Question: How did your experience as a Vietnam War journalist affect your writing?
Robert Stone: Well, it really dictates its own language to try to describe the infinite contradictions and ironies that are generated by language, language that is deliberately perverse, or often deliberately perverse and simply perverse because of its nature. The attempt to link life in language anyway, without even getting to a situation as complex and fraught as war, is a strange thing anyway when you try to hook up language with life, you run into millions of shadows and contradictions and ironies.
I should say that my experience of war in Vietnam was quite limited, but I did feel a necessity to see what I could. I wasn't in the military at that point; I was freelancing. But you always learn. I think you always learn from the experience of war and I was not circumstantially, my experience was not as demanding of me, of my sanity as it was for many people. But I certainly found out things that I hadn't known before.
When I was in the military itself, I really hadn't seen – I had seen a lot of water, I'd seen a lot of the world. I couldn't do much with it, but I could see it. However, I wasn't involved in any action as a sailor except as a witness to some of the fighting in the Middle East. But in Vietnam, I went to Vietnam with the objective of being a witness and it puts you in a place you haven't been. I learned a lot, I think.
Question: What was the most important thing you learned from the war?
Robert Stone: To just put a lot of experiences together. I wasn't there a long time, and I wasn't in the worst places, by any means. But, there's a phrase in Lear that always took hold of me and it's where Lear is wandering mad on the heath and he sees the character Edgar, who is pretending to be mad, pretending to be a beggar in rags, and in a way is not a beggar in rags in the play. Lear sees this demented youth who is coming apart at the seams and chanting and says, "An unaccommodated man is no more than such a poor bare forked creature as thou art." And the phrase "unaccommodated man" always stayed with me and I always associated it with what I had seen in Vietnam. And then what I had seen subsequently in the Gaza Strip, in various places, or difficult places that I'd worked. "Unaccommodated man," man in the wrong place, any man in the wrong place, any person in the wrong place, unaccommodated, lost, threatened, hungry, dislocated, unaccommodated, and some how those words became for me a kind of prayer, or chant, or invocation or something.
So, to roll it all together, what I saw, the worst thing I’ve seen, I think, has been the spectacle of the unaccommodated man.
Recorded December 9, 2009
Interviewed by Austin Allen