The following is a question-and-answer session with author Tim O’Brien in anticipation of the film screening of The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien with special guest and director of the documentary, Aaron Matthews on Thursday, May 11th from 5pm-8pm at the Library of Congress. Prior to the film, enjoy live music from Gold Star sister, Barbara Martin, and view a Vietnam-era exhibit in the Library’s Great Hall. This event is free and open to the public, but tickets are required, and there may be special restrictions. Click here to secure your ticket.
Obviously, not everyone has the ability to document their experience of war into a best-selling book, discussions or film. Based on your personal experience, what are your thoughts on the Library of Congress Veterans History Project serving as a platform for all veterans to have their story told?
I think it is essential. There were as many Vietnam wars as there were Vietnam veterans, American and Vietnamese from both sides of the War. There is not a single Vietnam (war). There is the Vietnam going through my head, which is anchored to a particular time- in my case was 1969-1970, a particular place -Quang Ngai Province in Vietnam. A few square miles of Vietnam, that’s my war. For those in the highlands of Vietnam, those in the far north of Vietnam or in the Delta of Vietnam, there was a different war, with different memories, different people, a different period of history. Certainly, the end of the war was much different from the beginning of that war. There are so many stories to have been told, as many stories as there were soldiers in the war on both sides.
What is something you wish more people knew about Vietnam veterans?
There are so many things. There are more people who do not know about the life of a soldier, than what people DO know. I think what comes to a civilian’s mind when they encounter a Vietnam veteran, or a veteran of any war, instantly are images of death, bombs going off and gunfire, but by and large, the war was boring. As almost every war is for 99 percent of the time. It’s a strange kind of boredom. It’s boredom with a twist. A kind of boredom that causes stomach disorders with acid in your stomach. What will happen next? What’s behind that hedgerow? What’s over that mountain? It’s a kind of fearful sort of boredom with slapping mosquitoes, eating C-rations, digging foxholes and a lot of walking. In the infantry it was boredom, now and then punctuated by horror. Where all the standard images suddenly are real and they’re happening all around you- gunfire, men yelling, fear of death, dealing with death and the aftermath of a battle.
Most civilians, I think, don’t know much about the fearful anticipation of horror that is with you all the time, day and night, even in your dreams. That anticipation stays with you years later, as it has with me. My dreams are almost always filled, not with actual events of gun battles and so on, but rather with images of wandering around in the dark, being lost. Where are my comrades? I’m in this foreign place and surrounded by Boogeymen and ghosts out there in the dark. It is the anticipation that something bad is about to happen or will happen with the next step, or the next step or the next step. I remember, probably as vividly as I remember anything, I remember my own feet from my own boots. I was looking down at the kind of dusty, clay trail and seeing my feet moving towards some destination, but I knew not what it was, nor did any of my fellow soldiers. Most often, nothing would happen, but now and then something horrible would happen. Yet, my feet kept moving. It seemed like a miracle. How could I do it? How could I keep my feet moving through these minefields? Here I am, a 21-year-old kid, moving towards my own possible death and yet, my feet just kept doing it. It seemed astonishing as if I weren’t in control of my legs.
It strikes me that the perception of Vietnam veterans and the War was something you tried to correct in your book “The Things They Carried,” which was included in the Library of Congress 2016 exhibit “America Reads” of the public’s choice of 65 “most influential books written and read in America and their impact on lives.” How does that feel to share your story and the story of so many others impacted by the Vietnam War?
It felt good to relieve myself of some of the things I’ve been carrying all these years, the memories of Vietnam, of my friends, of the countryside around me, of the great terror of the land itself. I mentioned land mines. That was, for us, the main killer in Vietnam. There were “Bouncing Betties;” booby trapped artillery rounds; little, bitty mines we call “toe poppers” would blow a foot off. They were everywhere in and around Quang Ngai Province. The place was littered with them. There was an area we worked in—we called it “the athletic field.” It was, maybe, two square miles of meadow, former rice paddies with some working rice paddies. That place was just totally mined. Legs, feet and arms were going into that field. We called it the athletic field because you had to be an athlete to traverse it. You’re going to kind of leap from spot to spot, like the long jumper, to avoid the mines.
In any case, that felt good to get that out of me and somehow put it on the page. To write about the mines, which are very, very rarely depicted in film, because they can’t be depicted well, otherwise you would have a totally black screen. So, that that comes out of my memory, my fear of the dark and of all the terrible things that happened at night. It goes onto the page and you feel a slight unburdening when you’re finished a paragraph or a chapter that takes place in the dark. That can be said about pretty much the whole book. It was a shifting of the burdens, slightly from me onto the page where it now rests in part. It’s not to say that I don’t still have dreams and don’t still remember, for of course I do, the war will never go away, but it does lighten the burden, a little by sharing it with others.
What did you think of the documentary?
The filmmaker, Aaron Matthews, managed to transform a boring life into a kind of interesting life. He captured the essential elements of a writer’s life, as I was writing a book about being a writer – loneliness, the domesticity of putting food on the table, children, marriage, the ups and downs – the struggle of writing a book. Aaron brought it all to life. It was a lot more compelling than I expected. I’ve never been involved in the making of a movie before, but I was struck by the similarities with the elements of storytelling in both formats.
What are you working on now?
Over the last four years, I have written a new book. There was a character who had been gnawing at my thoughts for a few years. The character got me to write a new book called “America Fantastica” that will be out in October. It was fun to write and the first time in many years that I really enjoyed writing the book and going to work each day. The writing was still challenging, but something about the character made me happy while writing her story. We will see what the county thinks in a few months.
The film screening of “The War and Peace of Tim O’Brien is part of the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration’s “Welcome Home! A Nation Honors our Vietnam Veterans and their Families,” that will take place on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. from May 11-13th. For more information, visit https://www.vietnamwar50th.com/.