The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘It makes me cry:’ Tim O’Brien’s Vietnam War wounds will never heal

Author Tim O’Brien reading at the Wittliff Gallery at Texas State University. (Stephanie Schulz/ Texas State University)

In the winter of 1994, 25 years removed from Vietnam’s jungles of napalm and hell, Tim O’Brien boarded a plane to visit his nightmares.

By then, former Pfc. O’Brien was the reluctant and best-selling bard of that lost war, the author of the novel “Going After Cacciato” and the short story collection “The Things They Carried” — transcendent works, critics quickly agreed, that would be read as long as people could read.

O’Brien, who spent a couple of years reporting for The Washington Post after Vietnam, went back to Vietnam on assignment for the New York Times Magazine. He took his girlfriend Kate, who later took what remained of his heart. Their first stop was Landing Zone Gator, his old firebase.

The piece begins:

I’m home, but the house is gone. Not a sandbag, not a nail or a scrap of wire. On Gator, we used to say, the wind doesn’t blow, it sucks. Maybe that’s what happened — the wind sucked it all away. My life, my virtue.

I have spent a good portion of my life obsessed with Tim O’Brien. In college, to teach the rhythm of language, a creative writing professor made us memorize and recite several paragraphs from his famous short story, “The Things They Carried.” I set out to read everything he had written. I remember reading the Times story on microfilm in the library. I remember how it devastated me.

In some ways, like the war it describes, the story has been somewhat forgotten, but I was moved to read it again after seeing O’Brien in the first episode of the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick 10-part documentary on the Vietnam War. The other day, I called him to chat about it, a conversation that quickly turned to how the war still consumes him, to how difficult it is to watch Burns make literature of it, to the fantasy he creates every night to fall asleep.

“I wrote the story mainly to keep myself alive,” O’Brien told me. “I guess to tell myself that you don’t have to be in a war to have been in a war.”

Two narratives run through the piece. The first: The trip itself, visiting spots where his buddies were blown up, watching Kate cry at the site of the My Lai Massacre when a survivor describes the villagers taken to a ditch and shot dead. The second: The trip’s aftermath, the thoughts of suicide, of Kate being somehow changed and leaving him, the lesson that, as O’Brien writes, “You don’t have to be in ’Nam to be in ’Nam.”

A young photographer took this harrowing image of the Vietnam War. He didn’t live to see it published.

At night, back in their hotel room, O’Brien tried to explain how a small-town Minnesota boy like him was able to survive. He writes:

For me, at least, Vietnam was partly love. With each step, each light-year of a second, a foot soldier is always almost dead, or so it feels, and in such circumstances you can’t help but love. You love your mom and dad, the Vikings, hamburgers on the grill, your pulse, your future — everything that might be lost or never come to be. Intimacy with death carries with it a corresponding new intimacy with life. Jokes are funnier, green is greener. You love the musty morning air. You love the miracle of your own enduring capacity for love. You love your friends in Alpha Company — a kid named Chip, my buddy. He wrote letters to my sister, I wrote letters to his sister. In the rear, back at Gator, Chip and I would go our separate ways, by color, both of us ashamed but knowing it had to be that way. In the bush, though, nothing kept us apart. “Black and White,” we were called. In May of 1969, Chip was blown high into a hedge of bamboo. Many pieces. I loved the guy, he loved me. I’m alive. He’s dead. An old story, I guess.

The Burns documentary, after starting with a history of Vietnam and America’s entanglement, has moved into into the hell-of-an-unwinnable-war stage, which reminded me of the paragraph of O’Brien’s short story I had to recite in class:

For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn’t, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die.

I asked O’Brien what watching these scenes was like for him.

“It makes me cry,” he said. “I can’t stop crying. I can’t stop thinking of what a waste it all was.”

Traitors or patriots? Eight Vietnam POWs were charged with collaborating with the enemy.

His voice trailed off for a moment.

“It’s a sense of my life too — it was kind of wasted,” he said.

My eyes welled up with tears.

I said, “But you’ve also been able to create literature out of it. Does that soothe you in any way?”

“I guess my books do things out there in the world, beyond the literary,” he said.

He gets letters from the families of Vietnam vets and of more recent wars too — Iraq, Afghanistan.

“Now at least having the books, they have some idea what is making them so silent,” he said. “In that sense, I’m glad I wrote the books. But on a personal level, they weren’t in any way I know of therapeutic, like I got it off my chest or something. You are plagued by it. It’s not every waking moment, but almost.”

O’Brien is 71 now. He hasn’t spoken to Kate in decades. He’s married, with two children, and he teaches writing at Texas State University. He has not been back to Vietnam since the trip he took for the Times. For one thing, he doesn’t like long flights. But he also knows that he’s not the young man he was as a soldier or the middle-aged man he was with Kate.

Young warriors — the ones who survive — grow old. The terrain of the jungle is forever young and infernal.

And yet the jungle is where O’Brien will sleep until he’s gone.

He lays in bed every night imagining himself in a deep bunker — the nets, the rocket perimeter, his buddies.

“Other people think I’m nuts, but it works,” he said. “A couple minutes later, I’m asleep.”

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