Because we seem so addicted to war, here are a few stories about the soldiers who fight them.
Soldier’s Home, and How To Tell A True War Story
Ernest Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home and Tim O’Brien’s How To Tell A True War Story are both about the difficulties soldiers encounter in talking about the experience of war. The narrator in each story tells the reader that in order to come close to telling the truth about war, one must lie. However, the form in which Soldier’s Home is told keeps the reader at the same distance as the narrator, while War Story grabs the reader by the eyeballs and drags him right in.
In Soldier’s Home, told in third person narrative, the narrator lists the events of Krebs going to war, being overseas, and coming home in a dry, objective form. The narrator tells us about a picture of Krebs and some girls overseas and how Krebs found the European girls easier to be with, even though they didn’t speak the same language. More than likely, the language barrier between them, and the fact that the European girls are also in the war zone, are the very things that created a feeling of closeness for Krebs. In Europe, the girls were also experiencing the war even if they were not experiencing actual combat, and the fact that they cannot speak in Krebs’ language relieves him of the obligation to try. What’s left between them is a silent, shared experience that creates a bond, and its a shared experience that words—which could easily complicate feelings—cannot destroy. When Krebs returns home he cannot share the same closeness with American girls, nor does he try. Words would be needed, and as Krebs says, he cannot tell of his experiences except by lying, and he found the lying burdensome. On his return home, Krebs’ mother makes an outward attempt to share in her son’s experiences of war by asking him to tell of them, but when he tries, she usually dozes off.
In the initial listing of these events there is a shellshocked quality to the people in the story, including Krebs’ mother. There is a sense that the townspeople do not fully know how to relate to their returning soldiers, and the returning soldiers do not know how to relate to them. The author’s objective form lends itself to this feeling by removing the reader from the center of the action which allows us to observe without too much emotional effort.
In the second half of the story, Hemingway switches to dialog almost exclusively. The dialog is between Krebs and his mother, and Krebs and his sister. Since the reader has been told of the events in his life from Krebs point of view, even though told by a third person, when we come to this dialog section, the reader is sitting at Krebs’ side. We learn of Krebs’ father only through the dialog of Krebs and his mother, but it seems clear to Krebs and the reader that the wishes that Krebs’ mother attributes to the father, are really her own. Therefore, we get a larger picture of the mother’s controlling nature. We also get a picture of an acquiescent father who leaves such decisions to his wife, and who has little contact with his son. The author need not tell us this directly. His form of disclosing the details of the story says it for him. The form also holds true for Krebs sister who, we learn through dialog, is young and natural with Krebs. Krebs feels no need to talk to his sister about the war or anything else that may be difficult for him. As her older brother, he already has her love, and the activity she asks him to join her in is non-verbal and something to which he can relate.
Because of this objective form of listing events and disclosing through dialog, each incident described in the story has little effect on the reader in and of itself. Rather, it is the accumulation of incidents and dialog which, by the end of the story, gives the reader the story’s emotional impact. It allows the reader to experience the disclosure of information almost in the way that Krebs himself is experiencing it, little by little. By the end of the story, we not only know why Krebs says he hates his mother—then recants—we know why he must leave home, and we are ready to leave with him.
In War Story, told in first person narrative by a Viet Nam veteran, we have an entirely different situation. Here there is no avoiding the middle of the fray. The narrator claims to find it difficult to tell a true war story, then immerses the reader in emotionally charged, descriptive passages that at once begin to stun. We are not just accumulating information here before we begin to feel horrified or saddened. The narrator’s florid passages of death and sunlight, and of the senseless killings of boys we have already gotten to know—even if only slightly— are almost sensual in their beautiful, but devastating detail. We need not wait until the end to experience the impact of war on the narrator and the characters of the story. The narrator’s shifting time frames and piecemeal disclosure keeps us straining for the rest of the details with our mouths hanging open. Nor does the narrator simply tell us a soldier must lie if he intends to come close to telling the truth about war. Instead, through dialog, a soldier tells the reader a true war story of soldiers on a silent mission, of boys choirs and cocktail parties, of glee clubs and a full scale blitzkrieg. It is only after the reader has experienced the eerie story and was affected by it, that the soldier then confesses he has lied about some of the details in order to help the other soldier, and consequently the reader, know why one must lie.
The detachment of the people back home is not simply recounted objectively here, or shown in various ways through dialog, as in Hemingway’s Soldier’s Home. In O’Brien’s War Story we are shown a consequence of that detachment by witnessing the senseless torture and killing of a poor beast by a soldier who has not received an answer to his letter. Of course, neither the reader nor the soldier has any way of knowing whether the letter that prompted the slaughter of the beast, ever actually reached his dead buddy’s sister. Nor do we know what her reaction had been if it had reached her. It may well have inspired grief so overwhelming that she could not respond. One could even reasonably believe her responding letter was simply lost in the mail. However, the reason she failed to respond could just as easily be the revulsion she feels which is similar to the reader’s. It is simply assumed by the soldiers that the sister chose to ignore the letter, attesting to the soldiers’ further feelings of isolation from society. The lurid details of the killing of the beast while the other soldiers look on, help the reader sample the deranged consequence of both the isolation and the war. The reader does not fully sympathize with the soldier however. The reader sympathizes with the beast as if it is a more innocent victim of war than are the soldiers. We are more horrified by its torture because it seems more senseless even while feeling the soldier’s pain. In a sense, this adds to the isolation of the soldiers, because the brilliant and vivid telling has not made us feel closer to them, but rather makes us realize how far apart we really are. The reader is horrified by the events described in the story, and further detached from the people in it who will one day become someone’s neighbor, friend, husband, and father.
While both story forms ultimately help the reader achieve an emotional understanding of the characters and circumstances, the authors have achieved that goal in diverse ways, each appropriate to the content of the story. In War Story the reader is emotionally immersed in the jumbled telling and vivid details of the story to sample war’s hell, chaos, and madness before s/he has a chance to protest. In Soldier’s Home the reader is gently walked along, to some extent, in the young man’s shoes. When we come home to the alien world he once knew, the reader feels the accumulated effect of his alienation.
In the end we are left wondering what will become of Krebs. The reader can only guess at the answer. Since War Story is told twenty years after the events in the story, we already know that the teller is still unable to let go of his war experiences, because the details have been described as if they were still before his eyes and ears. He has brought the war home with him, and it promises to remain with him for a very long time.
Thea Halo is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Not Even My Name, a former news correspondent for WBAI in NYC, and a former producer for public radio in upstate NY. Not Even My Name was instrumental in garnering the first state-level resolutions in the U.S. that recognized the genocide of the Pontian and other Asia Minor Greeks and Assyrians. She was a co-sponsor and driving force, along with Prof. Adam Jones, of the International Association of Genocide Scholars (IAGS) resolution that affirmed the Ottoman Genocides of Pontian and other Asia Minor Greeks and Assyrians as comparable to the genocide of the Armenians. She has also published a collection of poetry, and a number of Thea’s historical papers on the Genocides of Greeks and Assyrians have been published in books on the Ottoman Genocides. In 2009, Thea, along with her mother, Sano Halo, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 105, were awarded honorary Greek citizenship by the Greek government. In 2002, Thea was awarded the AHEPA Homer Award and, in 2012, the Association of Greek American Professional Women honored Thea and Sano for their “Profound contribution to Literature and to Hellenic Cultural Heritage and History.” Thea has also won numerous awards for her poetry and literary essays.