I heard a true war story sixth–hand, though I came close to hearing it third–hand. This is how it came to me: A friend who had recently returned from boot camp – let’s call him Jones – had met someone who had been deployed in Iraq – let’s call him Smith. Smith was temporarily the boss of a boy that he did not meet, but who went home early with a lost arm and a lost eye. Smith heard what had happened to the boy when he returned home and met the friend of the boy’s girlfriend’s brother. She told him the story, and talked about how now the boy did bar tricks with the glass eye. I’ll bet you five dollars I can lick my eye, he’d say. They pieced it all together and realized that this was the boy that he had temporarily been the boss of while they were together in Baghdad, and some time later he told Jones who told me.
This worries me: the distance. This shred of a war story is what I cling to; this one story that I haven’t gotten from the media, but that has come to me in the old way, way of mouth, which seems more natural. And I don’t think I’m unique in this situation. As each new storyteller emerges, one step further from the experience, fiction seeps into the tale. It seems that more weight is placed on the how – on the telling of it – than on the what – the fact that these things actually took place. But as the story is distanced from the source, the facts recede: the how has little with which to work. The result is a shoddy story, with some boy’s reality being used as the punch-line. It disturbs me that pure fiction can sometimes touch me more than such true war stories. Of course, I gaped at my friend’s story, but even as I gaped, I felt the self-conscious judgment: this is rehearsed, it’s not sincere.
What I want to know is why it can seem so easy to be sincere about what never happened, and yet so difficult to be sincere about what really did happen, what’s happening every day, somewhere in the world – about what matters? Does fiction hold the world’s stories to a standard that they will never be able to match? Are words and experience like schoolboys and schoolgirls, always running in different directions, and when they meet are they awkward and shy? Do they demand two different types of sincerity? Is it possible to have any idea what it feels like to lose an arm and an eye for your country without lying in the sand, bleeding and alone?
I hope that it is possible to have some idea, that each time we meet another person we don’t simply nod our heads in respect to that which we do not know. Words can seem at times like trinkets – playthings, but when one gets to turning a phrase for turning a phrase’s sake, it could be worthwhile to recall the tremendous power of the words that we use every day. They have the power – and the burden – of expressing what we would otherwise be left to experience alone.
— Bob Borek & the editors of Leland
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