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Looking Back at the Vietnam War with Author, Veteran Tim O’Brien

April 28, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Thirty five years after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, Tim O'Brien's collection of stories about an American platoon, "The Things They Carried," is being reissued as it celebrates its own 20th anniversary. Jeffrey Brown talks to the author about the experiences that led him to write the book.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: It was 35 years ago this week that the Vietnam War came to an end.

Jeffrey Brown talks to author Tim O’Brien about a book on the war that has stood the test of time.

JEFFREY BROWN: What makes a war story ring true and what makes one last? “The Things They Carried,” a work of fiction about the experience of a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War, was published in 1990.

Twenty years later, it has sold more than two million copies and appears on numerous high school and college reading lists, one of the rare works of recent literature that has helped define Vietnam and the experience of war.

Marking the anniversary, author Tim O’Brien is out talking to students and others, including this recent Webcast conversation shot at a Washington, D.C., high school. O’Brien himself served in Vietnam and has written a memoir of that time, as well as six other novels.

Welcome to you.

TIM O’BRIEN, author, “The Things They Carried”: Thanks for having me on.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you set out to do? I saw you talking to the students, and you talked about using fiction as a way to get at the truth of war.

TIM O’BRIEN: Yes. For me, the way to approach a subject such as Vietnam is through storytelling. It’s one thing to watch a newscast or read a newspaper or a magazine article, where things are fairly abstract.

In fact, the word war itself has a kind of glazing abstraction to it that conjures up bombs and bullets and so on, whereas my goal is to try to, so much as I can, capture the heart and the stomach and the back of the throat of readers who can lie in bed at night and participate in a story.

When I have a book I enjoy, I’m partly in the book. I’m not just observing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s — excuse me — it’s interesting in this case, because it’s almost like you wrote it in the form of a memoir, in some sense.

TIM O’BRIEN: I did.

JEFFREY BROWN: It just feels like the truth. There’s a character named Tim O’Brien, who is serving and is later a writer.

TIM O’BRIEN: Yes. That was part of my — I suppose, my strategy in writing this book.

I wanted to write a work of fiction that would feel to the reader as if this had occurred or, in a way, is occurring as I read it. And, so, I would use every strategy I could think of, invention, and dialogue, and using my own name, dedicating the book to the characters, as a way of giving a reader a sense of witnessed experience.

I was a soldier in Vietnam. But the stories in the book are, for the most part, invented. Yet, they’re launched out of a world I once knew.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote a memoir of your experience.

TIM O’BRIEN: I did.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote another novel, “Going After Cacciato,” another beautiful, prize-winning novel. That one was, I think, eight or nine or 10 years after you left Vietnam.

This one is some 20 years after the experience.

TIM O’BRIEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is it that these things stayed with you? Did they take a long time to percolate? How did that work?

TIM O’BRIEN: Yes, I think a certain objectivity and distance was necessary, at least in my case, to write a book that would last, in some way.

When you’re so close to material, it would be if you had come out of a bad marriage. You would be so close to it, that you would be paying attention to detail that may not mean a whole lot for the reader.

And, for me, at least, I needed to distance myself to allow my imagination to reorganize and to reinterpret the material that had been so close to me that it was hard to separate what would be important for the story and what wouldn’t, what the reader would need and the reader would not.

In the end, stories have to be about the — squeezing the human heart, and that was my objection with “The Things They Carried.”

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, it’s interesting, in light of books and movies now about current wars — and we have talked about that on this program, what resonates and what doesn’t, and how much time does it take — “The Hurt Locker” just won best picture…

TIM O’BRIEN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … a lot of other awards. Not a lot of people went to see it. Other movies have not drawn audiences. There’s been books.

But your sense is that, for the author, it takes time. What about for the audiences?

TIM O’BRIEN: I think that’s probably a great point. It may take time to say, I really want to put my free time into that experience, when I’m so inundated with the news coming out of Iraq or Afghanistan, that, in my off-hours, I don’t want to confront it.

There is pain in it, and it’s not happy hour. And literature, ordinarily, is not happy hour time, that it has to do with plumbing the depths of suffering and sorrow of all sorts, not just of suffering that may come from a war.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you — are you surprised at the book’s continued popularity?

TIM O’BRIEN: I am.

JEFFREY BROWN: What explains it, do you think?

TIM O’BRIEN: Well, I am surprised.

I had set out to write a book for, you know, people who were over 25, say, and I certainly wasn’t aiming at a high school or a collegiate audience. Something about the title may explain part of it. “The Things They Carried” is really meant to go beyond war and to really write a book about — called “The Things They Carried” about your life or the life of a mortician or a housewife or a stockbroker.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, I mean, just to explain to people who haven’t read it, it begins with literally the things they are carrying in their pockets, on their back.

TIM O’BRIEN:

Quite literally.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, somehow, those things are more than just the things themselves, the stuff.

TIM O’BRIEN: Yes. I mean, the things we carry, the objects we carry say things about the sorts of people we are.

The book — so, the book does start with the physical stuff we carry through — through a war, not just the military stuff, but the rabbit’s feet and the pictures of your girlfriend back home, and all you don’t have.

And then the book tries to move into the emotional and the spiritual burdens that you’re going to carry, not just through the war, but to your grave.

JEFFREY BROWN: You know, you said that you thought of an audience older, of 25, perhaps.

TIM O’BRIEN: I did.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yet, I watched you with those high school students today. And you said at the end that these were the people that you really wanted to address.

TIM O’BRIEN: They are.

JEFFREY BROWN: Twenty years later, what is it that you hope that they and others take from the book?

TIM O’BRIEN: To move beyond platitude, to move beyond the mythology we carry about ourselves and our country, to move beyond the — sort of the notion, I suppose, that, through physical violence, we’re going — we can always accomplish what we want.

Sometimes — sometimes, things like wars can do precisely the reverse of what you want with a policy. You can manufacture enemies, as I was telling the class, that a bullet can kill the enemy, but a bullet can also produce an enemy, depending on whom that bullet strikes.

If it strikes some little boy, a 3-year-old, you have got a very angry mom and a very angry dad and a bunch of neighbors who are not happy. That isn’t to say I’m arguing against all war. And — but it is to say that I think young people, in particular, need to understand the complications and the ambiguities of these things, and to hear it from someone who has not only gone to a war, but devoted a lifetime to suffering from it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, “The Things They Carried” 20 years later.

Tim O’Brien, thanks for talking to us.

TIM O’BRIEN: Great pleasure. Thanks.