One of my favorite books is The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien. Though technically a work of fiction, the stories are written from the first-person perspective of a character by the same name during the war in Vietnam, in which O’Brien served as a soldier, blurring the lines between fiction and truth for the reader. The chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” has always stood out in my mind more than anything else in the book. In this chapter O’Brien continually tries to find the right way to describe the death of a friend and fellow soldier, trying to get at the truth, changing little details here and there, looking at it from different angles. What’s real? What’s made up? Does it matter? He concludes that “all you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get to the real truth… you can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.”
I’ve probably read the chapter anywhere between 10 to 15 times, but no matter how many times I read it, the same chills run through my body as the first time. Horror. Beauty. It stays with you.
This passage is one I’ll never forget:
Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face. I can see him turning, looking back… then he laughed and took that curious half step from shade into sunlight, his face suddenly brown and shining, and when his foot touched down, in that instant, he must have thought it was the sunlight killing him. It was not the sunlight. It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, about how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must have been the final truth.
Why am I writing about this? I just returned from a trip to Hawaii, where I spent one morning watching the sunrise on a beach along the southeastern coast of Oahu. I took over 60 photos on my iPhone of the progression of the sun as it peeked up from the horizon, tinted the clouds orange and pink, and rose up into the sky over the ocean. As I was compiling these photos into a Flickr album, I came across one where the sunlight was spread out so white across the sky that it appeared as if to suck the clouds, sky, water and sand up into it. As soon as I saw this photo, I thought of that scene in The Things They Carried. Though obviously a different setting – the beautiful coastline of a Hawaiian island during the sunrise versus a war-torn jungle covered by trees – this is how I imagine the bright white light streaming through those trees and sucking Curt Lemon up into the sunlight. I thought of how O’Brien described the effort of getting to the truth, of capturing the essence of war, the essence of the darkness and the essence of the light. And I realized that this attempt to keep re-telling the story of the war and of his friend’s death to get it just right mirrored my attempt to tell a story through these photos, to capture just the right angle of the sun at each moment as it rose into the sky. So I kept taking photos, one after the other, from different angles, tilting the camera to record the light at each stage, in the hopes of getting a few that would could capture what that moment really, truly looked like.
And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about sunlight. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross that river and march into the mountains and do the things you are afraid to do.