Vietnam Vet Described War, How Writing Helps Process Experiences

October 26, 2017

A Vietnam veteran featured in a recent PBS documentary says that stories are "powerful" and can touch the lives and hearts of not only the authors themselves but readers as well.

Tim O’Brien, who has written several works of fiction and non-fiction centered on the Vietnam War, was the featured author for the University of South Carolina Aiken’s annual James and Mary Oswald Distinguished Writers Series on Tuesday night.  He was also part of The Vietnam War: A Film by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, broadcast on PBS.

The former Army soldier explained how his writings help him deal with his experiences in Vietnam.  After reading an excerpt from one his books, O’Brien explained while the particular scenario did not happen as he described it in the book, he often uses situations he and his fellow service members experienced as inspiration for some of his stories.

The fictional excerpt explicitly outlined how a soldier in Vietnam killed an unsuspecting, yet armed, lone individual walking down a trail late at night.  After the reading, O’Brien explained the real ambush he was a part of that led to the fictional account.  In truth, 30 people fired upon three Vietnamese walking down a road at approximately midnight, yet only one Viet Cong was killed.

"I will never know if a bullet from my weapon killed that kid," he said.  "We all have to take responsibility for what we do."

"Those who have been in war have to deal with our own complicity.  [All the members of that patrol] have to take responsibility for that death," O’Brien told students faculty, staff and community members – including many veterans.

"In fiction, I can take responsibility for that death.  The story is my responsibility for taking the life of that young man."

He shared how terrified he and his fellow soldiers were during patrols, how they dealt with death on a daily basis – whether they were causing it or trying to escape it – and the impact the memories of his time in uniform still have on him.

O’Brien – emotional at times during his presentation – detailed how he felt lying in the dark, "waiting for death to strike you or for you to strike."

Even today, he vividly recalls those experiences.

“You often look up and here comes that history again.  All of us are revisited by our histories – and as you get older, the more and more history you have," O’Brien said.

He explained that wars don’t end when peace treaties are signed – and that he and others who served are still dealing with the controversial conflict and its aftermath.

"Wars stay with you.  They don’t vanish when the war is over.  The casualties of war are not just the people who died in it but the families and friends of those killed – they have to be counted as casualties too."

At the end of the war – and even still today – his writings helped him process the events.  They’ve not only been cathartic for him but for other vets as well.

O’Brien shared how one of his books, The Things They Carried, had an impact on one reader who for many years never talked at all – about anything – to his family.  But after reading O’Brien’s book, the Vietnam veteran opened up to his family – about his anger, frustration, bitterness, sadness and how profoundly the war impacted him physically, emotionally, and mentally.  The daughter of this particular veteran reached out to O’Brien, sharing the influence The Things They Carried had on her family.

To the USC Aiken student-writers in the audience, O’Brien shared that fiction "grows out of real experiences."

"As a fiction writer, I’m not limited by what happens in the world – what almost happened but didn’t; what could have happened but didn’t; what should have happened but didn’t," O’Brien said.

"When writing fiction, don’t be afraid to lie.  In fiction, it is a virtue; do it well.  Stories that are invented move me in a way that the real story did not."

Students who attended O’Brien’s reading say they were moved by what he shared.

"I am in awe at the immense feeling one can emit from ‘just writing fiction,’” said Adan Curiel-Cervantes.  “Never before [I attended the reading], had I ever seen writing the way I see it now."

O’Brien’s real experiences inspired his works of fiction, which he hoped would lead readers to know what it feels like to be a soldier in Vietnam.  He wants them to feel the danger, the conflicts – personal and interpersonal, the finality of death, the confusion of combat and the impact of war. 

"O'Brien proved to me that writing can change and even greater solidify the way people view and feel about things," Curiel-Cervantes, a freshman pre-vet biology major, said.

"Of the many things we could all learn from O'Brien, he taught me that evoking a genuine response in readers can make writing a truly rewarding experience." 

After studying political science at Macalester College, O’Brien served in the United States Army and fought in Vietnam. When he returned home, he studied intermittently at Harvard and worked for the Washington Post. He collected his newspaper and magazine articles about his war experiences in his first book If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973). 

The Vietnam War is also present in O’Brien’s novels Northern Lights (1975); Going After Cacciato (1978), which won a National Book Award; The Things They Carried (1990); and In the Lake of the Woods (1994). O’Brien’s writing took a new turn with Tomcat in Love (1999), a nuanced comic novel about the search for love, and July, July (2002), whose disillusioned characters gather for a college class reunion.

O’Brien is Professor of Creative Writing in the MFA Program at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.

This biannual literary event first began in 1985, when, with the support of then-Chancellor Dr. Robert Alexander, the USC Aiken Department of English established an annual visiting writers’ series. Since its inception, the series has been dedicated to extending the learning experience beyond the classroom by providing public readings of important contemporary poetry and prose to USC Aiken faculty and students and members of the greater community.

In the first decade, the series was directed by Dr. Stephen Gardner, who worked with representatives from the South Carolina Arts Commission to have USC Aiken declared as a host site for authors that the commission brought to the state for multiple-campus residencies. The literary luminaries featured in the series during those early years included a number of Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, including novelist Michael Chabon and poet Yusef Komunyakaa.

In 1995, the series was renamed for longtime Aiken residents James and Mary Oswald, who created an endowment to enhance departmental initiatives to promote general interest in the English language and its literatures. Stewardship of the series changed hands in 1997 when Dr. Tom Mack and Dr. Phebe Davidson assumed responsibility. Since then, the roster of distinguished visiting authors has grown to include such significant writers as Judith Ortiz Cofer, Josephine Humphreys, John Jakes, Allan Gurganus, Robert Olen Butler, Sharyn McCrumb, Larry Thomas and Rick Bragg.

Dr. Drew Geyer, chairman of the USC Aiken English Department, now leads the effort.

USC Aiken, a comprehensive university in the University of South Carolina system, offers undergraduate and master’s degrees to more than 3,500 students in 50 programs of study. USC Aiken is ranked the #1 public regional college in the South by U.S. News & World Report’s guide "America’s Best Colleges." The 2018 distinction marks USC Aiken’s 20th consecutive ranking among the top three in this category and its 13th time in first place.