- “Excremental Assault” in Tim O’Brien: Trauma and Recovery in Vietnam War Literature
“‘You know something?’” [Azar] said. His voice was wistful. “‘Out here, at night, I almost feel like a kid again. The Vietnam experience. I mean, wow, I love this shit.’”—Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried
“The excremental is all too intimately and inseparably bound up with the sexual; the position of the genitals—inter urinas et faeces—remains the decisive and unchangeable factor.”—Sigmund Freud, Complete Letters
“[Kathy Wade] remembered opening her robe to the humid night air. There was a huge and desperate wanting in her heart, wanting without object, pure wanting.”—Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods
“If at the end of a war story,” Tim O’Brien writes in his second Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried (1990), “you feel uplifted, or if [End Page 695] you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie” (Things 76). O’Brien, of course, has not been the first to remark upon the larger waste that is war. With reference to the Vietnam debacle in particular, Michael Herr’s Dispatches (1977) sets the tone for the wastage of that “psychotic vaudeville,” as he calls it, almost from the beginning:
[A] Marine came up to Lengle and me and asked if we’d like to look at some pictures he’d taken. . . . There were hundreds of these albums in Vietnam, thousands, and they all seemed to contain the same pictures. . . . the severed-head shot, the head often resting on the chest of the dead man or being held up by a smiling Marine, or a lot of heads, arranged in a row, with a burning cigarette in each of the mouths, the eyes open . . . a picture of a Marine holding an ear or maybe two ears or, as in the case of a guy I knew near Pleiku, a whole necklace made of ears, “love beads” as its owner called them; and the one we were looking at now, the dead Viet Cong girl with her pajamas stripped off and her legs raised stiffly in the air.(Herr 198–99)
In the face of such overwhelming madness, therefore, Tim O’Brien eradicates all possibility for responsive uplift in The Things They Carried by reducing even the metaphorical import of waste. As the measure of atrocious acts and imbecile events, waste’s claim on all concerned, accordingly, is seen to be absolutely literal.
At this zero-degree level of rectitude, then, war becomes the equivalent of human waste—“a goddamn shit field” (Things 164)—in which an entire platoon must immerse itself in order to register most completely the nauseous vacuity and repulsive futility of their lives at war: “[A]fter a few days, the Song Tra Bong overflowed its banks and the land turned into a deep, thick muck for a half mile on either side. . . . Like quicksand, almost, except the stink was incredible. . . . You’d just sink in. You’d feel it ooze up over your body and sort of suck you down. . . . I mean, it never stopped, not ever” (161). “Finally somebody figured it out. What this was, it was. . . . The village toilet. No indoor plumbing, right? So they used the field” (164). “Rain and slop and shrapnel, it all mixed together, and the field seemed to boil . . . with the [End Page 696] waste and the war” (191). “For twenty years,” O’Brien’s novel’s narrator later remarks in hindsight, “this field had embodied all the waste that was Vietnam, all the vulgarity and horror” (210). That the full impact, however, of the “excremental assault” of my title should come to be realized so belatedly—In Retrospect, as Robert McNamara most recently puts forward the case—is, ironically, Vietnam’s most extravagantly wasteful legacy. 1 But as one of O’Brien’s least savory platoon members is given to remark, “‘Eating shit—it’s your classic irony’” (187).
Irony is the trope of trash or waste. And while it’s not central to my purpose to...