How U.S. Soldiers Have Changed Since Vietnam

Question: What’s different about the \r\nAmerican soldier’s\r\nexperience now as opposed to when you served?


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


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


There was none of the edgy feel of questioning or \r\nambiguity,\r\nor that certainty thing we began with, was there in those young people.  And these were horribly maimed\r\npeople.  Horribly wounded.  But,\r\n instead coming out of their mouths\r\nwere words such as, “wounded warrior,” and “war against global terror,” \r\nand it\r\nwas kind of military sloganeering. \r\nIt was part of who they were. \r\nAnd that was another one of the differences from my time.  One of the odd things, I guess, one of the great \r\nironies is\r\nthat “The Things They Carried” as a book is one of the things being \r\ncarried\r\naround Iraq and Afghanistan and finding out that book is passed around \r\nfrom\r\nsoldier to soldier, which gives me a little hope that they’re getting \r\nsomething\r\nfrom another point of view, which is mine.  And \r\nthat’s good for me.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

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

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