What We Still Don’t Get About Vietnam

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.
  • Transcript


Question: Are you satisfied or angered by the way Vietnam is remembered?

Tim O’Brien: Yeah.  Mostly pissed off.  I mean it comes down on that side.  There’s a mythology that a company’s memory of an event, and by and large for my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, the mythologies of betrayal.  We were betrayed by our government.  We were betrayed by the liberal press.  It wasn’t our doing, it was their doing. 

In the same way that after World War I, the Germans were preached to by the forces of what became Hitler, you were betrayed at the end of World War I and Germany was sold down.  And by at large my buddies feel that way, that we could have won the war if more people were killed and more women raped, and more houses burned, we would have won it.  I don’t think they’re right, but they feel that way.  I think you could have paved the country with concrete and put up a big fence around it and you’d still have all these people who don’t want you there.  "You’re Americans, and we’re Vietnamese and this is our country and you may have the concrete and the bombs and the technology, but you’re not going to win us.  You may have won a war, in a way."

Well, so there are mythologies of memory.  And my dad carried with him out of World War II a mythology of America, the Lone Ranger, the doer of good, and the carrier of the democratic flame, and it had an undercurrent of almost a soundtrack of Frank Sinatra...Gene Kelly soundtrack running beneath it of buoyancy and of virtue.  And the soundtrack that ran beneath the movie of Vietnam, you know, and all the people who are going to watch this know is not that “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Sentimental Journey” soundtrack.  It was a soundtrack of The Doors, and The Stones, and it was edgy and critical, and much more ambiguous soundtrack that more or less accurately reflected the ambiguities and the absence of certain moral underpinnings to that enterprise.  Those are two pretty different edifices of this called mythology about a war.  And mythology is a way of eliminating all that doesn’t fit into it.  You sort of eliminate that part of it.  And certainly that has happened, certainly for my generation as well as my dad’s.

Question: Has the rebelliousness surrounding the war gained its own kind of allure?

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

That may be part of what every writer about war has finally had to come to terms with in one way or another, that pretty great books have been written, including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," that haven’t ended wars.  They haven’t ended the appetite for it and it probably won’t.  Though you always hope. 

This little son of mine, who’s now four, his name is Tad.  A week or two ago I said I was going on a book tour, and he said, “About what?”  And I explained what “The Things They Carried” was, and for the first time he had encountered out of my mouth the word “war” in a personal way. That is, he’s probably heard me say it before.  He said, “War?  You mean really killing people, like for real?”  And I said, “Yeah, for real.”  He said, “Really?  Really killing people?”  And I began by saying that people get into disagreements, and trying to simplify it.  But the astonishment on a four year old’s face that people are killing one another.  And he said, “For what?”  And boy that was had to articulate an answer to it.  I didn’t have an answer.  The answer I really had was, “I don’t know.”  I don’t really know for what.  Though I’m a person who has thought about this stuff for his entire adult life, I really haven’t yet plumbed the 'for whatness' of killing people.  And I don’t think I ever will plumb it.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen