In his collection of short stories about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien asserts, “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 a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” Having read this before watching Terrence Malick’s film The Thin Red Line, I had these words ringing through my head as I was watching this film, a fictional story about World War II based on the novel by James Jones of the same title that was based on some of his actual experiences in Guadalcanal.
Like The Things They Carried, some elements of The Thin Red Line must stemmed from truth, but what is more important than the truth of the events depicted is the truth of the story told. The emotions provoked by the author are equally or even more important than the representation of actual truth in the author’s narrative. It becomes interesting when you apply this notion of truth in storytelling to art that represents historical events. As O’Brien states, there can be no morality or silver linings in war stories because in truth there is no morality to warfare. This becomes very evident when you analyze the absurdity of certain events depicted in The Thin Red Line.
Did Staros and Tall actually ever actually have an argument that ended in a stalemate over radio? The subtext of the argument was concerning the value of human life. Colonel Tall commands Captain Staros to take his men into danger that basically represented certain death; does it matter if this conversation ever actually happened between two soldiers in war? I’m sure men were sent to their certain deaths in times of war to promote some sort of position or advantage for their company. Soldiers of low rank were seen as pawns in the war between the more powerful members of opposing militaries.
There is no doubt that human lives weren’t valued very high during World War II or Vietnam. However whether or not Tall and Staro’s interaction was based on a true story of James Jones is unimportant. The truth of the story matters more. The truth of the immorality and devaluation of human life that undoubtably occurred in Guadalcanal comes through in Malick’s film.