How U.S. Soldiers Have Changed Since Vietnam

The author and former veteran sees none of his generation’s “edgy,” questioning attitude in the modern military.
  • Transcript


Question: What’s different about the American soldier’s experience now as opposed to when you served?

Tim O’Brien: Well, one of the huge things, of course, is there’s no draft and the people that are fighting are in the armed forces out of volition or of their own will, decisions.  And that’s pretty huge.  It attracts a certain temperament that wasn’t mine.  A kind of “can-do,” macho, adventurous temperament.  And patriotism feeds in very strongly as well.  That’s a pretty big difference from the people who went to fight; I mean there were many volunteers, of course, that went to Vietnam.  But the bulk of us were draftees who probably more or less went reluctantly.  And in my case, a lot more than less.  And so the two wars are being fought by American soldiers on each side of pretty different temperaments. 

I, for example, did an article for a big magazine, where I was sent to Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio, where the terrible amputees are sent and the burn victims.  And I felt great compassion for these young men and one young woman.  But out of their mouths, there was none of the irony that accompanied the war from my generation.  There’s no questioning of the rectitude of the war whatsoever.  It was just—it wasn’t even thought about as far as I could tell.  In fact, in response to my question, do you ever wonder about there were no weapons of mass destruction?  Did that bother you?  And the answer was uniformly from many, many mouths, a flat, “No.  It doesn’t bother me. I don’t even think about it.”  But even the “don’t think about it” wasn’t there.  It was just, “No, it doesn’t bother me.” 

There was none of the edgy feel of questioning or ambiguity, or that certainty thing we began with, was there in those young people.  And these were horribly maimed people.  Horribly wounded.  But, instead coming out of their mouths were words such as, “wounded warrior,” and “war against global terror,” and it was kind of military sloganeering.  It was part of who they were.  And that was another one of the differences from my time.  One of the odd things, I guess, one of the great ironies is that “The Things They Carried” as a book is one of the things being carried around Iraq and Afghanistan and finding out that book is passed around from soldier to soldier, which gives me a little hope that they’re getting something from another point of view, which is mine.  And that’s good for me.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen