The film industry tends to sanitize and simplify the Vietnam war -- but Tim O'Brien's new novel ''The Things They Carried'' doesn't

”A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if 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. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As the first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil…Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty.” — From The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien

In this quotation from Tim O’Brien’s magnificently inventive new novel, The Things They Carried, he defines the limits of the war story — and at the same time describes most of the Vietnam movies, books, and TV shows we see. The Green Berets, Rambo, Platoon, Tour of Duty, and war stories since have tried to dramatize and re-create the war, to teach you a lesson, to prevent it from happening again. They make the mistake of looking for — or we make the mistake of expecting them to find — truth and justice on the battlefields of Vietnam. But the war neither started nor ended there. Vietnam started in America. That is where we should look for lessons about our war.

But we’re not ready. With last year’s TV movie Day One, we finally and barely began to ask painful questions about the A-bomb more than four decades after we used it. With no end of drama about slavery and racism, we still are far from finding answers to that shame. Yet too often we think we already can deal with, cope with, grapple with — pick your babble — Vietnam: Go to a movie that shows you a sad, sympathetic soldier in an insane war and walk away enlightened. War stories (O’Brien’s, for instance) indeed can enlighten us — but not about the causes of war. If you really want to learn about the war through entertainment, you’ll have to wait until it examines the politicians, generals, and voters who got us into it. But they aren’t entertaining. They wear gray, not green, and no one wants to pay to see them. So America continues to see simple war stories. They aren’t all bad; they can teach a little history and foster sympathy for the veteran (and, someday, the victim). But we can’t expect more of them than that.

The real danger in entertainment’s growing obsession with Vietnam is that we will believe we are uplifted and instructed and suddenly made moral about the war. Tim O’Brien doesn’t try to do that; he knows better and so must we. The first true war story about Vietnam will have no grunts, no gore, and no glory. It will take place in America.