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Question: What can’t art convey about the experience of war?

Tim O’Brien: You can’t physically put a person—I mean, I’ve often thought what a cool movie, for example, if you go to a war movie and out of the screen came real bullets, and you’re ducking and you not shielded by the knowledge that I’m not going to die in this movie house, or else not a bullet’s going to do it.  And you can’t do that.  You rely, as you probably do in anything, you’re relying on the human—the reader or the audiences’ imagination to sort of suspend the knowledge that I’m not going to die inside this book, or at this movie, but you almost try to seduce the reader, or the audience, into almost forgetting that.  Almost forgetting that feel of danger.  And a good work of art—there’s a movie called “The Messenger” that’s recently come out about—with Woody Harrelson and Ben Foster.  And it’s a war movie, in a way, although none of it happens in war.  It’s the notification of next of kin where they knock on doors and say, “Your son’s dead,” or "Your husband’s gone."  And although you know in the theater it’s not—they’re actors and so on, there’s a bluntness and a brutality and a horror to it that’s something that goes way beyond the John Wayne stuff and the actual war stuff, which has you kind of expect what’s coming.  It’s a war, people are going to die and you harden yourself to it and they do.  It’s a different experience to watch those knuckles on the door and door open and that person die in front of you, that mother.  That is what art is for.  That’s what it’s for.  It’s for cutting through rhetoric and cutting through politics and cutting through convention to open a trapdoor in your soul.

Question: What is your opinion of our current wars in the Middle East?

Tim O’Brien: Well, the avowed purposes behind our pre-emptive war in Iraq was to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, I think I’m pretty clear on my memory on that.  Well, there weren’t any.  And it’s a bit like, let’s go to war because we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, except that Pearl Harbor hadn’t happened.  And I’m astonished that it seems largely forgotten.  It seem erased from the public discourse about the war.  I don’t hear many people going on television saying that we went to war on reasons that didn’t exist.  I don’t feel any outrage coming from anybody.  And not only don’t I feel it now, I never felt it.  I find that stunning.  And what I do hear instead is, well we got rid of a tyrant.  Saddam Hussein.  The problem with that is, in the first place, that isn’t the reason we went to war.  Powell didn’t go before the United Nations saying, “Let’s get rid of a tyrant.”  He went before it saying there are weapons of mass destruction.  And there was no tyranny stuff there except in the most second-hand and trivialized kind of way. 

Beyond that, there’s a thing called consistency, and there’s another thing called hypocrisy.  And if the object is to get rid of tyrants around the world, why aren’t we nuking "Red China," or what the Republicans used to call “Red China.”  And why aren’t we at war with half the countries in Latin America, and why aren’t we attacking half the countries in Africa, if not more than half.  And there’s no answers to those questions.  Sort of cherry-pick your war, and you’ll get rid of that tyrant.  And then there’s the question of "tyrant" in whose eyes?  And what if, for example, Al-Qaeda were to declare George Bush was a tyrant and we’re going to attack.  Are we all going to say, okay, come attack us?  It’s okay to attack tyrants.  Who declares who the tyrant is?  Have we been elected as the country to decide on who the tyrants are and who the good guys are? 

Those are complicated questions and they’re not addressed.  They’re not even looked at anymore.  And that’s part of where my frustration comes, I think, in writing about this subject is that I feel that things have been de-elevated and that the discourse is aimed at a really low, low, low place.  And difficult questions are just not answered, they’re not even asked.  And they aren’t asked by, or don’t seem to have been asked by the people who are uttering the bellicose rhetoric of war.  They seem to be elided and evaded.  And then there’s the final issue that kind of attends to your question which is the issue of personal... I don’t know how to phrase this... but a personal commitment to one’s own rhetoric, that the rhetoric of bellicosity that has surrounded, especially the initial phases of our intervention in the Middle East.  These people aren’t there.  The Cheneys—the public face and the public explainers of our presence—too often they are hiding their kids away at Yale or wherever, and they’re not putting their bodies where their rhetoric is. 

It’s one thing to sit in a TV studio in your cute bow tie and say, “Let’s go kill people.”  And it’s another thing to go and do it.  And if you don’t go, send your daughter, or your son.  They’ve got to go.  And they’ve got just go and walk the streets and drive the vehicles and risk maiming and death.  And the hypocrisy of saying, “It’s a great thing to go kill people, but you go do it.  I’m not and my kids aren’t, but you go do it.”  But after having gone through a war myself, that still stirs in me in the same way it did 40 years ago an anger that’s hard to keep my voice under control as I’m talking about it now... because it seems so dishonest and so cowardly, and so evil in the end.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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