Skip to content
Who's in the Video

Tim O’Brien

Tim O'Brien is an American novelist. His books include the National Book Award-winning "Going After Cacciato" (1978), as well as his debut novel, "If I Die in a Combat Zone,[…]

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.

Question: Are you satisfied or angered byrn the way Vietnam isrnremembered?

rnrn

Tim O’Brien: Yeah. rnMostly pissed off.  I meanrnit comes down on that side. rnThere’s a mythology that a company’s memory of an event, and by rnandrnlarge for my fellow soldiers in Vietnam, the mythologies of betrayal.  We were betrayed by ourrngovernment.  We were betrayed byrnthe liberal press.  It wasn’t ourrndoing, it was their doing. 

rnrn

In the same way that after World War I, the Germansrn werernpreached to by the forces of what became Hitler, you were betrayed at rnthe endrnof World War I and Germany was sold down. rnAnd by at large my buddies feel that way, that we could have won rnthe warrnif more people were killed and more women raped, and more houses burned,rn wernwould have won it.  I don’t thinkrnthey’re right, but they feel that way. rnI think you could have paved the country with concrete and put uprn a bigrnfence around it and you’d still have all these people who don’t want yournthere.  "You’re Americans, and we’rernVietnamese and this is our country and you may have the concrete and thern bombsrnand the technology, but you’re not going to win us.  Yourn may have won a war, in a way."

rnrn

Well, so there are mythologies of memory.  And my dad carried with him out ofrnWorld War II a mythology of America, the Lone Ranger, the doer of good, rnand therncarrier of the democratic flame, and it had an undercurrent of almost a rnsoundtrack of Frank Sinatra...Gene Kelly soundtrack running beneath it rnof buoyancyrnand of virtue.  And the soundtrackrnthat ran beneath the movie of Vietnam, you know, and all the people who rnarerngoing to watch this know is not that “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “SentimentalrnJourney” soundtrack.  It was arnsoundtrack of The Doors, and The Stones, and it was edgy and critical, rnand muchrnmore ambiguous soundtrack that more or less accurately reflected thernambiguities and the absence of certain moral underpinnings to thatrnenterprise.  Those are two prettyrndifferent edifices of this called mythology about a war. rn And mythology is a way of eliminatingrnall that doesn’t fit into it.  Yournsort of eliminate that part of it. rnAnd certainly that has happened, certainly for my generation as rnwell asrnmy dad’s.

rnrn

Question: Has the rebelliousness rnsurrounding the war gainedrnits own kind of allure?

rnrn

Tim O’Brien: Yeah, I think there’s probably rnsome truth inrnthe notion that there’s an insidious and dangerous side to the mythologyrn thatrnsurrounds Vietnam. It has a slight stink of the "hip" and the "cool" andrn of thern“walking the dangerous line.” And I think there was an exotic feel to rnthe war inrnthis far-off jungle and that was part of the mythology around it.  It sort of beckons one anew to thernadventure when we have my exotic experience and dangerous moment that rnmanagesrnto erase the absolute horror of it all... the dead people and the deadrnchildren, and just the horror. 

rnrn

That may be part of what every writer about rnwar has finallyrnhad to come to terms with in one way or another, that pretty great booksrn havernbeen written, including "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," that haven’t endedrnwars.  They haven’t ended the appetiternfor it and it probably won’t. rnThough you always hope. 

rnrn

This little son of mine, who’s now four, his name rnisrnTad.  A week or two ago I said Irnwas going on a book tour, and he said, “About what?”  Andrn I explained what “The Things They Carried” was, and for thernfirst time he had encountered out of my mouth the word “war” in a rnpersonal way.rnThat is, he’s probably heard me say it before.  Hern said, “War? rnYou mean really killing people, like for real?”  Andrn I said, “Yeah, for real.”  He said, “Really?  Really killing people?”  And I rnbegan by saying that people getrninto disagreements, and trying to simplify it.  Butrn the astonishment on a four year old’s face that peoplernare killing one another.  And hernsaid, “For what?”  And boy that wasrnhad to articulate an answer to it. rnI didn’t have an answer. rnThe answer I really had was, “I don’t know.”  Irn don’t really know for what.  Though I’m a person rnwho has thought about this stuff for hisrnentire adult life, I really haven’t yet plumbed the 'for whatness' of rnkillingrnpeople.  And I don’t think I everrnwill plumb it.

Recorded March 22, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen