Introduction to Our Second Catalog of Vietnam/Sixties Literature
I hope my work will ultimately have its effect
in understanding the war of living.
The stakes are always high.
We are always almost dead in our lives --
we just don't know it.
-- Tim O'Brien
The literature of the Vietnam War -- a body of work that is vast and has had, by now, a pervasive influence on American culture, touching every genre of writing -- has finally yielded the kinds of literary gems that earlier wars did. The era of our recent past, the 1960s, has produced volumes worthy of comparison to The Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Naked and the Dead. War literature has always been about more than just war itself. In fact, the goals of war and its rationales are the least interesting elements of war literature. Vietnam divided the U.S. as no war had since the Civil War, and the rationales of one side and the other were restated so often that they not only lost their impact, they proved themselves to be beside the point: sheer volume of repetition was insufficient to bridge the ideological chasms; what was lacking was something that reason and rationale alone could not provide.
That something was meaning. It has always been the task of writers and artists to grapple with meaning where facts alone do not provide understanding. What divided the country so deeply about Vietnam was not only that different meanings were ascribed to the war effort but that, more importantly, at a certain point, no believable meaning could be found for it one way or another. The nation foundered on a lack of meaning, and individuals were cut adrift to find it for themselves, outside of the usual societal constructs. This happened in the U.S. during the social, political and cultural upheavals of the '60s -- many of which revolved around protest of the Vietnam war and other governmental policies and institutions -- and it also happened to the Americans who served in Vietnam itself where individuals found themselves no longer securely enmeshed in an established and trusted military order but rather having to create, in some fashion, their own networks of support and, again, meaning.
That the experience of the Vietnam War and the experience of the countercultural upheavals of the Sixties share such a basic characteristic should not be surprising, but somehow it is. We tend to think of the literature and art of the Vietnam war as "about the war" and other literature and art as being about everything else, as if the war were one thing and life something different. But war is life; and at some level life is a war. The questions of mortality that war confronts us with are the same ones life presents us with at all other times, only more obviously immediate. As novelist Tim O'Brien has said: "We are all living in a war. It's just that the wolf isn't quite at the door. The wolf is sort of baying in the woods, in the lives we live in the ordinary world. The wolf is out there baying but it's a ways away. Whereas in a war the wolf is right at the door scratching and the door is unlocked and partly open and you're trying to keep it closed. We just don't recognize it in ordinary life, but with every breath we take, we are one breath closer to the grave."
O'Brien has written several books "about Vietnam," but all of his books are about those larger questions that we all face -- which war may telescope into greater focus but which exist for us all as a common aspect of our shared humanity. The war brings into sharp relief the subtlety, fragility and preciousness of life. "The problems and dilemmas presented in a war setting are essentially the problems and dilemmas of living itself. It's hard to be brave in the ordinary world. It's hard to know what bravery is in the ordinary world. It's hard to know what rectitude is in the ordinary world..." And it is one of the tasks of art to help us know those things. As an artist, O'Brien has bridged a gap in our understanding, going beyond polemics and policy, and taken us to the realm of the heart, where great literature and art may help illuminate the way.
From the peace-and-love psychedelic celebrations of the hippie counterculture to the violence and death of a lonely war thousands of miles from home, the art and literature of the Vietnam era present a powerful picture of a nation convulsed with turmoil, and of the individual links that forge great societal changes. Part of the power of these images, seen from the standpoint of thirty years' perspective, is the realization that not all the darkness was in the war and not all the light was in an idealistic opposition to it: one finds -- in O'Brien's work about the war as in many others' -- a respect for and love of life that is not only touching but, finally, redemptive. And one finds that the artistic and cultural upheavals away from the war were often saturated with images of death: where earlier meanings were insufficient to the task of understanding, new ones had to be created and they had to be capable of addressing the most fundamental issues we face as humans -- pain and death and the question of evil. The insights yielded by experiments with psychedelic drugs would either be destructive or they would have to grapple successfully with those transcendent questions. Often the answers were borrowed from other cultures. LSD gurus Timothy Leary and Richard Alpert rewrote The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which sees death and life as analogous journeys through a series of dangerous and difficult realms of passage -- bardos, in the Tibetan metaphysic. For Leary and Alpert, as for the Tibetan shamans and mystics from whom they derived their images, the passage through life and through the bardos was viewed as a battle to be fought against the spirits and forces that would prevent one from achieving true enlightenment and being free of the cycle of birth and death -- the realm of pain and suffering. The stakes were high; the consequences great. The war of life required courage and virtue. A mistake would consign a soul to the demons. Death was the least of it: suffering, fear and ignorance were the real prices to pay.
What links the writing of the Vietnam War with the other literature of its era, particularly that of the counterculture, is what links all art -- the attempt to fathom the depths of the human soul and to shed the light of understanding where there has been before only darkness and shadow and the uncertainty of being.
And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. 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 are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.
-- Tim O'Brien, "How to Tell A True War Story," from The Things They Carried
Copyright © 1997 by Ken Lopez