Tim O'Brien, My Lai, and America

by   H. Bruce Franklin

[Originally in The Progressive, December 1994]

Besides the well-deserved guilt and shame and anguish evoked by the Vietnam War, Americans can also take rightful pride in two great national achievements. Foremost is the antiwar movement of tens of millions of ordinary citizens, a movement in which Vietnam veterans and active-duty soldiers eventually played a decisive role. The other major achievement is the literature produced by the war, a literature of which Vietnam veterans have become the formative creators. Among the scores of important Vietnam-veteran writers are such fine poets as Bruce Weigl, John Balaban, W. D. Ehrhart, Marilyn McMahon, and Yusef Komunyakaa (winner of the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for poetry); playwrights and filmwriters like David Rabe and Oliver Stone; and fiction writers as diverse as Larry Heinemann (winner of the 1987 National Book Award for Paco's Story), Tobias Wolff, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, Gustav Hasford (author of the novel on which the film Full Metal Jacket was based), Stephen Wright, David Huddle, Wayne Karlin, Philip Caputo, James Crumley, Winston Groom (author of Forrest Gump), Robert Olen Butler (whose A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for fiction), and Joe Haldeman (author of the most popular of all Vietnam novels, The Forever War, a science-fiction extrapolation that has sold well over a million copies).

Tim O'Brien has been involved in both of these national achievements. His contribution to the antiwar movement--writing antiwar editorials for his college newspaper and later ringing doorbells for Eugene McCarthy in 1968--had no great immediate effect, even on himself, for he then marched off to fight in the very war he considered "evil." But his contribution to the literature of the war has been exceptional, partly because his own experience has led to an almost unbearable share of that American guilt and shame and anguish.

When the men in the White House and the Pentagon decided to send Americans to fight in Vietnam, they probably never gave a thought to the literature that veterans might write. But they certainly did anticipate the likelihood of antiwar protest, which is why they conspired to try at first to wage war covertly, later to conceal how the war was being conducted, and finally to expunge the memory of the entire affair or bury it under layers of false images. Indeed, the key phrase in their 1963 covert plan for the war (National Security Advisory Memorandum 273) was "plausibility of denial." And "denial" has been, in every sense, the essential term necessary to plumb the resulting depths of secrecy, deception, and delusion.

From his first book, the autobiographical If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973), right on through his autobiographical cover story for the October 2nd New York Times Magazine, this denial--both personal and national--has been Tim O'Brien's main theme. The most revealing chapter in If I Die in a Combat Zone, entitled "Escape," exposes the core of his own denial. Recognizing that if he kills people in a war he knows to be immoral he will be jeopardizing his very "soul," he decides his only moral choice is to desert. But he discovers that he lacks the courage. He lets himself be sent off to Vietnam, he confesses, because "I was a coward."

This confession--that mere cowardice prevented the moral choice of running away rather than killing--appears again and again in O'Brien's writings, sometimes elaborately sublimated, sometimes candidly blunt. It is central to his 1978 novel Going After Cacciato, winner of the 1979 National Book Award and frequently hailed as the great American Vietnam War novel, a book all about soldiers trying to run away from the war, in body and in mind. In the climax of the protagonist's fantasy, he announces to the world:

"I am afraid of running away. . . . I fear what might be thought of me by those I love. . . . I fear the loss of my own reputation. . . . I fear being thought of as a coward. I fear that even more than cowardice itself."

In The Things They Carried, O'Brien's award-winning 1990 collection of mostly autobiographical Vietnam stories (labeled "A Work of Fiction"), "Tim O'Brien" tells the "one story I've never told before," of his life's crucial event on Minnesota's Rainy River. "For more than twenty years I've had to live with . . . the shame" of the moment when, just yards from Canada, he didn't flee the draft because "I did not want people to think badly of me": "My conscience told me to run," but "I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing." The final words of "On the Rainy River" are: "I was a coward. I went to the war." In the October New York Times Magazine piece, he repeats: "I was a coward. I went to Vietnam." Therefore each thing he did in Vietnam "was an act of the purest self-hatred and self-betrayal."

This awareness generates for O'Brien a tortured dialectic of concealment and exposure, which in turn spins the dazzlingly intricate webs of imagination and memory that constitute his fiction. In these webs, imagined acts of escape are often the desired alternative to the remembered acts of slaughter. One needs to know all this to understand the deepest meanings of O'Brien's latest novel, In the Lake of the Woods.

The main action takes place in late September, 1986, near the mouth of the Rainy River, on the Minnesota edge of the Lake of the Woods, whose labyrinthine shoreline of 25,000 miles extends deep into the Canadian wilderness. Vietnam veteran and would-be U.S. Senator John Wade has just suffered a humiliating defeat in the primary because it was revealed that he had taken part in the My Lai massacre and then altered his service record to conceal his participation. He and his wife Kathy, from whom he had also hidden his dreadful secret, have fled to a remote cabin, where they are futilely attempting to resurrect their relation and their lives, built, as they now both know, on layers of concealment, illusion, and lies. On the seventh night, Kathy vanishes along with the only boat at the cabin. More than a month later, John borrows another small boat, ostensibly to search for her, heads into the remote recesses of the lake, and also disappears.

On one level, the book is a mystery story. What happened to Kathy Wade? Did she wander off and die accidentally? Did she deliberately flee, either alone or with a lover? Is she still lost in the wilderness? Did she and John conspire to disappear together and begin a new life? Or did John murder her? All of these are presented as possibilities, but the novel is not as indeterminate or unresolved as it may seem. As in Going After Cacciato, some events did happen while others take place only in the imagination. True, the purported writer of the book, who speaks to us in footnotes and authorial comments--and who hints that his own life has important resemblances to that of both John Wade and Tim O'Brien--ends by suggesting that we can choose to believe whichever scenario we wish.  However, all the possible scenarios, with one exception, are presented only in the eight chapters entitled "Hypothesis," where they are liberally sprinkled with "maybe" and "perhaps."  Each of these hypothetical scenarios is merely an act of imagination.  Each involves some form of escape from the hideous event that did happen, outlined in the chapters "What He Remembered," "How the Night Passed," and "What He Did Next," titles indicating the actuality that can be recalled.

    Although John cannot remember whether or not he murdered his wife, enough details surface from the depths of his memory--not his imagination--to allow readers to reconstruct the gruesome scene. Unless, O'Brien suggests, readers would rather indulge in elaborate fantasies of denial.

On the night of Kathy's disappearance, John got out of bed in a murderous rage, poured a kettle full of boiling water on each houseplant in the cabin, and then poured another kettle full of boiling water on Kathy's face. Fragments of her screaming death agony, buried deep under layers of denial, later keep erupting from Wade's memory. He next concealed the crime by carefully weighting both her body and the boat and burying each at the bottom of the lake. He thus reenacts once again the murder he committed at My Lai and his attempts to expunge all records--and memory--of this act that was too awful to be possible.

My Lai, in Wade's mind, has become just a nightmare of "impossible events": "This could not have happened. Therefore it did not." The most grisly detail of Kathy's death, repeated several times in the novel, evokes the same response:

Puffs of steam rose from the sockets of her eyes.
Impossible, of course.
But My Lai did happen, as we know. Or do we? That is the most troubling question posed by the novel, which includes page after page of the actual testimony and other evidence of the massacre that was not an aberration but a sample of how the United States conducted its genocidal war against the people of Vietnam. At My Lai, American soldiers did not just slaughter some five hundred unarmed people. They sodomized young girls, raped women in front of their children, bayoneted children in front of their mothers, and used babies for target practice. Does John Wade's frenzied murder of the houseplants seem "impossible"? Then, suggests O'Brien, so must Lieutenant Calley's actions: "He reloaded and shot the grass and a palm tree and then the earth again. `Grease the place,' he said. `Kill it.'" This was, after all, the U.S. strategy for much of Vietnam, especially My Lai's province of Quang Ngai, as O'Brien reminds us in his The New York Times Magazine essay.

In Vietnam, John Wade was so adept at making things disappear that he acquired the nickname Sorcerer. He had perfected his magic expertise as a young boy, who needed it to build means of denial about his own identity as the son of an alcoholic father who killed himself. Performing his magic tricks before a mirror, John had learned how to construct mirrors inside his own mind to deflect reality and to hide behind. Wade is a magician, a master of illusion. And so is O'Brien, who is such a wizard of narrative that he can make the most implausible fantasies seem believable. But this does not mean that In the Lake of the Woods (any more than Going After Cacciato) should be read as magic realism, in which the products of imagination have the same ontological status as actual material events. Magic, O'Brien recognizes, is an art of illusion.

Of course imaginary events are also real. The event that did happen, Wade's murder of his wife, just like the fantasies of escape offered as alternatives to it, is a fiction that takes place only in a novel. But each scenario, whether remembered or merely imagined, has a significant reality, the reality of fiction.

Not everything, however, is fiction. There is another kind of reality--represented by My Lai in 1968 and O'Brien's own experience around My Lai the following year. And in this experience, as O'Brien tells us over and over again, he, like his fictive John Wade and like the American nation itself, committed acts so horrible that they continually evoke denial.

The one great failure of In the Lake of the Woods is its quite unconvincing presentation of Wade's senate campaign amid the scene of the late 1980s. O'Brien makes almost no attempt to show how the revelations about Wade's acts in Vietnam devastate his candidacy and thus destroy his life. One might even wonder whether such would be the effect. In fact, his cynical campaign manager at one point regrets not having had the opportunity to use Wade's participation in My Lai: "`Could've made it work for us. Whole different spiel. . . . A village is a terrible thing to waste.'"

Certainly there are now men sitting in the U.S. Senate who killed many more Vietnamese civilians than John Wade did, and falsifying one's records is hardly an insurmountable barrier to a senate seat, as suggested by Oliver North's near win in Virginia.

Nevertheless, In the Lake of the Woods does connect to the most essential truths about Vietnam's role in the politics and culture of the nation in the 1980s and 1990s. Just over two years after Kathy and John Wade vanish in fiction, the denial that O'Brien is dramatizing was given its most succinct statement by President George Bush in his inaugural address: "The final lesson of Vietnam is that no great nation can long afford to be sundered by a memory."


Books by H. Bruce Franklin, the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University in Newark, include M.I.A. Or Mythmaking in America, Vietnam and America: A Documented History, The Vietnam War in American Stories, Songs, and Poems, and  Vietnam and Other American Fantasies .