Photograph: Soldier Reading a Book by JoAnn S. Makinano, April 8, 2007 (DOD 070408-F-5855M-080)
MIKE WOULDN'T SIT WITH HIS BACK to the door: "I can never be sure who is on the other side," he explained. I'd seen this before with my cousin Frankie, a veteran of Vietnam. Once at lunch, Frankie switched chairs so he could face the windows of the quiet Santa Monica café I'd taken him to. Twenty years later, in a junior college classroom, Mike sat next to me in the circle of desks where I'd gathered the students to discuss Tim O'Brien's novel The Things They Carried. Once Mike had a clear view of the front and back doors, we continued.
We were analyzing the oft-anthologized chapter "How to Tell a True War Story" in which O'Brien debunks the simplistic myths of heroism fed to Americans through Westerns and war films, replacing redemptive clichés with his definitions of a true war story: "A true war story makes the stomach believe ... shows its absolute allegiance to obscenity and evil." A character named Mitchell Sanders tells his own "true" war story about a group of soldiers sent on a "listening post" in the mountains where they are eventually driven crazy by the silence, and by their own inability to express their fear. "They can't joke it away," Mitchell explains.
"Let's start with Mitchell's story of the six-man-patrol," I said. I glanced at Mike's book. I couldn't tell whether he'd read beyond the chapter or opened a page at random. "In five seconds," he announced, tipping his chin to indicate the back door, "I could be out of this chair, kicking the door down and shooting whoever's on the other side." The other students stared at their books or looked at me with expectant, nervous faces. Many of them had brothers, cousins, or friends that had fought in Iraq or Afghanistan. Maybe Mike was saying something they'd heard before, or voicing things their own loved ones could never say.
Finally Luis raised his hand.
"The silence makes them think," he offered.
"Think about what?" I asked.
Luis studied the page.
I suddenly felt afraid to proceed into the fog, the moral ambiguity of the mountains, to jump straight into the minds of these men driven to the brink of sanity by memory and conscience, by facing their inner demons in the dark.
"Review O'Brien's definitions of a true war story," I suggested. "See if you might relate one of them to Mitchell's story."
Hazel scanned the page and raised her hand. "I think the soldiers miss home. That's why they hear the cocktail party sounds."
I nodded softly, waiting for someone else to pick up the thread. Mike leaned forward into the circle, as if toward a crackling fire, his leg jiggling restlessly. He spoke in a disconnected, factual way.
"The first time you see a head rolling down the street ... it's like ... you can't even believe it. It's awful. But the fifth or sixth time, you just kick it like a football." He smiled a little, a shameful grin that wriggled across his lips and disappeared. "No big deal. It feels like a watermelon."
I wondered if O'Brien's words, like explosive devices hidden in the humid jungles, had triggered these awful images, or if Iraq simply played forever in Mike's head, a fractured repetitive loop. ...