In the perverse manner of a bored and immature conscript in peacetime, I spent my weekends off in 2015 and 2016 consuming as much media about wars as I could. The Vietnam War was a favourite theme. Everything was so familiar to me: the vulgar cadence songs in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket declared themselves ancestors to the ones we inherited in the Singapore Army; Pte. Chris Taylor’s dog-tag sticking to his neck after hours of sweat in Platoon (1986) reminded me of the recurrent heat rashes we all got outfield. Even the way men react to enemy fire recalled my own instructors, and the sheer fatigue of each week spent in the jungle.
Thankfully, the similarities ended there. After all, I wasn’t fighting in a war, and I could still bring books into the barracks – all the while pretending to myself that being able to strip and re-assemble my assault rifle made me a patriotic hero. So I looked for, and found, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (1990), which accompanied me on the interminable hours in the live-firing range. Like the movies, it insists: ‘a true war story is never moral.’ And insists again:
‘If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.’
Of course, as both Wilfred Owen and military clichés remind us, the real ‘victim’ of the lie is the dead soldier. Yet the silly strength of O’Brien’s ‘true’ war stories is their ability to make us believe how beautiful dirt is, and in how much courage narrative gives us when we’re far enough away from the events it is based on. Away from any real theatre of war, I nevertheless felt convinced to perform nobly for my bored friends and family – ‘the infantry is so tough, I should’ve malingered like <person X> instead’, or ‘yeah I gave up my foot for the country’ (I didn’t even catch footrot, I had just bruised it kicking a root). To rehash some tired platitudes, O’Brien’s power is more than his ability to formulate a world that isolates narrative from reality, but also consists in his capacity to transport us away from the latter. The Things They Carried carried me through moments of isolation – isolation that inevitably washes in when you pluck an irritable and unready boy fresh out of school, throw him into a group of other angry young men and tell him he has to earn their respect. Lieutenants in armies worldwide still famously fail to accomplish this, let alone the enlisted corps that can’t hide from their men once commissioned officers have long disappeared into their field offices. I was a sergeant, and so enlisted, and so for the first time in my life I truly had nowhere else to go. Every tomorrow was something different, and I had to roll with the (sometimes literal) punches.
But later, in those long, silent hours (quiet for ‘tactical’ reasons) marching through the green, I imagined that someone who had come before me can sympathise, and that if I have it hard, someone else has had, and will have, it harder – including my own troops:
‘They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs…’
I took each step as I did each clause here, with no wailing but some gnashing of teeth. O’Brien gave me a way to think and talk about these muddy memories in retrospect: with more modesty than I had managed, but we shared that tone of relief all people speak in when we no longer have to do something difficult.
Now, over 3 years after I finished my term of service, I find myself in isolation again, this time with the law itself putting a cordon around my movement. At time of writing, I am serving day 7 of a 14-day isolation notice. I realised that I have finished 8 terms of a degree in English (with my tutors, all 4 of whom would probably disapprove of my mawkish review). I have used the houseparty app 3 times in the past 6 days for ‘virtual pubbing’. I sleep 4 hours a day, twice a day owing to jetlag. I am putting numbers on things to have a grasp on time passing, but even that is slowly slipping away from me. So for some calm and control I returned to O’Brien, but the things I value about The Things They Carried are no longer the same. I am more cynical now; more self-reflective about how much power books and movies and poetry really have about the way they move me. In the recent, crazy days, people have rightfully called out Waterstones supremo James Daunt for attempting to argue that book retailing should go on business-as-usual. Opponent arguments have gone many ways, including the fact that Audible – recognising the essential importance of books – has now made hundreds of volumes available for free to stave off our cabin fever. Good things, and good conversations about how important books and movies are to our cultures. Perhaps a sign that I should watch, read, or listen to something new.
Yet I still go back to The Things They Carried. It must be said that I hate to think about metaphors of ‘war’ in relation to the novel coronavirus. Susan Sontag years ago had already warned us that ‘military metaphors contribute to the stigmatizing of certain illnesses and by extension, of those who are ill.’ But military metaphors are productive because they are triumphalist, so they persist with us as we look forward to eventual victory over an illness that has and will continue to rob us of the vulnerable in our midst, not to mention countless milestones in our lives. As NHS England curiously declares ‘outbreaks of altruism’, O’Brien gives the time of day to the heroes in our midst: heroes because, like the soldiers who have been sold pipe dreams of glory, they are just like us.
‘They carried all the emotional baggage of [women and] men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing – these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight.’
As he takes us away from the gore and the dirt, O’Brien brings his camera eye-level with the people who push past the rubble for the rest of us. I can’t look away. Once again, I have nowhere else to go. Auden would have us believe that violence is ‘history’, that 30s slang for public affairs ‘that never sleeps or dies, / and, held one moment, burns the hand’. O’Brien will burn your hand while letting you watch how he does it. In the time of Coronavirus, he will prove that loving yourself can also come through loving other people.