“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. ” -Tim O’Brien
The following is the full transcript of my phone conversation with Tim O’Brien, author of “The Things They Carried,” which was the work selected for this year’s Big Read. An edited version appeared in my piece for Rochester City Newspaper at the beginning of Big Read programming.
Rebecca Rafferty: Why did you decide to write about your experiences in Vietnam?
Tim O’Brien: I didn’t really decide to write it, I just found myself doing it. I came back and was in grad school and really late at night, at one or two in the morning, when I was done with studying for the day I just found myself at my desk writing in long hand, which became my first book. So, I can’t remember making any decision. I think I was doing it mostly for myself in the beginning just to remember what had happened, to get it on paper and sort of validate that it actually had happened and wasn’t just a dream.
Since you first penned “The Things They Carried,” how has writing about your experiences served you?
Well, I suppose that it’s gotten some of the stuff out of me in the sense that you put it on paper and it’s kinda half way out of you, I guess. You still remember things and you still have bad moments, but there’s a feeling of objectifying it that comes when you put any experience on paper, and then as time goes by, the experience on paper, which is kind of a selective thing — you don’t put all of memory on paper — that becomes more of what you remember than what you remembered, it becomes part of your memory of what had occurred.
Your writing serves as the antithesis to war-glory propaganda, in that it tells truths about what being a soldier was really like, and describes the dual battles: the physical battles and the moral battles. What do you hope readers will take away from the work?
That’s a hard one to answer. With stories and fiction, you hope they take a whole bunch of stuff away, not one thing or another, and the problem is that when you name one or two things it’s like pulling the thread out of the cloth, the cloth just dissolves.
I hope that, as with any novel that’s any good, or any work of art that’s any good, people have seen things freshly, in a way they’re not accustomed to seeing the world. Certainly “The Things They Carried” is written to challenge the reader to see things in a new way, what’s true and what’s not true, and to look at their own lives in terms of what that word ‘truth’ means and what ‘reality’ means. Because war, as in any traumatic experience — a concentration camp or a bad marriage or whatever it might be — your whole notion of what truth is gets warped, changed: who am I really, am I the person I thought I was, is that person the person I thought he was or she was, and what’s the truth about the world, am I nice guy or am I a bad guy, or am I in between, or does the truth about me change moment by moment? Sometimes I’m a good guy and other times I’m a bad guy.
That’s simplifying it, but the idea in general with art is to make people, or help people look at the world and their own lives in new angles and perspectives.
There is a lot of programming surrounding The Big Read which involves getting local veterans’ voices heard by the larger community through open mics and other activities. What can citizens learn from vets in their community, and what do former soldiers and citizens stand to gain from each other?
Well, part of it is, when former soldiers talk about their wars, it’s that validation thing going on. When 20 years go by or 50 years, you start to wonder, sort of like your childhood, did that really happen or am I misremembering it, or is my memory skewing it, am I forgetting really important things? So when you start talking to other soldiers it’s a way of clarifying your own recollections about what had occurred, it’s a way of getting new perspectives on what you thought you knew but you didn’t.
Even when I talk to guys who were in my own platoon, or my own company in Vietnam all these years later, I learn things that I didn’t even know at the time that make me see things in a new way. Because that other person might have been looking there instead of there, and he saw something that you didn’t see that’s important and changes your memory a little bit. So it’s a clarifying thing, you’re objectively clarifying things that you thought you knew about the world, but you’re also reassessing your own memory and your own imagination. So it’s a mixture of validation on the one hand and challenging on the other. ‘It didn’t really happen that way, it happened this way.’
And that explains the reason “The Things They Carried is written the way it is. I take all of those different angles of the same event, going over and over it. I’m not sure you can ever pin down truth but you can kind of circle it, bracket it. Not really touch it or fix it, but kind of circle it. That’s what happens when veterans get together and talk. Very rarely do they agree about much, but you’re expanding things for each other.
You’d hope that non-soldiers, people who’ve never been in a war would have some of the myths exploded that you take for granted and think are true, but are either untrue, or not true the way people think they are true. This whole idea of heroism, and glory and honor, well, there is an element of truth in all of that, but there’s also an element of complete and absolute falsity.
There’s nothing heroic about having a leech on your tongue in the morning, or lying in a rice paddy all night with algae all around you, soaking wet. There’s nothing gallant or ever very honorable about it at all, it’s just disgusting.
That’s not to say that moments of heroism and gallantry and honorable behavior don’t happen, but they happen in a context of horror and a context of evil and sin and just disgusting stuff. And the problem is on 4th of July and Veterans Day in places like this, only the clean stuff is looked at, never the dirty stuff, and “aren’t our boys great,” and “wasn’t I wonderful.” And there’s an element of truth in that but there’s also an element of not-so-wonderful. That’s what I hope people will get out of it, a more complete understanding of it all.
How does continuing the public discussion further clarify the complexity of what happened in Vietnam, and how does this help Americans who were not yet born — who are almost entirely removed from the current conflict — understand the realities and complexities of war?
Most of what the average person knows about Vietnam is history; it’s kind of dry, abstract, and not much of that is known either by a lot of people, but some of it is.
But it is abstract and it is historical and my hope is that with a novel, a work of fiction where you’re getting into the heads of human beings that are caught up in this history, you’re getting inside it, instead of looking from the outside, you’re going into it, into the head of the O’Brien character, or Azar, or Jimmy Cross, or all these characters, and you’re seeing it from inside out, the feel of it, the moral complexity of it all, where your country is saying this is a good thing and your conscience might be saying something a little different, and the stresses and tensions that that puts on the human psyche.
There were probably as many wars in Vietnam as there were soldiers, that’s how complex it is. And everybody had a different experience, a different angle of vision on it all. If you’re up in a helicopter, you’re seeing one kind of war, you’re looking down on it. If you’re a foot solider, you’re seeing a different war, if you’re doing the general’s laundry, you’re back in the rear, you seeing dirty underpants, you’re seeing that war. And if you’re a cook, you’re seeing that war, a bunch of spaghetti sauce.
In the end, wars are like these huge social events; they’re too easily simplified, and part of my job is to unsimplify, and to expand the mysteries and the complexity of it all through storytelling. On one level, my job is kinda easy, I try to tell a story. But within the story, I’m trying to have these characters not be one-sided, but to have multi-facets to their personalities and their takes on things.
My goal is not to teach history; if that were my goal I’d be an historian. My goal as a storyteller is to immerse people into the feel of the event, what it feels like to kill someone, or to watch a friend die, or to sink away into the muck of a shitfield. Get a sense not just of what’s happening but what it feels like to have it happening.
Do you draw parallels between the current conflicts we’re waging in the Middle East and the Vietnam war?
Yeah, there are a lot of them. The big huge difference of course is no draft, so the wolf isn’t at the door. The average American goes willingly, volunteers to go into the army or the marines, or the navy, and this act of volition and willpower and choice, and that’s a big difference. A lot of Americans, because their sons aren’t being drafted, and their daughters aren’t being drafted, they’re going willingly, most Americans whose sons and daughters aren’t doing that, they’re kind of numb to it all, what’s happening in Afghanistan; they watch it on the news but it doesn’t much affect them, except their taxes, I guess.
That’s the big difference, but there are lots of similarities. In both cases, now and then, you have guerrilla wars. Who’s your enemy, who do you shoot at, and whom do you trust. For a foot solider that’s a very big similarity, it’s huge, it informs everything you do, every moment you’re awake. When you go out on a patrol, there are no uniforms. There’s no front and no rear, and that breeds frustration, breeds anger, breeds a lot of war crimes, even petty war crimes. That’s a huge similarity. And Vietnam in that regard is very much like what’s happening in Afghanistan and very much like what’s happened and is still happening in Iraq.
The wars are similar in their absence of uniform popularity, they’re not like WWII where everyone was pretty much for it. There’s a lot of Americans who don’t know why we’re still in Afghanistan, and in Iraq. They’re similar in ‘what does victory mean?’ It was never defined in Vietnam. ‘What is winning, how do you win?’ I think that’s true in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Does winning mean “we surrender” like Japan did and Germany did in WWII? That’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine the Taliban throwing up their hands and saying “we quit.” No matter how many of them we kill. That was true in Vietnam as well. So, what does ‘victory’ mean? How do you know when you’ve accomplished your goal? What is your goal? I think Americans find it all very amorphous and blurry as to what our goals are in Afghanistan and Iraq, as we did in Vietnam. We kind of know the platitudes: stability, democracy, and that sort of thing, but what is stability and what is democracy? What if a country doesn’t want a democracy, what if they want a theocracy instead? Are we supposed to say you have to have it anyway? We’re telling you what you have to have?
All those issues are eerily familiar to what I remember from Vietnam. There are plenty more, too; I could go on for three hours on this subject.
The reasons for going to war that our government and military have provided are different from the real drives. There has been some comparison drawn to the current wars and past wars in this sense.
In general there’s a similarity; the people who are for the war claim we’re doing it for self interest, they say that Afghanistan is a breeding ground for terrorism. The difficulty with that argument is, what if you win the war? The terrorists will just find another place to do their training. Might be Pakistan, might be the hills of India, or it might be Latin America or somewhere in Asia.
Does winning in Afghanistan end up getting rid of terrorist breeding grounds? Of course not. That’s a ridiculous thing to think. It’s not a national issue, it goes across nation boundaries. And that was kinda true in Vietnam, it was wasn’t just winning a war in Vietnam, it was winning a war in Laos, in Burma, and Thailand, all of Southeast Asia.
The country is vague about its goals and what it wants to accomplish and instead relies on euphemism and relies on rhetoric. “Stop terrorism!” One way to stop terrorism is to get the hell out, give a whole bunch of aid to people. Another way is to say what do you want, what are you killing us for? Why are you attacking this country? Is there a way to deliver what’s wanted without war, that’s not going to be against our self-interest?
Americans have a hard time with that. We don’t want to understand anything about our enemies. Until 9/11, we didn’t know what the Taliban was. 99% of Americans — you could have uttered the word Taliban and they would have had no idea what it was. No idea, whatsoever. Zero. And even to this day if you were to pass out a multiple choice test, about let’s say, the history of Afghanistan, 99% of Americans are gonna get 99% of the answers wrong. There’s just an utter ignorance about it all, just as there was back in Vietnam.
That’s another similarity, of just colossal, mind-boggling ignorance. Instead relying on euphemisms. It used to be “stop the communists” now it’s “stop the terrorists.” and that sort of ends the discussion. One side of the argument doesn’t want to go beyond that. They just keep coming back to it, “stop terrorists.” What you’re doing may have nothing to do with stopping terrorists, it may not help stop terrorists, in fact it may make terrorists. For every kid that you kill, by accident or intentionally, either way, you’re making a bunch of enemies. Mommy and Daddy, and aunts, and uncles, neighbors and brothers and sisters. They may have been indifferent at the start, but they’re not indifferent anymore, they’re against you. They had nothing to do with politics, nothing to do with terrorism, you just killed their kid. Or, blew his leg off.
It may have been part of a war, we write that off as collateral damage, and yet, that’s what wars do. A bullet may kill an enemy, but a bullet can make an enemy. If that bullet hits the wrong person, you’ve got a lot of angry people. Some of that stuff is why I write. We don’t think about wars that way, we think of them instead as “we’re going to accomplish our goals by killing people. And sometimes you do exactly the opposite. There are occasions when you make enemies. You’re just an enemy-making machine through violence.
It’s not that I’m a pacifist or anything, it’s rather that I think we gotta think very clearly as a country and politically about what it is we want to accomplish and if the means we’re using are going to accomplish it or not. I was troubled by all of this in Vietnam, and as you can tell by my voice, I get kinda outraged. It stuck with me all these years.
Some feel that replacing the draft is an aggressive system of recruitment, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods.
Can you comment on that?
Only that it’s happening. Soldiers are coming, more than they did in my era, they’re coming from kind of last chance people, not entirely, but by and large, volunteer armies are people who have a hard time getting jobs. They get out of high school, maybe didn’t make it into college, don’t know what to do with themselves, some of them don’t want to go to college.
The absence of a draft means you’re not sharing the burden equally, it’s not being distributed across the country in a fair and equal way. If your son or daughter doesn’t want to go, they don’t have to go. And only those who are going to go either want to go or have to go, one of the two. They either have to go because they can’t get a job, or they want to go to serve their country.
And the result of this is, the war for so many Americans seems to be, you don’t think about it much, you don’t hear much discourse about it. You’ll hear ten people died today in Afghanistan, or two soldiers were killed, and that’s kind of it. There’s no debate really going on about it, that I can see or hear. Because it’s not affecting people except those whose sons and daughters went in voluntarily.
On a lighter note, do you have a particular story of a reader connecting with “The Things They Carried” that you would like to relate?
Yeah, there’s one that strikes me right away. I had a letter from a 26 year old woman from my home state of Minnesota. Minneapolis. She said, “I’d read your book in AP English and gave it to my dad and mom to read.” She said, “up until I gave that book them, my dad and mom were just at each others’ throats and were on the verge of divorce.” As a high school kid, she felt more like a counselor than a daughter. At one point, her mom told her “I never loved your father.”
It was just a heartbreaking letter. She gave the book to them to read and it started them talking, her mom and dad. Apparently he’d been in Vietnam fell silent and wouldn’t talk about it and it had been eating at him, and he wasn’t able to open up to his own wife and to his daughter. That book just got the family talking, and she says they’re not perfect anymore but they’re happy and they’re going to stay together, and she said for eight years she’d been wanting to write to me to say thanks and for opening up her dad and her mom and getting them to talk with each other.
That letter means a lot to me, because it’s what I wanted to do when I began writing fiction, not to do the political stuff that I was just talking about a minute ago, but rather to talk about human lives. For me writing is a kind of talking, opening up the stores in my personality and to have it happen to somebody else is really good.