Two famous authors discuss one war: Tim O'Brien, Tobias Wolff on writing about Vietnam

Two award-winning writers discuss ethics, writing and war, drawing from their own experiences as American soldiers in Vietnam.

They both are megastars in the literary universe, and both were Vietnam War soldiers. And both have succeeded in an unpleasant genre: writing about war.

Award-winning writers Tobias Wolff and Tim O'Brien met onstage this week as part of Stanford's "Ethics and War" series to discuss their craft: How do you portray the horrors of war? What are the responsibilities of the writer?

The questions themselves are clichés, in a genre littered with them – a point they addressed in their conversation, sponsored by the Humanities Center.

O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, In the Lake of the Woods, and July, July, noted that he didn't have the expected "shoot 'em up stuff" in his books for a simple reason: "Part of it is that I can't recall well. There was a general atmosphere of chaos, fear-based," he told an overflow crowd at Cubberley Auditorium. "Memory evaporates," said the writer, who has received a National Book Award.

He added that he never saw war as "male adventure," but was drafted: "I went to war kicking and screaming. I was terrified of dying." 

As a result of the short-circuited memory and the fear, "What I end up writing about is aftermath stuff – what you end up carrying around for the rest of your life."

Wolff, a Stanford professor of English and author of Old School, This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army, noted that war writing is "so encrusted with cliché," replete with images of "helicopters coming out of the mist" and jazzy lingo among soldiers. Wolff recoils at the clichés, adding that, for him, "When people use the word 'Nam' it's like salt on a slug."

Wolff, who has received two PEN awards and a Los Angeles Times Book Prize, said war writing typically features "ossified conventions" – soldier teams that inevitably include "a Polock," and "a guy who wears glasses; they call him 'Doc.'" Wolff recalled hammy stereotypes of more recent vintage – a recent portrayal of a vet as an amputee, wheeling himself on a sort of scooter, "like Porgy."

"It took years before I could deal with my memory honestly," he said.

A soldier with literary aspirations

Wolff said he already had literary aspirations when he went to Vietnam. He wrote letters home with the idea that they would be the basis of his future writing. On reviewing them years later, he said, laughing, that "they were just crap."

"They were totally untrue. They were literary. I was actually there, writing home literary experiences from books I had read," he said.

His letters failed to capture the "growing corruption," "the horrible way we treated people," "the ironic vocabulary around every corrupt thing you did, how you became habituated to it, callous."

How do you write about war? "You do it sentence by sentence, line by line, character by character, even syllable by syllable," said O'Brien. "You have to have a poetic sensibility – that language matters.

"You dive into that wreck and try to salvage something," he said.

During their discussion, both writers wrestled with the ethics of war. Wolff asked, "Can those two words be in the same room together? Can human nature survive the challenges of war and remain ethical?

"I'm not a pacifist. I can't imagine what would have happened to the world if we had not resisted Nazism," he added.

O'Brien addressed the ethical issues of war in a democracy.  "Does it matter not at all if tomorrow we invade Toronto, and that's cool? The majority wants it?" O'Brien asked. "Is there a point at which you say 'No, I'm not going to shoot that old guy?' Or is it just, 'Yessir, we're going to kill Canadians tomorrow.'"

O'Brien was dismayed at the lack of outrage that there were no weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq to justify U.S. aggression: "Forty years ago that would have broken hearts and there would have been anger. As if Pearl Harbor had not happened."

Partly the apathy results from outsourcing war within American society, he said. O'Brien decried decision-makers "sitting in their safe TV studio making these declarations. They're not putting their body where their rhetoric is. It used to make me burn with fury," he said. "Why the hell aren't they here, doing the killing and dying?"

Wolff noted that "a burden that used to be shared somewhat equally has been lifted and placed on a few."

"When you might be sent there, you take an interest. You don't worry about things when you're not directly involved," he said. "It isn't a moral crime. It's a natural thing. There's a quiescence here."

When a woman asked the writers about post-traumatic stress disorder, O'Brien took an unconventional stance: "One of the ways to deal with trauma is to be traumatized," he said.

"I worry that there's not enough trauma," said O'Brien. "We seem to heal too quickly, too easily, too smoothly.

War-fueled anger

"I think you're nuts if you come back from what I went through and aren't nuts," he said. "If you don't have anger issues, I think you're crazy, you're not human."

He was dismayed when a young man told him he had enlisted after reading O'Brien's book. On the other hand, O'Brien recalled a young woman writing him to tell him of her home, where there was "no talk between mom and dad, who seemed to hate each other in deep, deep intense ways." Yet the parents began talking about one of O'Brien's books, and were still talking six years later. The daughter learned for the first time that her father was a Vietnam veteran.

"Literature – it sounds like a dirty word, it sounds effete," O'Brien said. However, "literature is not this docile lapdog that doesn't do things in the world."

He exhorted the audience to widen its perspective to include, for example, Iraqi experiences of war.  He added that there were "3 million Vietnamese we haven't mentioned tonight who suffered a little bit, too."

In a moving moment, a young Vietnamese-American woman said she felt "blessed" to be here and that without these soldiers' efforts, she "would not be here tonight." She asked the two about the tendency to demonize one's enemies.

O'Brien, who has returned to Vietnam in recent years, grew thoughtful. "There's a beauty that I missed, the first time around. The tree was ugly to me because someone might be behind it, shooting at me."

He recalled returning to Vietnam and feeling "forgiven."  He even went drinking with his erstwhile enemies, who joked about how easy it had been to find "big and noisy" Americans.  For the Vietnamese, "Our American War was just a blip on their radar screen. Not as big as the China War.

"There was none of the bone-killing animosity," he said, "which makes you wonder: Which is the real world. That one or this one?"

The "Ethics and War" series of events during this academic year is sponsored by the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society, Stanford Humanities Center, Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford Creative Writing Program, Program on Human Rights, Stanford Summer Theater, Program on Global Justice, Stanford Continuing Studies, Taube Center for Jewish Studies, Stanford Institute for Creativity and the Arts, Lively Arts, United Nations Association Film Festival and John S. Knight Fellowship Program.

Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,