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“Concentrate on other things, try to forget about it” (206), Vietnam Veteran John Wade explains. This simple tactic of forgetting the horrors and trying to push away bad memories has often been employed among veterans from many wars. Accordingly, O’Brien integrates this simple motif of forgetting throughout his novel In The Lake of the Woods, and this theme ties into a larger matter in the novel: how the Vietnam war continues to affect John Wade’s life after he comes back to the United States. The author makes it clear that Wade’s career, marriage, and mental health are all undoubtedly affected by his experience in Vietnam, and O’Brien thereby shows that nearly every aspect of Wade’s identity and life is impacted by his experience in the war. Wade’s involvement in the My Lai Massacre follows him throughout the rest of his life, and O’Brien presents a topic that is interesting for discussion, because—being a veteran himself—O’Brien is able to effectively use John Wade’s character to reflect the way in which many veterans respond to the trauma of war.
O’Brien is able to make this point in his novel because he writes with a style such that his writing is not exclusively focused on John Wade, which allows for the novel to be relevant to many veterans, not just Wade. For example, in the first evidence chapter, O’Brien includes a quote from the character Richard Thinbill, a Vietnam veteran; Thinbill exclaims “F***ing Flies!” (13). Thinbill mentions these flies a multitude of times throughout the novel—referring to the awful swarms of flies at the My Lai Massacre. It’s clear that Thinbill can’t seem to focus on anything but the flies during the majority of his interviews, which demonstrates that My Lai is constantly plaguing his mind, and that he is haunted by the experience. O’Brien uses the evidence chapters to characterize Thinbill effectively throughout the novel such that he can easily be compared John Wade, for both are obviously affected by the war, although in different ways. Thus O’Brien uses Thinbill to show that veterans are affected in multiple different ways, and this makes it clear to the audience that the horrors of Thuan Yen have permeated into aspects of many veterans’ post-war lives—not just Wade’s.
O’Brien also demonstrates this concept through his use of the narrator. Throughout the novel, the narrator reflects on his own experience as a Vietnam veteran; in one footnote, he writes “I can understand how [John] kept things buried, how he could never face or even recall the butchery at Thuan Yen” (298). This provides an example of a veteran who is similarly haunted by his own memories from Vietnam; he understands exactly how John feels and why John deals with his memories the way he does. The narrator’s ability to empathize with John is significant because it demonstrates that Vietnam veterans can understand each other’s response to the atrocities of war, since many are affected by it in similar ways. The narrator’s stance also conveys to the audience that many veterans in general suffer from post-traumatic stress, not only the soldiers who were at the My Lai Massacre. This makes an important point about the author’s opinion on the Vietnam war, because it indicates that the not only were the events at Thuan Yen atrocities that could follow a soldier through the rest of his life, but entire war was.
Some may argue that the way in which John Wade is characterized says little about how the war affects John’s life after the war, since John has always displayed qualities such as a desire to be loved and a need to have more control his life. It is indeed true that John liked magic as a child because “it gave him some small authority over his own life” (208). However, as the evidence suggests, magic only affords John a small, insubstantial amount of control, but as a result of the war, John is motivated to pursue a career that will provide him with much more power over his own life as well as the lives of others. One may also argue that John’s political career choice was not a result of the war; for example, Kathy thought John may have joined the service in order to gain political ground once he came back to the United States. However, the audience is told that John goes to the war only to be loved—not to be a hero nor for any other reason (59). It’s clear from this passage of the novel that John goes to Vietnam in order to gain the assurance that people love him and are proud of him—not for political gain. O’Brien later includes a quote from Alexander and Juliette George which explains this phenomenon, and the reader learns that the way people like John “seek to obliterate their inner pain is through high achievement and the acquisition of power” (194), which is exactly what John hopes to achieve by completing a tour in Vietnam. He wants to hide the pain of his father’s death under the greater feeling of being loved and approved of. Unfortunately for John, his experience in Vietnam is not enough for him to feel loved. If anything, his tour is detrimental to fulfilling his need, because the war damages his already fragile psyche such that John leaves Vietnam with a need for love that is just as great as when he arrived.
John’s failure to fulfill his need for love through his tour then carries over to his life back home, where he pursues a career in politics. While John is erasing all records that link him to the Charlie company, John thinks “the trick now [is] to devise a future for himself” (269), which alludes to his use of magic in his younger days. The audience knows that magic had acted as a small amount of control over his painful life when he was a boy. Now John endures greater pains that stem from his experience in Vietnam, and he again employs the tactic of using tricks to gain control over his life by erasing his past—likely so he can enter the manipulative field of politics without repercussions arising later from his involvement in the My Lai Massacre. Thus, despite that John displayed some characteristics of mental and emotional instability before the war, it is evident that the war was nonetheless instrumental to Wade’s major life decision to go into politics. Wade may have expressed the desire to feel loved when he was a child, but it would be incorrect to say this this means the war did not affect John’s career choice, and subsequently other aspects of his life substantially. O’Brien later expands upon this throughout the novel to demonstrate that no area of veterans’ lives go untouched by their experiences in combat.
Through further analysis, it is clear that the war similarly played a large role in certain aspects of Wade’s marriage—yet another enormously significant aspect of Wade’s life. O’Brien shows that in addition to using politics as a coping mechanism, Wade tries to manage the trauma from Vietnam by burying it under his marriage. O’Brien writes “[Wade] moved with determination across the surface of his life, attending to a marriage and a career” (75). This not only furthers the point that Wade’s career was tied to his mental health, because Wade ignored a large part of who he was in order to attend to his career, but it also indicates that Wade tries to overlook significant parts of his reality, e.g. his post-traumatic stress from Vietnam, by focusing on other aspects of his life such as his wife.
O’Brien also demonstrates Vietnam’s effect on John and Kathy’s marriage on a much more personal level. John is aware that he has secrets that he could never tell Kathy, so he has to practice deception even in his marriage. Kathy expresses “I keep trying to get in, I keep pushing…” (153), but John has to keep his secrets and feign a clear conscience, because he is terrified of losing Kathy (154) and he is concerned that if he does indeed try to open up to Kathy, she will be so horrified with him that she will leave him. Since the the readers are aware that John’s greatest desire is to be loved, they understand why John continues to keep his secrets from Kathy, because it would greatly hurt him to lose her. It’s clear from this interaction between the couple that Vietnam is a cause for deception in their relationship, and O’Brien demonstrates elsewhere in the novel that there exists a large, secret-filled gap between John and Kathy that the two have never been able to bridge.
This divide between the two is expressed throughout the novel. O’Brien writes “[John] wanted to suture their lives together” (71), but unfortunately for his marriage, John finds himself unable to do so, because he cannot escape the effects of Vietnam, where “secrecy was paramount” (73), where he learned to regard traumas like Thuan Yen as “so secret that he sometimes kept [them] secret from himself” (73). However, whether John can effectively push the memories from his mind or not, they still sometimes make themselves prominent in his head and they weigh heavily on him. Whenever John wishes to “unload the horror in his stomach” (73) by confessing to Kathy what he has done in Vietnam, his wife is unprepared to hear what John has to say. This demonstrates not only how deeply affected John’s mental health is, but it also shows that Vietnam has placed an insurmountable obstacle between John and Kathy, and it prevents them from understanding each other. Throughout the novel, there are times when Kathy tries to understand John, and instances when John wants to open up to Kathy, but they are never able to effectively communicate about John’s suffering.
The secrets that John keeps about Vietnam in fact cover up so much of who he really is that Kathy is not even remotely familiar with the side of John that is hidden from her. When John’s post-traumatic stress causes him to yell out in the middle of the night, Kathy remarks to John “It wasn’t even you” (75). O’Brien uses this interaction to demonstrate that John so effectively hides the reality of how Vietnam has affected him, that when his truly ruined self shows through, his own wife does not even recognize him. Kathy’s failure to recognize this side of John supports the idea that their marriage was extremely unhealthy due to Vietnam’s effects on John’s mental health, which in turn create deception and miscommunication between him and his wife.
Throughout the novel, O’Brien makes it clear that Wade attempts to cope with the horrors of Vietnam by trying to forgetting about them and focusing on something else. Wade allows his life to be taken over by politics in order to provide this distraction and to fulfill his need to be loved. Meanwhile, his does the same thing with his marriage; he attempts to forget about Vietnam by focusing on Kathy and he tries to push away the memories of Thuan Yen that haunt him. Unfortunately, the secrets he must keep for both his political career and marriage weigh heavily on John and exacerbate his state of mental and emotional unbalance. John’s secrets about Vietnam also drive a wedge between him and his wife. This is not only painful for the obvious reason that it harms his marriage, but also because John wants nothing more wholeheartedly than to feel as though Kathy loves him and is proud of him, and John can never fulfil this desire because he buries parts of himself so deeply that Kathy can never really know him and love him for who he is. O’Brien also effectively applies John’s problem to the lives of other veterans, and he uses John and other characters in the novel to reflect the sufferings of many Vietnam Veterans after the war.
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