The short story “The Things They Carried” celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. Written by National Book Award winner Tim O’Brien, the story has been hailed as one of the best ever written about the Vietnam War. “The Things They Carried” became the first narrative in a groundbreaking collection of war stories published by the same name in 1990.
The collection moves “beyond the horror of the fighting to examine with sensitivity and insight the nature of courage and fear, by questioning the role that imagination plays in helping to form our memories and our own versions of truth,” lauded New York Times reviewer Robert R. Harris.
The famed author and Vietnam War veteran O’Brien will travel to Spokane to read from his work at 7:30pm Monday in the Hemmingson Center Ballroom as part of the Gonzaga University Visiting Writers Series.
O’Brien spoke by phone from his home in Austin to The Spokesman-Review about the war he fought and the ones the U.S. is currently waging. The following are excerpts:
Q. Do you feel there are any similarities between the Vietnam War and the wars we are carrying on now?
A. I certainly do. We are essentially engaged in two more civil wars (Afghanistan and Iraq), which are virtually impossible to win. I can’t imagine al-Qaida or ISIS saying “We surrender” no more than I could imagine the North Vietnamese saying it. … They seem unwinnable, at least in any standard sense, and that’s how Vietnam felt to me. It felt like we could have paved the country in concrete north and south and surrounded it with an electric fence and we still wouldn’t have won. … The war was really inside the minds and the heads and the hearts of the people in Vietnam, and bombs and bullets could only go so far. They really can’t kill an idea … a desire.
Q. You are one of the few voices that draws parallels between current wars and Vietnam. Do you think the draft has something to do with it?
A. I think it has a lot to do with it. I think that by and large America doesn’t even know it’s at war on a daily basis. People go to work, and you know, go to parties, and make chit-chat and just go about their lives, doing the things they do. … People aren’t stupid, they know that there are wars going on, but they don’t have much of a stake in it. It’s easy to give lip service to a war if you’re not going to die in it.
Q. In your story “On the Rainy River,” (included in “The Things They Carried”), the narrator considers dodging the draft, but ultimately goes to Vietnam.
A. I went to war because I was too embarrassed not to do it. You don’t want people to think of you as a coward or a sissy or a traitor, and I valued their opinion too much. I didn’t value my own conscience enough.
Q. What keeps you up at night?
A. The war’s been over for 50 years, but in your dreams it’s never over. It just keeps revisiting you, different kinds of things. It’s not always gory war and dead bodies. It’s oftentimes a sense of just being totally lost. I was in the infantry, so we fought at night, and it’s just black, and somewhere out there, all around you, is the enemy. … It’s this terrible lost feeling. … And beneath that there is this spiritual lost feeling that I get. Why am I killing people? And why am I here? And why is our country here? And what do we expect to gain from all that?
(The Vietnam War), like virtually every other war, they are always sold to us as pending catastrophes. If we don’t kill people, terrible things will happen. Communists will land in San Francisco, or Seattle or Spokane, and the dominoes will fall, and America’s honor will be permanently besmirched. But none of that happened. … Business is booming, Hewlett Packard is there, IBM is there, Apple is there. Kids are bicycling down Highway 1 as we speak. And we lost the war. It’s a staggering thought that there are 3 million dead Vietnamese and 65,000 dead Americans, and nobody much cares.
Q. Do you think the U.S. should quit fighting these ‘civil wars’?
A. There is a writer named Andrew Bacevich … he says that ultimately the victor in the Middle East is going to be determined by a contest between a radical fundamentalist theocracy or another kind of theocracy, a moderate one, a more benign one, but still a theocracy. … They are going to have to determine it themselves. There is nothing we can do about the outcome. We can kill as many people as we want to kill, but it’s not going to change anything. They will replace their dead people, the same way we would. (Macevich’s) solution is to try to encourage as much as we can the moderate – but still Islamic – forces in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. … But killing people is not just immoral in my opinion, it’s just impractical. I don’t think it could work.
Q. Do you ever find that people want you to be a psychiatrist in addition to a writer?
A. Yeah, sometimes I’m a psychiatrist, sometimes I’m a historian, sometimes I’m a political scientist, sometimes I’m a philosopher, but what I really am in my heart is I’m a storyteller. I’d much rather tell the story and let everything else I have to say stay contained within the story.
So the idea for me is to try to put people into my own shoes through a story as much as I can. They are the boots of a foot soldier who actually has to do the killing and dying for everybody back home who is going to their country club for a drink, while you are in some Godforsaken place trying to stay alive. You try to put them in the war as deeply as a novel or story will let you.
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