About War — Listening to Tim O’Brien

War Never Ends

Last week I had the pleasure of listening to a lecture by Tim O’Brien, most famous for his short story collection “The Things They Carried.” In front of a packed audience at Indiana University, Tim spoke about Vietnam, about his young sons and the effects war has. He said war never ends. It doesn’t end when the soldier goes home, when he reenters civilian life, it doesn’t end when he dies, it doesn’t end when the soldier’s mother and father die and his children grow up. War affects everyone connected. Until everyone is gone. That’s precisely what I’ve tried to wrap my arms around when I wrote “From the Ashes.” I cannot even begin to understand how people, my grandparents and parents included, during and after the war, a war that lasted nearly six years, could go on and pretend that it hadn’t happened. That all was well. All I know is that they didn’t talk about it. Nobody talked.

 

Two Heads

Tim O’Brien also used the metaphor of having two or more heads. He said he hoped most of us had more than one head, meaning we have multiple, often opposing thoughts that keep us going back and forth, allowing us to see the gray between the black and white, the nuances to contemplate. Two heads allow us to think and comprehend that life isn’t one way, that there is more than one answer and more than one choice. I loved that. And people that have only one head may be dangerous, fanatical and unable to see the whole picture. Here again, I thought of WWII and how the world looked and still looks at Germany, when all things German during this time were and still are considered Nazi and evil. Murderers of Jews. Instigators of cruelty. Everyone. One head.

My mother, Helga, age 12 in 1944

Somehow I felt vindicated when listening to Tim. I am trying to make people see with two heads. That not all Germans, especially kids like my parents, were bad. How could they be? And if we knew more about what went on — precisely why I wrote the book — we might grow more heads — to be able to see better, maybe not understand, but think about it.

Not that having two heads would allow us to know the entire story, but it’s a step in the right direction. Who knows, maybe we’ll develop a third and fourth head. Thank you, Tim O’Brien!

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