Tim O’Brien on Writing About Vietnam

From a Washington Post story by Nick Hilden headlined “4 acclaimed novelists talk about writing Vietnam”:

Tim O’Brien

Tim O’Brien was drafted into the Army and sent to Vietnam in 1969. He served in the country’s central Quang Ngai province, a circumstance that at one point brought him through the site of the infamous My Lai Massacre — in which more than 500 Vietnamese civilians were murdered by American troops — about a year after it occurred but before news of it was revealed.

“So when we were there we didn’t know why that place was so incredibly hostile,” he remembered. “Smiles were not smiles — they were exactly the opposite. We were hated and feared. It felt haunted before I knew about the massacre, and it felt even more haunted after I learned about it and went back and saw the place.”

In the decades following his return home, he wrote extensively about the war, most notably in “The Things They Carried,” which, though a work of fiction, is frequently confused as memoir. Lauded by critics and veterans alike, the book has become part of the modern literary canon, frequently taught in classrooms across the United States.

O’Brien spoke with me on the phone from his home in Austin.

In “The Things They Carried” you wrote of how sometimes a fictional war story can feel more real than a true one. Why is that?

It gives you a closer internal feel for the emotions of combat and proximity to death. Nonfiction — especially the kind that will appear in a simple newspaper story about, say, a battle — will describe the battle and give statistics, body counts, maybe describe the terrain and so on, and maybe interview a soldier or two. All that is necessary to understand the history, the events themselves. But fiction opens the possibility of entering all kinds of heads, whether the Vietnamese young man of 16 or an American 19-year-old, and the feel of it emotionally.

I tried in “The Things They Carried” to make it feel like a memoir, hence my own name as a character and dedicating the book to my characters, and so on — everything I could to make it feel real and happening, through a bunch of different techniques. And the way it backfired on me! Kids get frustrated in high school and colleges when they finally figure out this was fiction. It says right on the title page “a work of fiction,” and I thought those words would be alert enough, but at the same time I was hoping to seduce the reader into believing it was real as you’re reading it.

You wrote that “stories can save us,” and throughout “The Things They Carried” there is an implication that the act of telling stories helps us to heal.

It does more than just help to heal. It does all kinds of things. A story can scare you. As a kid a fairy tale can scare you, and as an adult the story of somebody getting a phone call saying you have — as I did 45 minutes ago, a phone call from my doctor saying that you have severe coronary blockage. And couples getting divorced, when you’re having trouble at home it can put a little scare into you. Stories can do things to us.

There’s also the kinds of stories that save us. For for example, religion — Christianity in particular but Muslim religion, Jewish religion; I don’t know a lot about Confucianism or Buddhism, I know a little — in one way or another they’re grounded in story. It’s a story that guides a hell of a lot of people through their lives.

The myth of America guides a lot of people, and sends you off to the American Legion on Thursday night and to the Fourth of July parade and determines the way you think about political and cultural events happening around you.

Different stories hit different people in different kinds of ways. It depends on what you bring to the story, as I’m sure you well know.

Why do you think the story of the Vietnam War has remained so enduring?

Of course the sadness endures. Three million dead people in a war that could have been ended on exactly the same terms a decade earlier. I think that lesson, at least for veterans, means a lot. And it’s a mixture of anger and sadness.

But for the general population — my sons included, one who’s a sophomore in college, the other a junior in high school — Vietnam is just a word to them. They know little about the history and don’t care much about it. They know a lot about Iran and Iraq and Afghanistan, because it’s in the news every day and they learn about it in school. Vietnam was covered in half a day in high school. So how much has lasted? I don’t know. Probably as much as the Trojan War has lasted.

The title “The Things They Carried” is partly metaphorical, but in the book you do examine the physical items soldiers carried with them. And when you visit museums — like the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City — physical, sometimes prosaic items often feel loaded with a surprising amount of emotional impact.

They do. I’m not sure what the psychological description is — I couldn’t give you one — but it would be like how the sight of a sandbox can bring you back to your own childhood. For me the sight of an M-16 — whether it’s a photograph or on television — I can’t look at it without going back to Vietnam in my head. The object leads me there.

I started the book with that list of tangible, real items and then moved into the emotional baggage that we all carry through our lives. It doesn’t just have to be at war. It can be the emotional baggage of an absent father — you carry it with you forever.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Vietnam, and something that always surprises me is how friendly and welcoming people are, even when they know I’m an American whose father served in the war. And I’ve read that you experienced the same thing when you went back. Why do you think that is?

I have absolutely no idea. I agree with everything you said. They are welcoming. They’re giving. I’m not so sure that if a bunch of al-Qaeda soldiers were to show up in, say, Des Moines, that they would be all that welcome by our former soldiers.

It probably is in part just cultural. Another reason is probably because the American war was just a blip on their radar screen. You have to remember the French, wars with China, the Laotians, Cambodia. And they were the recipient of most of the horror. There were 60-some-thousand American casualties and 3 million Vietnamese — it’s way out of proportion to the scars left on families in America. There just aren’t as many mothers and fathers of dead people as in Vietnam. You’d think that would mean more anger. It explains why the American war in Vietnam is still taught in schools and talked about as part of the culture in Vietnam, but it doesn’t explain the welcoming and forgiving aspect. That’s a mystery to me.

Vietnam has increasingly become a popular travel destination. Where would you recommend visitors go to learn something about the country and the war?

If you want to feel at least a little bit of the war itself, it has to be some small village somewhere surrounded by paddies or mountains. The reason I say that is, much of my old AO [area of operations], I’ve learned — just by the internet and some returning veterans — has got casinos and big, glitzy, kind of Vegas-looking hotels. Bright neon lights. Right in the middle of an area that we called the athletic field, meaning it was littered with land mines and you had to be like an athlete to jump over ’em all. It would be like Gettysburg having a big Vegas hotel. So I would recommend not spending all your time in the hotel.

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