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Ch. 9: Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong 
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Post Ch. 9: Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong
Ch. 9: Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong


Please use this thread for discussing this chapter.



Fri Nov 07, 2008 9:23 am
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Post war stories
The structure of this novel is interesting. A few chapters back, O'Brien talked about writing "true" war stories and then spent the next 4 chapters telling the stories of individuals in his company. Is he asking us if we believe these are 'true' war stories?

I found the story of Mary Anne quite compelling; the innocent high school girl who lands in Vietnam and ends up on operations with the Greenies and then goes 'native', disappears and possibly switches sides. Of the stories told, this one is the most incredible, in my view, yet we are asked to believe that it is true. Is it a true war story? Is this about her self-discovery? Is it symbolic of America's coming of age or finding itself ... or perhaps losing itself in Vietnam?

In these chapters, he is building up to his own story about the man he killed and at that point the truth takes on a deep, personal meaning that goes beyond the abstract meaning of truth in the preceding chapters. I think he is so concerned with truth when it comes to killing this man that he wants to drill down and question every aspect over and over and try to find an adequate answer and he is still doing this many years after the war ended.



Thu Nov 27, 2008 6:34 pm
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I did need to think about this chapter for a couple days because I wasn't quite sure what to make of it.
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this one is the most incredible, in my view, yet we are asked to believe that it is true. Is it a true war story?




I agree that this one is the most unbelievable if we are trying to see these as factual stories. O'Brien talks about the stories being the most difficult to believe are probably true and the ones that we can believe probably are not. But is he talking just figuratively? Or riddles?
This story could be about the loss of innocence, or if we believe that the girlfriend represent what was left behind, home, security, love, dreams, perhaps this story is about the loss of the home that the soldiers can never go back to it because innocence is gone.



Fri Nov 28, 2008 12:33 pm
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I have been wondering about this vignette since I read it. When I read O'Briens: the true war stories are the ones that are hardest to believe -- I took it straight. From my own experience, the real things that happen are sometimes the hardest to believe. I also remember thinking that he was trying to capture the sense that sometimes the truth is so painful, embarrassing, so not the way we wanted or expected that etc.. that when we tell the story if that aspect is not in the story it's not "the truth" and the stories that have the hardest stuff in it are most likely to be true. Real events are so mixed up with what is going on -- who is doing what, what each person's motivation is, what each person experiences, all this and more -- all the conflicting and contradictory emotions that happen all at once. Like feeling relieved and sad when something bad happens or wishing something bad would happen so that you have an excuse to get or do or having something you want -- because to just take it or do it would be wrong.

Now, I am less sure of what he was meaning to say.


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Fri Nov 28, 2008 1:00 pm
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Post Re: war stories
giselle wrote:

I found the story of Mary Anne quite compelling; the innocent high school girl who lands in Vietnam and ends up on operations with the Greenies and then goes 'native', disappears and possibly switches sides. Of the stories told, this one is the most incredible, in my view, yet we are asked to believe that it is true. Is it a true war story? Is this about her self-discovery? Is it symbolic of America's coming of age or finding itself ... or perhaps losing itself in Vietnam?


I feel pretty sure about one aspect of this chapter and the character, Mary Anne and that is the symbolism of loss of innocence. The whole concept of "going native" is about loosing oneself; an extreme response to getting a glimpse behind the curtain of ones own culture and realizing it is no more "true" or "real" or "right" than any other "culture". In fact, specific cultural practices have no absolute rightness. It is the practicing of cultural practices that is important. Humm, that last sentence -- almost sounds like it doesn't make sense, but I think it does.


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Fri Nov 28, 2008 1:13 pm
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Here's one possibility that occurred to me on reading this chapter (which was a while ago, and I don't have the book with me now; sorry for any ensuing vagueness). The story can be interpreted as a forbidden-wish-and-horror-to-see-what-one-has-wished-for-come-true story.

The idea of a nice, clean, wholesome, blond, Mary Anne-ish Girl Next Door, with whom one had hoped to make a life since going to school together, is something the men in the war hang onto and wish they could have with them. They want the relatedness, the loved ones from home to be with them. The soldier who hangs onto his ex-girlfriend's picture and looks for it when it is lost while everyone else is looking for the corpse of their friend in the mud is an example; the obsession the commanding officer has for thinking about his girlfriend and his guilt at being distracted by that when the druggy soldier is killed near the beginning of the book is another. There is also a hopelessness about trying to tell people at home about what happened, how it felt, what it meant, ranging from the "dumb cooze" section, to how Tim "lies" to his daughter about whether or not he has killed someone, then obscures whether he is lying to her or to us, to the despair his character driving around and around the lake on the 4th of July feels about talking to his father, even though his father is also a veteran. But what if the strongest, most physical form of this desire were thoroughly indulged? What if Mary Anne came to Vietnam? This is a horror story about the horror of that fulfilled wish.

Also, toward the end, the character narrating the chapter (not O'Brien's) claims it is a kind of parable of moral parity between the genders: women would be like the "worst" of soldiers if they had to go to war in Vietnam as men did; the hopes or claims about the difference women would make as politicians are myths, see?

All I can say to that is, women do live in the same contexts as men, all the time. There are lots of women in Vietnam without Mary Anne ever having to go there. And how do they act? How do American soldiers treat them and see them? Women have lived through all kinds of wars and every day they live lives that are on the whole full of more violence and atrocity than a man sees if he doesn't go to war. All this generally remains secret because crazed male abusers see it as assault on them if a woman they are brutalizing says, "Ouch." Men bring their wars into women's homes, then pretend: those aren't women, these aren't homes or this is not abuse. Like men, women are individual people, certainly. There could possibly have existed a woman something like Mary Anne at some time. Women are capable of anything, like men. On the whole, we behave differently from men in some respects, expression of anger, aggression and dominance being one of them. This is true, regardless of the reasons for it and the fictionalized claims of truth in the chapter doesn't alter that fact.

Also, Mary Anne does not "go native." She preys upon the Vietnamese with the Greenies and becomes even worse than the male Green Berets are. The idea that it is Vietnam, the place, that is the source of the "wild," intensely vicious and bloody craziness of the war is a racist projection present or recorded in places throughout the text. This is not to say you are a racist for saying she "goes native," nor that Tim O'Brien is a racist, nor even that the character Mary Anne is a racist for cutting out and wearing the tongues of people of another race and saying it's because of their country which she loves, understands and belongs in. It is simply to say this is a record of generalized, extreme and minimized racism in the form of basically insane violence against real humans who personally did not provoke it, portrayed as such things always are, to be otherwise, as if such a thing could ever have reasons and be okay. O'Brien shows that he knows it is not the land itself that is provoking of violence and insanity of the kind Mary Anne engages in, as do the people in the story about the listening post or whatever it was called, where they lose control just listening to the jungle; O'Brien shows he knows this in the chapter where he goes back with his daughter to look at the place where his friend drowned in the mud and it is calm, peaceful, unremarkable -- just as Vietnam is when there is no war there. Yet he shows he is a man on whom nothing is lost and who is willing to represent what he sees, even when it is racist, by recording the projections onto Vietnam, the brutalizations. There may be a similar attempt at detached "mapping" of how the male psyche (in the form of the narrating character with the Mary Anne story) projects, about women and the eerie scariness of the brutal feminine, in the Mary Anne chapter.


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Fri Nov 28, 2008 2:42 pm
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GR9
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Yet he shows he is a man on whom nothing is lost and who is willing to represent what he sees, even when it is racist, by recording the projections onto Vietnam, the brutalizations. There may be a similar attempt at detached "mapping" of how the male psyche (in the form of the narrating character with the Mary Anne story) projects, about women and the eerie scariness of the brutal feminine, in the Mary Anne chapter.


I have read these last few lines a couple times and cannot really understand what you are meaning here. This could be because I have not read the chapter where Tim goes back to Vietnam with his daughter. What do you mean by 'detached mapping' ? When you say that Tim is recording the projections onto Vietnam, do you mean he is blaming Vietnam or the people or making Vietnam look bad? How is what he is doing racist?



Fri Nov 28, 2008 6:14 pm
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realiz wrote:

Quote:
What do you mean by 'detached mapping' ?


I mean, just recording "the lay of the land" of the American imagination about Vietnam, or of the male imagination about women. I mean that he isn't saying that these objects are this way or even that he sees them this way (his source for the Mary Anne story is not even his own fictional character but another. less reliable narrator/character). He seems to me to show that there is a strong envisioning of these objects in this light in the American/male psyche at large.

Quote:
When you say that Tim is recording the projections onto Vietnam, do you mean he is blaming Vietnam or the people or making Vietnam look bad?
No. A "projection" is a perception of some other to be like a part of yourself in your symbolic worldview rather than as it is. I think O'Brien is recording the projections about Vietnam as a hostile, crazy-making landscape in this story and in the listening post story. When he goes back and visits, it's just a normal place.

Quote:
How is what he is doing racist?
I thought I said I didn't think he was being racist. I think there is a lot of racism on the part of the characters recorded almost steadily throughout. Look carefully and see if you don't see some. I mean, what's a "dink?"


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Sun Nov 30, 2008 6:59 pm
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There is some really interesting discussion going on here.

I feel the Vietnam war was very much about projection of American values and other foreign values and extremely limited recognition of Vietnamese people or values. This is essentially a colonialistic worldview and an important element in justifying occupation and the war.

O'Brien's novel is told entirely from the American soldier perspective and voice. There is no Vietnamese voice that I recall until after the war when Tim returns with his daughter to the Field. A Vietnamese farmer attempts some form of communication by lifting a shovel over his head, but even 20 years after the war the Vietnamese voice is nearly mute.

I think this is the story that O'Brien wanted to tell. He wants the reader to experience the projection of America onto Vietnamese soil and into Vietnamese society and experience the Western ethnocentricity of that projection and, I think, the racism inherent in that projection.

I found Tim's daughter a very compelling character. I feel for her as she struggles to reclaim her Dad from his preoccupation with the ghosts of the war.



Sun Nov 30, 2008 10:46 pm
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GR9
Quote:
The idea that it is Vietnam, the place, that is the source of the "wild," intensely vicious and bloody craziness of the war is a racist projection present or recorded in places throughout the text.


OK. I read it all again and now I am beginning to understand what you are tying to say and which chapters you are referring to when you say this. I read it more as a state of mind of the soldiers themselves than a projection of the land. Also, I can't see O'Brien as detached, as he is written himself in a very emotionally part of all that happens.

Giselle
Quote:
There is no Vietnamese voice

The chapter where Tim shoots the soldier very much showed us the vietnamese as real people, with feelings, dreams, families, and hopes just as the Americans. I have not finished the book yet, but I have so far not got the feeling that this book is racist. Yes, racism existed there when this happened, but we are seeing the folly of it through this book. The Americans should not have been there, did not belong there, it was futile and damaging to all, it made not sense, this message is not racist.
[/quote]



Mon Dec 01, 2008 1:13 pm
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Quote:
There is no Vietnamese voice


realiz wrote:

The chapter where Tim shoots the soldier very much showed us the vietnamese as real people, with feelings, dreams, families, and hopes just as the Americans. I have not finished the book yet, but I have so far not got the feeling that this book is racist. Yes, racism existed there when this happened, but we are seeing the folly of it through this book. The Americans should not have been there, did not belong there, it was futile and damaging to all, it made not sense, this message is not racist.
[/quote][/quote]


Yes, this incident does portray the Vietnamese as real people, no question, and Tim's feelings are obviously genuine, but it stops short of giving them any real voice. The perspective of this incident is Tim's and the other soldiers. I think this is deliberate on O'Brien's part.

For comparison, does Lolita have a voice? I think that is deliberate on the author's part too. We are forced to see almost everything through Humbert's eyes and this heightens the perception of Humbert's control and his portrayal of Lolita and the other characters.

I'm not suggesting that Tim is racist or that the book is racist. I'm suggesting that projection of American (and Soviet) colonialism is inferred by the way the book is written, in particular, by the narrators perspective. I think O'Brien is trying to shed light on this colonialism and within that colonialism are racist views. The book itself is not racist, actually on the contrary, O'Brien's message exposes colonialism/racism for what it is and I find it particularly interesting for that reason.



Mon Dec 01, 2008 2:56 pm
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Quote:
I'm suggesting that projection of American (and Soviet) colonialism is inferred by the way the book is written, in particular, by the narrators perspective. I think O'Brien is trying to shed light on this colonialism and within that colonialism are racist views.


I think I am really missing something in this book as I have read it much more on an individual basis and the men themselves affected by the war rather on a bigger political statement on colonialism or imperialism (by the way...what is the difference, as I thought that the term would be imperialism rather than colonialism). Maybe I'd better do some rereading.



Mon Dec 01, 2008 7:59 pm
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I think this book is worth rereading, I'm going to reread a few sections, including this chapter, because the personal story is compelling and i have missed some of this.

Perhaps the hallmark of a great novel is that it can be read in different ways, with different interpretations, recognizing different layers, and viewed through different lenses. your lens, the personal story, is just as valid as the wider political story, which is my lens, although i recognize the personal story too.

there is a tremendous personal story here but i think there is also a wider political commentary. maybe i see it this way because, as the Vietnam war was ending in the early 1970's this was an issue that caught my attention, so i pick up O'Brien's emphasis on politics. i remember reading about it in Time and Newsweek magazines and seeing pictures on TV that shocked that "young me". until then, i had no idea that people or countries could do bloodthirsty stuff like this. later in the 70's we followed other stories, like the Watergate wiretapping , which taught us that one should never believe what politicians say .... thank you Richard Nixon.

O'Brien's genius, i think, goes beyond this ... beyond the standard narrative technique, to metanarrative. he writes about telling the story, the story of the story (how to tell a war story), he writes about truth in a world influenced by postmodernism where absolute standards disappear and subjectivity rules. one doesn't have to agree with this postmodern worldview, but i think O'Brien does an admirable job of leaving behind the constraints of the modernist narrative and explores some new turf.

on colonialism and imperialism, yes one could use the latter term. i prefer the former though .. because colonialism captures the basic mentality that prevailed at the time, principally the projection of the values of the colonizer onto the colonized. imperialism, including combat over territory and domination of countries like vietnam stemmed from that basic colonialistic attitude. i think this terminology is just a matter of preference.



Tue Dec 02, 2008 2:13 am
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I'm going to move my reply to the final chapter of the book because I have finished it now and we seem to be discussing the the whole story now.



Wed Dec 03, 2008 12:36 pm
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Although it's a very intriguing tale, I don't think the story about Mary Anne is true.



Sun Jan 25, 2009 3:56 pm
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