In the midst of the Vietnam war, Tim O’Brien, drafted as a college graduate, sat in his foxhole on a hill in Vietnam and wrote down a few sentences about what had happened that day. Then in 1973, three years after serving in the war, he published his memoir about the war, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. Seventeen years later in 1990, he published the “memoirs” of Tim O’Brien, a fictional character in his novel, The Things They Carried.
Then on November 15th, 2016, nearly 50 years after writing those thoughts in that foxhole in Vietnam, he found himself behind a podium, talking about his experiences to the students of The Lovett School, where The Things They Carried has been a part of Lovett’s American Studies class. For that day, all students had read one of the stories, “On the Rainy River.”
We had a chance to speak with Mr. O’Brien before the assembly. O’Brien said he is a different Tim O’Brien than the one in Vietnam and even the one who wrote The Things They Carried.
“The Tim O’Brien who wrote The Things They Carried is, himself, history now. Not only was he removed from the war then, but I was somewhere in my forties when I wrote it and now I'm seventy so even that distances myself,” he said. “There’s no static Tim O’Brien. It’s always been in flux my entire life and it always will be.”
But he believes this is true for all of us. “It’s hard to appreciate how human beings change all the time,” he said. “We’re in constant flux and something will crash into our lives and it will change again. It might be a woman, it might be a man. Whatever crashes into your life, is going to change it and that happens periodically in all our lives.”
O’Brien believes that, like people, truths are subject to change. He said, “I thought I was a decent and kind guy and then I found myself in the war, where I wasn’t decent or kind. We tend to think it’s a fixed and absolute thing when instead, I think it’s very fluid and it evolves over time in all kinds of different ways.”
The Things They Carried plays with this idea of a flexible truth. “There’s the literal truth, what I call happening truths,” he says. These are things that actually happened. “And then there are things that didn’t happen, but also contain a different kind of truth.” In his book, he calls this different kind of truth the “story truth.”
O’Brien used the example of Huckleberry Finn, which, on the surface, didn’t happen but “all little boys know what it feels like to want to run away from home, go out on their own and some day find freedom. And though it never happened, it still contains that kind of truth,” he said.
When writing about history though, even the “happening truth” may seem murky. “History is only what we know. You can’t write about what you don’t know,” said O’Brien.
And that extends to the myriad thoughts and experiences that so many soldiers had who fought in that war. “They’re just erased,” he says. “So we get the illusion of history, but to call it history, the word history seems to suggest kind of encapsulating all of what happened and then digesting it down, but it doesn’t.”
When the large majority of these soldiers are lost, history looks towards literature to capture their stories. “When we write about war, ordinarily in history, we’re writing about a few human beings. Those who wore pin stripes and suits who made the war. And then we’re writing about generals and maybe some captains,” he says. “The writing of history determines in a way what will be remembered.”
O’Brien brought up one particular incident in Vietnam, the My Lai Massacre of 1968 in which a group of American soldiers landed in Tu Cung, which Americans called My Lai, at 7:00 A.M. For the next four hours, they committed a mass murder of Vietnamese civilians.
“They’d take lunch break, and they’d kill some more. They’d machine gun them, they’d kill them with knives and bayonets. They threw their bodies into wells. They put them in a ditch and just killed whoever was in the ditch. It went on for four excruciating hours, and you don’t know about it, nor does most of America,” says O’Brien. “Why? Well, when you do textbooks about history, you can’t put everything in, so you exclude this and then you call it history.”
And in this way, a country can gloss over the darker events in its past. Events like the My Lai massacre “don’t find their way into the history books, and they certainly find their way into Fourth of July celebrations, or Veterans Day celebrations. It’s all sanitized.”
While history textbooks may not cover some of the atrocities of war, Tim O’Brien’s novel doesn’t shy away from them. Reading The Things They Carried (and if you haven’t I would seriously encourage you to), you started relating yourself to the Tim O’Brien in the story, his conflicts, dilemmas, doubts, and inner-battles that seem to reach out from the pages. It’s a 3-D read, meaning that it does not just exist in two dimensions as flat words on a flat page. O’Brien’s words cause the reader to dive deep into their own thoughts and beliefs, asking themselves the same questions O’Brien asked himself as a drafted college kid.
O’Brien explained how he wanted The Things They Carried to do more than just make you think, and in order to gain that third dimension, it needed to make you feel. “It’s a mixture of think and feel together; it’s kind of the combination of the two,” he said. “Fiction ordinarily generates emotion for readers, in one way or another, if it’s any good. You get angry, or full of love, you’re excited, or whatever’s going on.”
And you may find yourself questioning your own beliefs about war, violence, loss, morality, and motivation. It’s that very concept that makes The Things They Carried such an introspectively rich novel.
This kind of introspection happened in many classrooms here, where students discussed the story about the soldier deciding how to respond to his draft notice. O’Brien shoved that dreaded letter into our hands as readers. “What if we declared war on Canada tomorrow, would you just say ‘okay America’s at war with Canada, let’s go kill people in Toronto,’” O’Brien asked. “Would you have second thoughts? What happens to your conscience? Do you just say ‘ah, I threw my conscience away.’”
O’Brien argues that these questions, the same ones that young soldiers were forced to ask themselves during the Vietnam War, are what we should be asking ourselves today. They are still relevant and both the questions and their answers tend to uncover blind spots when it comes to war. “There’s an absence of otherness in our thought, we don’t apply to other people the standards we set for ourselves and we don’t apply to ourselves the standards we hold other people to,” he says.
He brought up the example of ISIS and America’s outrage at their beheadings. He said it is of course “barbarous, savage, and terrible,” but he wondered if we ask that same question of ourselves ”because every time we drop a bomb, we behead people, and we drop thousands of them. Every time you shoot an artillery round, every time you fire a drone, and they don’t just hit the enemy, they hit children, and innocent people, and they die.”
According to O’Brien, this leaves us in a moral gray zone where “they’re evil and you’re good, and that’s ‘end of story.’” This kind of ideology greatly frustrates him, that when wars start getting fought, “the issue of rectitude goes out the window, it’s just ‘let’s win the war.’”
This idea of rectitude, or lack thereof, is woven throughout The Things They Carried and O’Brien’s openness about the reality of war, specifically his war. “My war felt like a war without purpose in all kind of ways. On a daily basis, you go into a village, you search it, somebody dies or doesn’t die, you leave it, you come back the next day or two weeks later, you do it again,” he said.
According to O’Brien, there was a lack of moral clarity. You couldn’t tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. In both our conversation and the assembly, he suggested that this was clearer during World War II.
“World War II was going towards Tokyo or going towards Berlin. There was a destination,” he said. That was something they didn’t have in Vietnam. “We didn’t have a place to go. There was no sense of destination to it all. The daily life of being a soldier seemed to be purposeless.”
Finding a purpose for those experiences from so many years ago--and for all the conflicts since then--is something he has explored with his writing.
Writing is freeing for him. And he thinks it can be for all of us too. “The hard part was living through it, but you're going to remember it anyways. You don’t forget the things that happened to you and I think writing makes it maybe a little easier...to get it down on paper so it's not just bubbling in your head all the time.”As for speaking to a theater full of high school students about his writing? “This is my own personal hell,” he said. And this coming from a man who survived Vietnam.