Skip Navigation and Jump to Page Content    The Library of Congress >> American Folklife Center  
Veterans History Project (Library of Congress) ABOUT  
Home » William Timothy O'Brien

I'd wanted to be a writer since the time I was a little kid... But I didn't have to be a writer. Vietnam made me really need to write. It was a sort of Write Or Die feeling. [Video Interview, 35:40]

   William Timothy O'Brien
Collection image
Tim O'Brien [2004]
War: Vietnam War, 1961-1975
Branch: Army
Unit: 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, 198th Infantry Brigade
Service Location: Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam
Rank: Sergeant
View Full Description

Drafted into the Army in 1968 when he was fresh out of college, Tim O'Brien was assigned to the infantry and within a year was serving in Vietnam. He was opposed to the war and during training actually planned to go AWOL to Canada. His ambitions to be a writer were fueled by his experiences in country, and he went on to write a series of acclaimed books about the war, including The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato. (At the end of the interview, O'Brien speaks about an article he wrote for the New York Times in 1994, when he returned to Vietnam for the first time in 25 years.)

Interview (Video)
»Interview Highlights  (10 clips)
»Complete Interview 
Download: video (58 min.)
More like this
»Staff Picks
»Veterans and the Arts
 Video (Interview Excerpts) (10 items)
Unhappy about being drafted in 1968; opposed to the war; feared embarrassment and ridicule if he ducked the draft; parents had both served in WWII; had hoped he could serve in a war in which he believed as they had. (02:60) Training did not prepare him for the kind of guerilla war Vietnam proved to be; only one time did he actually see an enemy soldier, on a night ambush; fired at a group of three Vietcong; still carries the burden that he might have killed one of them; continued to wrestle with his doubts about the war in his early days of service. (04:24) During training in Washington State, he plotted to go AWOL to Canada; went to Seattle on leave with intent of taking a bus to Canada; instead, went back to the base. (01:37)
In country, there was no sense of mission or even where he was other than his province; has been in contact with six members of his platoon; learned that there is no typical Vietnam veteran and that he can only speak for his own experience there; a "hearty, pranksterish" mood among the men disappeared once the fighting started; platoon leader was beloved by all his men but O’Brien, who found his treatment of the locals distasteful; the man committed suicide not long after he came home; much later, O’Brien met his son, only six when his father died, and whom O’Brien sees as a fellow veteran of the war. (05:45) How he came to be wounded; early in his tour; ambushed by enemy; grenade landed near him, another soldier nearby took most of the blast; he was "hurt," not wounded. (03:17) Didn’t understand why locals in an area they called "Pinkville" were so hostile until they learned of the My Lai Massacre, which had recently occurred near there; considers the massacre "flat-out murder." (02:32)
Writing while in country: wrote a few letters home; didn’t go into much detail; motive was "more superstitious" than protecting parents; wrote some short pieces for the Minneapolis newspaper and one for Playboy (published after he returned) that became the basis for his first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone; had always wanted to be a writer, but Vietnam made him need to be a writer; pieces were about events and other people, not about him; went to graduate school at Harvard after his return, kept writing short pieces, not intending them to be a book, but at some point, they accumulated into one. (04:19) Would have been a writer even without Vietnam; the experience made him a certain kind of writer; all his books are about the individual’s struggle to do the right thing against outside forces; has read a lot of war literature, which inspired rather than informed him; these writers created works of art that salvaged something from the awful experience of war; tries to reflect the non-linear experience of Vietnam; of his books, The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods best capture that. (06:15) Why Vietnam continues to be a divisive subject: nothing much has changed; colleagues he is in touch with still think the U.S. should have dropped nuclear weapons on Hanoi, that we could have occupied the country and determined its politics; draws comparisons between Vietnam and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. (04:22)
In 1994, wrote an article, "The Vietnam in Me," for the New York Times; talks about that piece and what has changed for him since. (03:35)  

Home » William Timothy O'Brien
  The Library of Congress  >> American Folklife Center
  October 26, 2011
  Legal | External Link Disclaimer Need Help?   
Contact Us