September is all about banned books here at PEN American. We reached out to writers, editors, literary illuminati, and PEN staff to write about the banned books that matter to them most. Today’s piece comes from Leily Kleinbard, associate editor of PEN American: A Journal of Readers and Writers.
The war wasn’t all terror and violence. Sometimes things could almost get sweet. For instance, I remember a little boy with a plastic leg. I remember how he hopped over to Azar and asked for a chocolate bar—“GI number one,” the kid said—and Azar laughed and handed over the chocolate. When the boy hopped away, Azar clucked his tongue and said, “War’s a bitch.” He shook his head sadly. “One leg, for Chrissake. Some poor fucker ran out of ammo.”
—from The Things They Carried
Imagine the censor’s horror in the sixties and seventies: journalists running amok in the trenches, hitching rides into combat on the backs of convoys, snapping photos of Vietnam casualties. In a war that measured its victory in Viet Cong bodies, photographs became a tangible unit for American loss—limbless GIs, an assembly line of coffins—these images made it home from Vietnam when our soldiers did not.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a montage of graphic scenes: “Curt Lemon hanging in pieces from a tree”; “The day Azar strapped the puppy to a Claymore antipersonnel mine and squeezed the firing device”; “Kiowa sinking into the deep mulch of a shit field.” Like the photographs, O’Brien provides a more substantive reality that has no heroes or valor. Men die from boredom, error, and fear. They persist out of cowardice. Violence occurs almost accidently, without warning, and for the sake of itself. “You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil,” he writes. A “true” war story must shock the conscience.