Tim O’Brien spent 13 months of his now 70-year life in Vietnam, fighting a war in which he didn’t believe because … well, when he got his draft notice, he didn’t have the guts to cut and run to Canada.
There, however, he began to write. While others in his Army unit lazed away their free time as best they could, O’Brien retreated to a foxhole to scribble out a few pages in dwindling light about what had happened to him and his buddies that day.
Those scraps of paper eventually became a highly praised memoir. O’Brien poured his war experiences — both real and imagined — into more books, which won more acclaim, which brought him fame and a measure of fortune.
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His third book about Vietnam, “The Things They Carried,” sold 20 million copies and became a defining account of the war even though it was primarily fiction.
O’Brien, in other words, is who he is in no small part because of Vietnam.
He’d nevertheless go back to 1968 if he could. And alter his life’s course.
“I certainly like to think that I wouldn’t do it again,” he says. “I’d summon the courage somehow to say no to my country and my hometown and my mom and dad. And say yes to my conscience. I think I’d be a much happier guy now and much more at peace with myself.”
“The Things They Carried,” O’Brien’s evocative collection of stories about a fictional platoon of U.S. soldiers before, during and after the Vietnam War, famously details what they lugged through the hills and swamps of Southeast Asia. There were necessities like flak jackets, C rations and, of course, rifles and other munitions, along with mosquito nets, pocket knives and pictures of girlfriends.
Heavier and harder to leave behind were the nonphysical burdens: longing and fear, grief and shame, “all the emotional baggage of men who might die.”
“The idea,” O’Brien says,” was to salvage something out of the horror.”
He did it through books. His aching memoir, “If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home,” was published three years after his return from Vietnam (with a Purple Heart for shrapnel injuries suffered in a grenade attack). Five years later, O’Brien won a National Book Award for Fiction for “Going After Cacciato,” his anti-war novel about a Vietnam combatant who decides to hike 8,600 miles to the Paris peace talks.
“The Things They Carried” would become his most enduring work after its release in 1990, a window into the physical and psychological toll of the war that connected with those of the Vietnam era and continues to speak to generations whose wars are waged in Afghanistan and Iraq.
It’s the centerpiece of the Big Read, a 2 1/2 -month initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Arts on which all six of the Kansas City area’s major public libraries now are collaborating. O’Brien himself served as an adviser for Ken Burns’ latest PBS documentary, “The Vietnam War,” which begins airing on Sept. 17.
A Minnesota native who now lives in Austin, Texas, O’Brien recently discussed “The Things They Carried” and the lasting impact of Vietnam. Excerpts are edited for length.
Q: Is there still a lot you’re carrying from Vietnam and the war?
A: It’s like having cancer and you survive. You’re always going to carry the residual effects of it with you. Even if it’s not physical, it’s in your dreams and it’s in your fears and it creeps into your daily life.
I don’t want to sound self-pitying about it. I do all the things an ordinary person does and, by and large, my days are not spent thinking about Vietnam. It’s more that those memories pop up at inopportune and sometimes bizarre occasions, when you least expect it. You blink, and you’ll be back in Vietnam for a few seconds and your heart beats quickly.
Q: Anything in particular?
A: No, it’s everything in general. It can be the most innocuous comment someone makes. … A helicopter going overhead will always bring me back to Vietnam because helicopters were so ubiquitous. They were everywhere we went. We were taken into battle in them, and then we were taken out of battle in them.
Q: You were a combat infantryman. What kind of experience was it?
A: It was occasional heavy action, and then the times in between firefights and land mines going off were in some ways more terrifying than the action itself. Because you were dreading it with every step you took. Will my foot touch down on a land mine? What will happen in the next 10 seconds as we begin to cross a rice paddy?
It was a constant expectation of death and horror and terror, and it didn’t go away. It would infect the way you slept, your dreams.
Q: “The Things They Carried” came out 17 years after your memoir, “If I Die in a Combat Zone.” Was there more you needed to say? Or something you needed to say in a different way?
A: I wouldn’t say I had more to say. I never knew what to say, in fact, and so I’d rely on the stories.
And I had plenty of stories that, for me, needed to be told … ones that occurred to me in my imagination, that almost happened or may have happened or could have happened, and others that did happen. There was a whole mix of stories that had been nibbling at me.
Q: You wrote that a “story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.” So, fiction can be a truer account?
A: Yeah. Because most of the truth erases itself as it happens. I was wounded, for example, but I can remember virtually nothing about that event. All I can say was that I was scared for an instant and I saw a flash of red and, boom, that was it.
A story, with the slowing down of time and insertion of invention, feels more real — and, in a sense, is more real because it captures the emotions that I actually felt. The reader, you hope, will also feel the emotions of being 21 years old and thinking your life is over for no good cause.
Q: Do you have a sense of how “The Things They Carried” resonates today, with generations that were barely out of diapers or not yet born?
A: I get emails, letters, sometimes even phone calls, and those I hear from fall into two general categories.
One is the children and wives and lovers and parents of veterans, some from my era and some from the current era, who say, “My boyfriend or son or father won’t talk about what he went through, but I’ve read your book and now I know at least something of what he endured and what he’s enduring right now, why he stays so silent.”
And then the veterans who write me, whether from my era or from current wars, mainly say, “It validates what I’m going through now. It’s nice to know that somebody else went through this nightmare and came out of the darkness into the light afterward, survived it all with a measure of sanity.”
A lot of the letters say, “I’ve carried your book through my tours of duty in the Middle East, and it helped me.” They can’t say exactly how, but they say inexactly that (it’s knowing) somebody else has gone through this and felt some of the same things, some of the anger and some of the shame and some of the second thoughts — “Is this the right thing to be doing, killing people?” Those letters mean a lot to me.
Q: You’ve talked about your admiration of Ernest Hemingway, among other authors. Do you see parallels between you and him, drawing from your war experiences, dealing with the consequences of war? Even your simple, direct writing styles?
A: It’s more like parallaxes. As much as I used to admire Hemingway, I (now) find more fault with him. In fact, I just finished a 110-page essay on Hemingway that will be part of a book I’m working on.
He meant a lot to people of my generation, probably because of the power of “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” and “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber.” I mean, some of his stories are exquisitely nice.
But they’re also filled with things I don’t believe in and didn’t at the time, a (pleasure in) violence that was alien to me even as I read it. I remember reading “A Farewell to Arms” when I was in the hospital when I was in college and thinking at the end of the book, “This guy’s last act on earth as he prepares to die is to kill a fellow human being? Why not surrender?” ’
Q: Your last book was “July, July” in 2002. So, you’re working on a new one?
A: I’ve got two young kids, one is 14 and one is 12, and I’m old. I’m not going to be here in 20 years. You want to leave something for your children, and this book is what I’m leaving them. Whether it’s published or not, who knows?
But I want to leave what I wish my father had left for me, which is some testament of his love for me, some explanation of his life, which in large part is a complete mystery to me. The book is meant to say to my kids, “Here’s your father, or here’s his voice.”
Q: Bryan Cranston narrated an audiobook edition of “The Things They Carried.” How did he do?
A: I haven’t heard it. I don’t care who narrated it, I know I would have objected. There’s at least one earlier audio version (released in 2003), and it felt as if it were no longer my book. It’s amazing what voice can do in changing the feel of things. It feels like it’s not yours anymore.
I’ve been told by many people that Cranston is fantastic, and I can understand that having watched “Breaking Bad.”
Q: So, will you give it a listen?
A: I’m sure I won’t. I don’t want to go through what I’ve gone through before, muttering to myself, “The emphasis doesn’t go on that word. It goes on that word.” It’s totally unfair to Cranston to say that, but I know how it sounded in my inner ear when I wrote it. … I’ll take the royalties and be really, really happy.
Steve Wieberg, a former reporter for USA Today, is a writer and editor for the Kansas City Public Library.
Join the discussion
The Kansas City Star partners with the Kansas City Public Library to present a book-of-the-moment selection every six to eight weeks, inviting the community to read along. This selection, Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” is the centerpiece of a wider Big Read initiative on which all six of the Kansas City area’s major public libraries are collaborating. Kaite Mediatore Stover, the Kansas City Public Library’s director of readers’ services, will lead four discussions of the book:
Sept. 13 at 6:30 p.m. at the National World War I Museum, 2 Memorial Drive.
Sept. 17, at 1 p.m. at the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Library’s South Branch, 3104 Strong Ave., in KCK.
Sept. 19, at 6:30 p.m. at the Johnson County Library’s Central Resource Library, 9875 W. 87th St., in Overland Park.
Sept. 22, at 2 p.m. at the Mid-Continent Public Library’s Lone Jack Branch, 211 N. Bynum Road, in Loan Jack.
If you would like to attend one of them, email Stover at email@example.com.
“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.
“The truths are contradictory. It can be argued, for instance, that war is grotesque. But in truth war is also beauty. For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorous, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not.”
From the seventh chapter, How to Tell a True War Story, of “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien, originally published by Houghton Mifflin.