What We Still Don’t Get About Vietnam

Question: Are you satisfied or angered by\r\n the way Vietnam is\r\nremembered?


Tim O’Brien: Yeah. \r\nMostly pissed off.  I mean\r\nit comes down on that side. \r\nThere’s a mythology that a company’s memory of an event, and by \r\nand\r\nlarge for my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, the mythologies of betrayal.  We were betrayed by our\r\ngovernment.  We were betrayed by\r\nthe liberal press.  It wasn’t our\r\ndoing, it was their doing. 


In the same way that after World War I, the Germans\r\n were\r\npreached to by the forces of what became Hitler, you were betrayed at \r\nthe end\r\nof World War I and Germany was sold down. \r\nAnd by at large my buddies feel that way, that we could have won \r\nthe war\r\nif more people were killed and more women raped, and more houses burned,\r\n we\r\nwould have won it.  I don’t think\r\nthey’re right, but they feel that way. \r\nI think you could have paved the country with concrete and put up\r\n a big\r\nfence around it and you’d still have all these people who don’t want you\r\nthere.  "You’re Americans, and we’re\r\nVietnamese and this is our country and you may have the concrete and the\r\n bombs\r\nand the technology, but you’re not going to win us.  You\r\n may have won a war, in a way."


Well, so there are mythologies of memory.  And my dad carried with him out of\r\nWorld War II a mythology of America, the Lone Ranger, the doer of good, \r\nand the\r\ncarrier of the democratic flame, and it had an undercurrent of almost a \r\nsoundtrack of Frank Sinatra...Gene Kelly soundtrack running beneath it \r\nof buoyancy\r\nand of virtue.  And the soundtrack\r\nthat ran beneath the movie of Vietnam, you know, and all the people who \r\nare\r\ngoing to watch this know is not that “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Sentimental\r\nJourney” soundtrack.  It was a\r\nsoundtrack of The Doors, and The Stones, and it was edgy and critical, \r\nand much\r\nmore ambiguous soundtrack that more or less accurately reflected the\r\nambiguities and the absence of certain moral underpinnings to that\r\nenterprise.  Those are two pretty\r\ndifferent edifices of this called mythology about a war. \r\n And mythology is a way of eliminating\r\nall that doesn’t fit into it.  You\r\nsort of eliminate that part of it. \r\nAnd certainly that has happened, certainly for my generation as \r\nwell as\r\nmy dad’s.


Question: Has the rebelliousness \r\nsurrounding the war gained\r\nits own kind of allure?


Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I think there’s probably \r\nsome truth in\r\nthe notion that there’s an insidious and dangerous side to the mythology\r\n that\r\nsurrounds Vietnam. It has a slight stink of the "hip" and the "cool" and\r\n of the\r\n“walking the dangerous line.” And I think there was an exotic feel to \r\nthe war in\r\nthis far-off jungle and that was part of the mythology around it.  It sort of beckons one anew to the\r\nadventure when we have my exotic experience and dangerous moment that \r\nmanages\r\nto erase the absolute horror of it all... the dead people and the dead\r\nchildren, and just the horror. 


That may be part of what every writer about \r\nwar has finally\r\nhad to come to terms with in one way or another, that pretty great books\r\n have\r\nbeen written, including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," that haven’t ended\r\nwars.  They haven’t ended the appetite\r\nfor it and it probably won’t. \r\nThough you always hope. 


This little son of mine, who’s now four, his name \r\nis\r\nTad.  A week or two ago I said I\r\nwas going on a book tour, and he said, “About what?”  And\r\n I explained what “The Things They Carried” was, and for the\r\nfirst time he had encountered out of my mouth the word “war” in a \r\npersonal way.\r\nThat is, he’s probably heard me say it before.  He\r\n said, “War? \r\nYou mean really killing people, like for real?”  And\r\n I said, “Yeah, for real.”  He said, “Really?  Really killing people?”  And I \r\nbegan by saying that people get\r\ninto disagreements, and trying to simplify it.  But\r\n the astonishment on a four year old’s face that people\r\nare killing one another.  And he\r\nsaid, “For what?”  And boy that was\r\nhad to articulate an answer to it. \r\nI didn’t have an answer. \r\nThe answer I really had was, “I don’t know.”  I\r\n don’t really know for what.  Though I’m a person \r\nwho has thought about this stuff for his\r\nentire adult life, I really haven’t yet plumbed the 'for whatness' of \r\nkilling\r\npeople.  And I don’t think I ever\r\nwill plumb it.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

The rebellious anger of the Vietnam era hasn’t stopped war. In fact, "a slight stink of the hip" now surrounds our cultural memory of the event.

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