I’d covered from then until now felt suddenly vast—though a part of me was nodding my head at the connection O’Brien made, another part of me was, in fact, bristling.
I avoided looking over at my husband, but I wondered what he was thinking: He’d gone into the Army, in part, to better understand his country and to serve it, but it had become increasingly difficult for me to see where he stood politically when it came to this war. I knew he was still an NPR-listening Independent. But I also knew he believed war is a necessary part of human existence, and that certain men, athletic, disciplined men like him seeking adventure, were made to fight for their country. Since joining the Army, politics, for him, had lost their sheen. He was dedicated now to more primal values and emotions, emotions that tend to leave fewer open questions: loyalty, protection, fidelity, love. It came down, in many ways, to his job: As an enlisted man in the Rangers, he was not beholden to politics, as officers are. He was beholden to the men above him and the mission and that was all—that is the narrow world enlisted men are trained to look at, and there is a beautiful simplicity to it.
When Tim O’Brien received the draft notice for Vietnam, there was no beautiful simplicity in the decision he had to make, though his choices were clear: to accept his fate, or run from it, as hard and as fast as he could. After a month of carrying around this dilemma like an illness, he got into his car and drove up to the border of Minnesota, where the Rainy River separates his home state from Canada. He squatted for six days in the Tip Top Lodge, a rustic fishing resort made up of a handful of run-down, empty yellow cabins on a peninsula that jutted out toward Canada. An old fisherman ran the place, and he could see O’Brien was a kid in trouble so he gave him just want he needed: silence, no questions, a chance to consider the possibility of freedom on the other side. The problem, O’Brien said, had gone beyond discussion, and the man could see that.
On his last day on the Rainy River, O’Brien went out with the fisherman, the air brittle and cold with autumn. They crossed Canadian waters, and the old man cut the motor just twenty yards from freedom. O’Brien sat there and quietly wept, while the old man sat with a fishing rod in his hands, pretending not to notice. He wept because he knew, with a crushing sadness, that he was going to do what he “should not do”: He would head to Vietnam—not because it was the brave or noble thing to do, but because he was more terrified of being branded a coward than of fighting—and maybe dying—in a wrong war.
It’s an old story, almost impossible for my generation to grock, as we have never, en masse, been forced to do something we vehemently oppose. And yet, we are familiar with the unanswerable questions of war, if we’ve taken the time to ask them. War has hovered around us, the distant but very real background of our adolescence and young adulthood, for thirteen years. Even for those of us most cloistered from its realities, some of it has seeped in—through the headlines, the magazine covers, the uniformed soldiers on plane rides home for Christmas, photos of widows crying over flag-draped coffins on our Facebook feeds. I find myself second-guessing the fact that this war is truly winding down: it’s hard to imagine not being at war.
I’m sure there were soldiers then who went unthinkingly, excitedly into Vietnam, just as there are soldiers now who veer blindly into combat, the invincible young. But I imagine that many volunteer soldiers these days have their own version of that boat ride, freedom and consequence on either side of them as they try to decide. They all have that moment when, as O’Brien says, “intellect comes up against emotion,” and pure reason can no longer guide them. They must have their own warring heads to contend with when they sign that contract, trying to see down the dim, narrow roads that war might lead them to: The pain, the thrill, the disappointment, the pride, the total indifference of war when it comes to whether or not you make it out whole and alive.
And yet, it seemed to me, that once Andrew signed just a few months before we wed, he had a simplicity of purpose, a clean unity of heart and mind that I envied. We’d been together for four years, and we’d been seriously discussing the possibility of him entering the Army for the past year, but the day he signed that contract my body was electric with fear, my stomach sick, my heart a confused place. I had, until now, been protected from this particular dilemma. I’d had the luxury to look at it with a less than honest eye, my vision blurred by distance. But suddenly, as I was staring it in the face—Andrew’s impending departure for a year of training, the deployments he’d go on, the secret world he’d occupy—I had my own questions, my own decisions to make:
Could I marry a soldier? Could I support him as he fought in a war that could turn out to be one of uncertain reasons and certain blood? Could I reconcile that man with the man who is the love of my life, the tenderest man I know, the kind of man who makes me want to be a better human being? Could I forgive him if he were killed? Could I forgive myself?
When I first told my friends in New York that Andrew, who’d grown up in a liberal household like me, was going into the Army, they reacted in one of three ways: with scorn, misplaced sympathy, or the deranged interest of a voyeur hungry for intrigue. I defended the Army in a way that I never thought I would, became protective of Andrew and his reasons, some of which were so deeply personal I’m not sure he could even articulate them to himself.
“Why would he do that?” one friend sneered, her voice thick with derision. “Is he a patriot or something?” I wanted to slap her.
But behind closed doors—deep in the annals of my mind, riding back to my Harlem apartment on the subway at night, drunk on whiskey with Andrew at a neighborhood bar—I questioned his motives: Why why why? I couldn’t stop asking, both him and myself. Maybe war is necessary at times, maybe even this one is, but why did he have to be the one to do its bidding? Why did he have to get dirty? It seemed to me that my heart and conscience had once been orderly and clear, but he had invited the complicated reality of war into our snug, fourth floor apartment, fogged the air with it, making it impossible to see straight from one day to the next—it was a time of excitement and dread; pride and disgust; confusion punctuated, on occasion, by searing clarity.
I regret now, with a pain that is almost physical, the violence with which I came at him: The first time he mentioned it early on in our relationship, I told him I’d leave him if he joined. He stayed quiet about it for the next year, too hurt and afraid to lose the person who meant most to him in the world. But it became clear, eventually, that this was no fleeting ambition. I saw how hard this was for him, to be breaking away from a world of people who loved him, who he was afraid might stop loving him, for this decision he’d made. It was hard to imagine an Army life, but it was far more impossible to imagine my life without Andrew.
He left for boot camp in January 2012, just ten days after we got married, and, alone in New York, I prepared, quietly, for my world to transform, a new future barreling towards me as I drank Sauvignon Blanc during expensive lunches with agents and sat alone at home with Lean Cuisine at night. What I had once vaguely opposed—and thus failed to look at with any real honesty—went under my microscope when I was alone on the couch, reading accounts of PTSD, books about the most violent outposts of the current conflicts, about women soldiers, about the Army life; I’d scan the daily headlines, looking for mentions of soldiers who had been killed. These numbers suddenly meant so much to me, came to signify how the war was going, and what Andrew would be heading into. They began to signify what could happen to him. I couldn’t help but study war’s ugly undersides, its crushing—and sometimes, surprisingly beautiful—truths and inherent contradictions: this war had both killed and rescued civilians; it had made some boys men and others sad, broken-down versions of themselves; it hadn’t done away with the threat of the Taliban, but it had lessened it; it had broken up some marriages, while strengthening others; it had bonded men together, and it had torn them apart.
Andrew and I wrote letters, little missives from distant planets, and we became lifelines for one another in a way we never had been, at least not so deeply. With each passing month apart, I felt closer to him, could begin to envision the Army life, the constant comings and goings, the highs and the lows.
But how does one prepare for their world to transform? Nearly a year after he left for boot camp and his other trainings, we were back together, driving south on Interstate 81, all of our belongings packed up in a U-Haul, heading for a little brick house we’d spend just two weeks living together in before he left for Afghanistan, and I was alone with the shadow of our too brief reunion, a yellow ribbon hanging above our kitchen sink, all my moral questions on mute, my whole being concentrated on one single desire: I wanted him back home alive.
The night he left for Afghanistan, we went out for dinner and ran into a friend we’d known from Maryland, where Andrew had gone to college. He was a Marine officer in Columbus for a six-month training. Almost everything about my husband’s deployments has be kept secret, and I was the only one who knew this was his last night in the States. We chatted for a while, and I felt impatient and frustrated as the minutes ticked away.
On our way out, we ran into a group of newly-minted soldiers with whom he’d trained: they were young and huge, pulsing with testosterone and eagerness to deploy, red-cheeked farm boys who’d never been far out of their home states. I told them all to stay safe, and I felt relaxed and at home with these guys, our lives tied together by a secret we all shared. I was becoming a guest member in their small world, and a stranger in my own, where I could tell no one the most intimate details of my life.
It turns out I could marry a soldier, I could and can love him more than I ever have, love him not despite who is, but because of who he is. It turns out I can live an Army life. But it also turns out that these questions about war don’t ever quite resolve themselves. They want to be asked; I suppose I’ll never stop asking them.
My life as an Army wife is about holding that fragile paradox in my mind at all times without breaking it: I can support, love, and trust my husband, while continuing to ask questions of what he does, and whom he does it for. Because this is where life happens, not at the opposing ends of the political spectrum, but in the hazy space in between; in the silence of loneliness, in the sunrises my husband watches from forward operating bases whose names I’ll never be allowed to know. It’s the space in which military spouses make it through deployments, holding in our hearts the possibility that bad news could come at any time, but living as though it would never, could never happen to us: laughing at stupid movies with women we’ve just met, washing laundry for one, microwaving dinner, buying ridiculous lingerie for their return. I suppose we all live in that space, to a certain degree; we are all fending off that same approaching tide.
That reality is just a lot more vivid in the Army, both overseas and at home. One night during my husband’s deployment, an Army wife friend told me a story as she was dropping me off after dinner, her engine still going in my driveway. On one past deployment, a Sergeant, stuck at home on Rear Detachment, told a group of wives about why he’d so much rather be over there fighting. It wasn’t just because he was missing the action; it was also because here, he had to live with the brutal consequences of that action. One of his jobs back home was to accompany the chaplain to the wives’ doors for casualty notification. In one case, he’d had to wait in his car for a wife to return from errands, and he recalled watching the woman driving in from the grocery store, her hands full of bags, her long blond hair swinging in slow motion across her back as he counted down to his approach – 30 seconds, 29 seconds, 28 seconds before I change this woman’s life forever. Soldiers don’t cry, as they say, but he did then as he was telling the story, and so did all of the wives, breaking open the pain of the casual facts of their lives: living wills, life insurance, power of attorney, funeral songs.
After that conversation I concentrated on that desire for him to come home with the power of prayer, envisioning what it would be to hold him, to smell on him that scent of the Army – of men, sweat, and dirt – that had become, in this short time, the smell of home to me. I knew when I held him the night he returned, that smell, the rough fabric of his uniform, the dog tags clanking against his chest would make me feel safe again.
These are their own kind of war stories, the ones that often don’t get told. “In the end,” O’Brien said that night, “a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you’re afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow.”
Tim O’Brien ended up weaving together a lot of anecdotes that night: one about his best friend blown to pieces, thrown into the air, a black man whose race was suddenly indiscernible; another about a friend who lost his buddy and proceeded to shoot apart a buffalo they stumbled upon because he was full of sadness and sickness and rage; and, in another story, he painted the brief scene of his friend smiling one day out on patrol, stepping into shade from sunlight just as he was hit. He must’ve thought it was the sunlight that killed him, O’Brien said, but it was, in fact, a rigged 105 round. O’Brien tried to find words for the horrible beauty of that moment, how it looked like the sun had gathered around him and was lifting him up to the trees. He remembered so many of these kinds of stories, the true war stories, the moments that you can gather together and still come up, somehow, empty handed, no moral to learn from it all.
“Hear that quiet, man?” a buddy asked O’Brien after telling him a war story when they were in Vietnam together. “That quiet—just listen. There’s your moral.”
After O’Brien had walked off stage and the clapping had subsided, Andrew looked over at me with a stunned expression that was unusual to see on his face—he usually looked poised, a man prepared for anything.
“That was intense,” he said.
He stopped and looked away. This reaction surprised me—we had sat through bloody hour-long battle scenes in war movies that left me sick to my stomach and him invigorated, practically yelling orders at the soldiers on screen: Dude, situational awareness! Oh, that’s right, just lead your men out there and cut yourselves off. Real smart.
“I mean, it’s just—“ he stopped. “I’m going back over there….” He trailed off, as though that was all he were going to say.
And then: “I mean, is it worth it?” I knew, because he is my husband, that he was asking many questions within this one question: Is it worth all this certain blood? Is it worth his blood? Is it worth the possibility of losing a limb, or worse, a life with me and the kids he hoped to raise? Is it worth taking lives and losing friends?
It never truly struck me until that moment that Andrew could have two heads. I was accustomed to being the one who needed comfort and reassurance, and I had guessed, wrongly, that while my heart was a disorderly place, his had been impeccably tidy: neatly folded uniforms, polished boots, the clean, clear heart of a soldier, decided. I had been so obsessed with my own questions, that I’d failed to really see his, ones that may be more honest, meaningful, and terrifying than my own.
It’s not a static experience, being a soldier or a soldier’s spouse. It’s not one big decision but many, small life-changing ones. And that, too, could be said of anyone’s life. Who is ever decided? Whose heart is ever truly clean and clear?
O’Brien said that night that he didn’t get to choose his war. Andrew and I did choose ours, but the decision was made where “intellect comes up against emotion”; the choice was made quietly on our own little fishing boats, and even we might not be able to articulate the reasons behind it.
But I can say that as we left the reading, I was just where I wanted to be that night – walking home with my husband in the brisk air of a late winter evening in Georgia, making our way across the chaos of Columbus’s 13th Street Bridge, the rushing cars sending my long hair flying as we headed toward our little brick house, where we’d pack in as much life together as we could before he had to leave again.