Sponsored by the Miami Writers Institute, this post features an interview between Andrew Slater and Tim O’Brien. Slater is a veteran of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, a lecturer of English composition at the American University of Iraq- Sulaimani, and a fiction writer whose work has appeared in the literary journal Epiphany and the anthology ‘Fire and Forget’. O’Brien, an American novelist who has written extensively about the Vietnam War, is best known for the short-story collection ‘The Things They Carried’ and the novel ‘Going After Cacciato,’ for which he won a National Book Award in 1979. On Tuesday, April 9, O’Brien will deliver an address at Coral Gables Congregational Church as part of a month-long series of events inspired by his work. For full details, visit thecenteratmdc.org.
Here’s the interview.
Slater: Many younger veterans, when we see writing about Iraq and Afghanistan, in its tone and direction of focus it feels like a cut-and-paste job from previous wars. When you began writing If I Die In A Combat Zone and Going After Cacciato, were you conscious of the idea that war literature from previous generations just wasn’t the right container to talk about Vietnam, that you had to develop a different kind of story that gave it a sense of fiction-truth?
O’Brien: I did, I agree. There was a kind of model or narrative of America at war that we were accustomed to through World War II and Korea that didn’t apply any more with the guy on horseback with the white hat galloping to the rescue to the needy and oppressed. When we talked about war we were the good guys all the time. War was justified. None of it seemed to apply to what I experienced.
Slater: What about at the micro level, the day to day business of being a soldier in Vietnam?
O’Brien: The lingo in Vietnam was very particular and I tried to be faithful to that. Some of that lingo has lasted to Iraq and Afghanistan and soldiers will include that language when they write about that, the way soldiers express themselves. My job as I saw it was to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be a combat infantryman in Vietnam, how we saw things, how we justified the things we did.
Slater: It seems like there’s a difficult gray area between legitimately conveying the lessons or at least the reality of war through literature and the arts, and an ugly commercialization that glorifies war under the guise of honoring soldiers. As just one example, in this generation, realistic video games loosely based on actual wars we are fighting right now sell tens of millions of copies. I know the designers, in their own way, think they are honoring soldiers by their intense devotion to the verisimilitude of combat, but as a veteran (and there are Vietnam versions of these games too) there is something incredibly creepy about millions of Americans vicariously living the violent life of soldiering completely detached to the reality. It seems there is an aspect of this in film and memoir as well, getting sold as true adventure story, not the horrors of war. I’m curious to know if the commercialization of war, accelerated since 9/11, seems troublesome to you or if it seemed similar (or worse) during the Vietnam years?
O’Brien: Early on, we had movies that came out of Vietnam that were John Wayne stuff: The Green Berets, The Boys in Company C, things like that. We had a whole litany of glorifying war movies, none of them questioning the ambiguities and morality of it all. There was no discussion of whether this was a war of containment or a war of aggression. Those questions were put aside. After war was over, maybe after 10 years, these things started to surface. Through film and novels, after a while there was much more questioning of what had happened.
It wasn’t a glorious enterprise and day by day, second by second, it was evil. Killing people is still evil. You carry your guilt and you carry guilty thoughts. If you kill a 16-year-old kid, an enemy soldier, and see him dead, he thought he was just as right as you were. When you’re a 14-year-old kid you hear, “Thou shalt not kill” and then you go to Vietnam and you are told, “You better kill or we’ll court martial your ass.” How do you adjudicate it? What if your country told you to invade Toronto tomorrow — would we do that? We learn to take orders [as soldiers] from our commander in chief without question, but those questions of morality, when they effect you personally, they become pretty damn important.
I objected to a whole bunch of things. We had the GI Joe dolls for example, kids dressed up like Rambo, I objected to it, the exploitation of war, as you said. But I objected mostly to the hypocrisy, all these guys in their fancy suits saying, “Let’s go fight the war,” and they’re tucking their kids away at Yale and Stanford, out of harms way. Dick Cheney is just emblematic of so many like him in Kiwanis clubs all across the country. “Let it be someone from Harlem or Jackson, Mississippi, but not my kid.” So much of it seemed hypocritical.
Slater: Do you think there is a difference in dealing with the trauma of war between Vietnam, which ended with the fall of Saigon and Gerald Ford being able to declare that our “long national nightmare” was over, and our current wars, which might continue in dwindling small unit advisory action for a decade, almost like Vietnam in reverse, but in a way that keeps us from ever saying “it’s over”?
O’Brien: You’re in for the same thing without the big drama. You’re in for the corruption and tyranny and everything back to the way it was before we got there, and you’ll think, “What a waste,” like we did. What a waste of three million dead Vietnamese, a war that was billed as catastrophic if we failed. “The dominoes will fall,” they kept saying, and now there’s normalized relations and American tourists going there like it never happened. I’m wearing a JC Penney shirt right now that’s made in Vietnam. It wasn’t going to be a catastrophe, but it was billed that way, to the extent that three million people died. What a waste. I fear that’s the consequence, what a waste. Nothing much has changed. All those noble aims, some of which were just plain wrong.
In my era, soldiers would have been pissed if we had been lied to about WMDs to start a war. I had a chance to go to visit some wounded soldiers and I asked them if they weren’t pissed about the lack of WMDs in the end. A lot of them said they didn’t really think about it when they were over there, some of them guys with terrible wounds.
For us, our anger came out in different ways. What did we accomplish today? We burned some houses down in a village and now the enemy’s back and has it again. The military necessity thing, we just didn’t feel that, even guys who believed in it before the war. We didn’t feel we were accomplishing anything. That sense of helping people. We didn’t feel that way because we were just killing people. There was no sense of helping. No productive feeling or some positive signs or feel to it. When I spoke to these new vets, they had a lot of the same issues: Who do you shoot at? Who do you trust? Who do you kill? Lots of these soldiers had the same issues that we did.
Now there are more constraints on that, but I’ve talked to enough young guys. There’s the same psychology to it all. You’re still pretty darn young and you’re angry, your friends are dying, and you’re scared out of your mind. Who wouldn’t get frustrated? Who wouldn’t just want someone to fight?
Slater: Who are you reading lately?
O’Brien: A lot of serious non-fiction, Tom Ricks stuff. Recently I read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain, and it’s a really, really fine book. If you haven’t read it you really should. But I read all over the place.
Slater: Do you still feel new influences to your writing?
O’Brien: I wouldn’t say things are still influencing me in a literary sense. Not much, maybe a little bit. Mostly life is delivering new influences on me. For example I have two young kids: a seven year old and a nine year old, and that influences me and it affects what I’m going to write about. It influences me in a moral sense. Having two little kids makes me think about what will happen to them. I certainly hope what happened to me won’t happen to them. I’ve become more peaceful in my rhetoric — though I’ve never been a war monger — and more skeptical. I don’t want my kids to die in a war for weapon of mass destruction that don’t exist. That doesn’t mean there aren’t occasions where force is necessary. But I am skeptical of the efficacy of the whole enterprise of war now. Does anyone think the Taliban or Al Qaeda are going to surrender or quit or come to a negotiating table? That’s never going to happen. In World War II, in previous wars, the theory was to reduce their capacity to wage war until they surrendered. With nation states that’s possible, but it’s not possible with a loosely-run, worldwide organization. And every time one of our bombs kills a seven-year-old kid — they may have been indifferent before you killed their child, but not after.
Slater: This is a bit out of left field, but American women are, for the first time, writing about their experiences in combat — and by that, I mean close combat of the infantry variety, killing enemy soldiers, being wounded by direct fire, facing death. I had women serve alongside me in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it makes you reflect on how war seems like it is built around an entirely male mythos. Not to simplify anything along gender lines, but do you think something new is going to come out of women writing about these experiences?
O’Brien: I kinda do, there’s a hope. I don’t know if I expect it. The gulf between the men and women in terms of experience will be less wide. For women of my generation, combat was an entirely foreign experience, not that they didn’t experience the ugliness of war, losing husbands and sons and brothers, but they didn’t have to go through it as personally. It makes a little less possible some of the male chauvinism of society. “You’re talking down to me as a man when you didn’t go into combat but I did.” I’m hopeful that it may be helpful in the long run. On the other hand, I’m canny enough to know it’s no cakewalk for women dealing with the male culture of combat. It has to be difficult in all kinds of ways. It’s hard to applaud loudly enough their endurance and their tolerance for what I know they’re going through, if the military culture is anything like what I went through. As a country that’s fifty percent women, they now have a skin in the game in a way they didn’t quite have it before. The war is not just at their husband or brother’s door, so it might provoke more thoughtfulness about it all around.
Slater: Do you think that there is a difference between the current wars, which are largely endured by America’s military communities, and Vietnam, which was more of a national experience?
O’Brien: Beyond any doubt, there’s no question about it. You sit in your house and you don’t have a kid at war and that 30-second spot on the news says eight guys died in Baghdad. No faces, no names, you are utterly divorced from the war. The volunteer army, I’m sure, has wonderful aspects for the military because they got people committed at least enough to join, which is probably a good thing. They are probably better soldiers than we had in the draft years, with people who thought the war is an ugly, nasty thing having to take part in it. But when you have millions of people drafted, maybe half of whom are opposed to it, then their families get the consequences. It’s a national phenomenon, not this sliver of the population dealing with it.