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Quotations for the week of December 14th, 2008

These are taken from "The Things They Carried", by Tim O'Brien, originally published in 1990. The book is a retelling of his time spent as a U.S. soldier during the war in Vietnam.

Some carried themselves with a sort of wistful resignation, others with pride or stiff soldierly discipline or good humor or macho zeal. They were afraid of dying but they were even more afraid to show it.

They carried all the emotional baggage of 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.

The war occurred half a lifetime ago, and yet the remembering makes it now. And sometimes the remembering will lead to a story, which makes it forever. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted...then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue.

It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe.

To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace. Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true.

We called the enemy ghosts. "Bad night," we'd say, "the ghosts are out." To get spooked, in the lingo, meant not only to get scared, but to get killed. The countryside itself seemed spooky--shadows and tunnels and incense burning in the dark. The land was haunted.

You don't try to scare people in broad daylight. You wait. Because the darkness squeezes you inside yourself, you get cut off from the outside world, the imagination takes over.

Often in a true war story there is not even a point, or else the point doesn't hit you until twenty years later, in your sleep, and you wake up and shake your wife and start telling the story to her, except when you get to the end you've forgotten the point again.

It's a hard thing to explain to somebody who hasn't felt it, but the presence of death and danger has a way of bringing you fully awake. It makes things vivid. When you're afraid, really afraid, you see things you never saw before, you pay attention to the world. You make close friends. You become part of a tribe and share the same blood.

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