Tim O’Brien on What We All Can Learn From Ken Burns’ ‘The Vietnam War’
The author of ‘The Things They Carried’ talks about the importance of the newest Ken Burns documentary, and how relevant the war is today.
Tim O’Brien is not just a chronicler of wars, but a writer who understands the centrality of story to our culture. In his seminal Vietnam book The Things They Carried, he wrote: “Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
This Sunday, the sixth episode in the ten-part documentary series The Vietnam War directed by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick will air on PBS. Like O’Brien, they too have chronicled the story of America through its wars. To date theirs is one of the most comprehensive pieces of filmmaking ever on that conflict and, in light of its conclusion, I spoke with author Tim O’Brien about the film, his service in Vietnam, and the long shadow, which that conflict casts not only on America, but also on Vietnam, and the broader world.
Elliot Ackerman: The conflict in Vietnam has been pretty exhaustively explored in film, literature, television, nearly every medium. What holes in our understanding of that conflict do you think The Vietnam War can fill?
Tim O’Brien: Huge holes can be filled. Many Americans don’t know much in terms of the historical details about what happened fifty years ago. History courses in schools don’t often go into much detail and often Vietnam isn’t taught in a significant way until kids are much older. You can’t understand the flow of history if you don’t know the details of what happened.
My wife, for example, stopped me in the middle of one of the episodes and even she asked: “Who were we fighting? Were we fighting the NVA (North Vietnamese Army) or the Viet Cong?” I spent the next few minutes explaining to her the difference between the two. To understand the complexity of the war, you have to understand its history. To not understand that history is a dangerous thing.
In this country, we often celebrate the things we’ve done well but bury the things we haven’t. And because we celebrate in a general way, we celebrate inappropriately. We celebrate the westward expansion of this country, but we rarely discuss the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans. We celebrate militarism, but hardly discuss incidents like Mai Lai. It’s about knowing what to question and what to find wrong.
EA: I remember when I was in Iraq in 2004. We didn’t really know whom we were fighting. When I came home the cover of Newsweek was this silhouette of an insurgent with a question mark on the face and the headline “Who Are They?” You mentioned the differences between the NVA and Viet Cong, did you understand those differences when you were in Vietnam?
TO: I had a greater understanding because I went to war in 1969. The war had been raging for years and I had soaked up a great deal. So I knew the history and understood the details of that history. But in another sense, I was as ignorant of their motivations as anyone. Why are they fighting? Do they want independence? We were de facto colonialists in their eyes, no different than the French or Chinese. The liberal take is that they were fighting for independence. On the other hand some of the people fighting there were dedicated communists. Then you have to ask the questions about communism. The very word communist is an economic term, yet we equated it with totalitarianism, which was often an offshoot of communism but which was still a separate thing.
Ultimately, we were ignorant of what these people were after. In the film, we learn that the North Vietnamese were less united than we thought. We see that Ho Chi Minh had reservations about open hostilities with the west, while one of his chief deputies Lê Duẩn maneuvered around him to escalate the war. Our enemy was multi-layered and at the time none of us understood them. But I did know that we were fighting people who wanted their independence. Had I been a civilian, I would have wanted it as well. But I’m no lover of communism.
EA: Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Do you see those rhymes today in our current set of wars?
TO: Things today feel more similar than they do different. The similarities are not so much political, but rather experiential. I think about landmines, for instance. Now we call them IEDs. Same thing. I think about the casualties that I’m constantly reading about in the newspapers. How do you shoot back at a landmine? It makes you feel frustrated, scared, bitter … It doesn’t conform to what you’ve been taught in your training, where war is often cleaner, an issue of us versus them. I can’t remember ever finding the enemy. So the emotions of going through a war are similar.
In Vietnam there were so few pitched battles. Maybe the Marines up in the north would fight a pitched battle and occasionally they would occur in the south. But ours was a war of patrols and getting ambushed. Of going out on ambush. It was moving through villages. Going down road or trails. It was movement without a sense of destination. We didn’t have a Tokyo to aim at. We’d return to the same ground over and over.
One huge difference between now and then, though, is that you guys volunteered. You knew you might get killed, or you’re seeing you buddies get killed and you chose to take those chances. Most of the guys I was with were drafted. There’s a psychological difference between blaming yourself and blaming others. We did have a choice and that was to say: no.
But it didn’t feel like a choice unless you wanted to be branded a coward for the rest of your life.
EA: When I served in Iraq and Afghanistan, nobody ever talked about winning the war. It just wasn’t how we thought about things. Did you guys ever talk about winning the war?
TO: By 1969, nobody ever talked about winning. I think there was a “can-do attitude” early on in the war, but after the Tet Offensive (I got there a year later) we had been reading enough headlines to absorb the hopelessness of the war. Even our officers never talked about winning. They would talk about our area of operations. We still had a “can-do attitude” about specific missions, but in no way gung-ho, just more of us having a job and knowing that we needed to get it done. Kind of like: This is going to be scarier than shit. But we got to do this.
EA: You wrote, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.” You’ve published both memoir and fiction. What drew you to each?
TO: My first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, was a memoir. If the war is bad enough, you’ll be thinking about it a lot. So I came home and I had this accumulation of events. I unloaded. This happened and then this happened. Writing that way has a superficiality to it. It didn’t convey the incredible disorientation of the experience. Because of this, I didn’t feel as though I was telling the whole truth through the non-fiction. Through writing about what almost, could have, or should have happened, I felt that I could get at what did happen. In The Things They Carried, I allowed my character—the one who carried my name but wasn’t me—to think about all this stuff. That book, which is almost all invented, is emotionally closer to what the war actually was with me. The ambiguity of the experience is captured through fiction. This incredible sense of ambiguity.
EA: The Things They Carried is arguably your most famous book. Is it your favorite?
TO: In the Lake of the Woods is my favorite book. The writing is crisper. It is more truly about Vietnam than any other of my books. It’s about what secrecy does, what happens when you don’t know where to start, what stories to tell. This is what keeps a lot of veterans silent and drawn up within themselves; they don’t know where to begin. Often we want to help people move on, to put the experience behind them. To forget even. But you can’t. It’s like asking someone who had cancer to forget that they had cancer. You can’t and you shouldn’t put it behind you. The best you can do is plod forward with your life remembering and not forgetting.
EA: Are there books about war that you read before you went to Vietnam that proved meaningful to you, which, later, after you’d returned from the war, you re-read and they had a different type of resonance?
TO: Hemingway. I read For Whom The Bell Tolls in college when I was laid out with pneumonia. My father had brought it to me. I remember reading it as a romance. Robert Jordan, the protagonist, is screwing this partisan girl Maria out in the woods. He’s not attached to a formal military unit. He’s on his own. The whole thing seemed very romantic. His attitudes are very romantic. His vocabulary about war is romantic. At the end of the novel, when he dies, he does so with this great sense of resignation. I didn’t see many guys die like that. I saw lots of guys screaming at the tops of their lungs, screaming for their Mamas. Never resignation. But when I first read it, the romance of that book struck me in a positive way. Now it strikes me in a negative one. It feels untrue. It feels made up. It feels like what Hemingway wished war had been. Then you start to hear about his experience. He was a bystander. He didn’t do the day-to-day grinding stuff. He wasn’t a grunt. He lived in hotels and flirted with señoritas. You can write about war without being in it. I don’t begrudge him that. But the only real action in that book is when in the end of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Robert Jordan kills a man.
He feels no remorse when he kills. He just does it.
To kill without remorse, that feels false.