Tim O'Brien, the young man, prior to becoming Tim O'Brien, the most searingly honest writer this reader has ever read, was in an intense crisis having just received his draft notice for the Vietnam War.
June 17, 1968.
|book cover by DUSTIN COHEN
What Tim's decision to go or not boiled down to, and what made Tim O'Brien call himself a coward for the decision he ultimately made, is that he feared the opinion of people --his family and friends-- what they'd think of him running away to Canada, more than obeying the dictates of his own principles and conscience urging, pleading with him not to go. For going to Vietnam, O'Brien essentially self-embroidered the yellow letter "C" upon his character, and called himself a "Coward".
But Tim 'O Brien was no coward.
In 1989, I was assigned to interview, for my news writing class, some Vietnam veterans who were acting as docents for the Vietnam War Memorial that had recently arrived for a brief stay on our campus. My conception of Vietnam (and Vietnam veterans) at the time, was Platoon, Apocalypse Now, and Full Metal Jacket. Napalm. Something about napalm smelling good in the morning. "Me so horny". Drugged out, sex-starved, surf-obsessed soldiers more counter-cultured than bona fide army, navy, marines. Boy was I in for a surprise as I approached a veteran with my first stupid question:
"So, do you think Oliver Stone and Stanley Kubrick nailed the Vietnam War experience?"
He just stared at me, sans expression (perhaps fed up with so much inanity emanating from the mouths of America's so-called "future"), so I stupidly specified the question (being the enlightened liberal arts collegiate I was), "You know, did Platoon and Full Metal Jacket exemplify the war experience for the average soldier serving in Vietnam?"
He subtly rolled his eyes and said those were just movies made to romanticize and vilify the experience by clueless people who had absolutely no experience or first hand knowledge of what really went down over there.
"Let me write that down," I said, and took out pencil and notepad.
"And be sure to write this down too," he replied, after I'd asked him what it was like for him coming home from Vietnam.
"When I walked into the airport, just off the plane, I was greeted by what I guess were hippie war-protesters with buckets in their hands. Buckets full of yellow paint...that they then flung on me as I walked past them in my uniform. That was my welcome home." He was matter-of-fact about it. I don't recollect perceiving this particular Vietnam veteran fishing for sympathy, like so many Vietnam veterans were accused of doing (and maybe many did), of which Tim 'O Brien alludes to in "Speaking of Courage".
That Tim O'Brien struggled for over a week (though "struggle" is too mild a term describing what he went through; "excruciated" is more precise) with his decision to go to Vietnam or not (and mind you, doing so within walking distance of the Canadian border), and then wrote about it for the whole world to witness --weaknesses, failings and all-- proves to me he was no coward. He was stuck (forget that rock and hard place, this was harder), between a draft notice and Canada, a lose-lose situation, like so many before and after him.
Cowards aren't capable of composing the kind of morally harrowing and complex stories of a soldier who suffers both psychologically and physically when he obeys the call of his country and does (and does it well) what he'd rather not do. Hump through the jungle. Go headfirst underground into Viet Cong tunnels. Cowards aren't capable of that. And they're certainly not capable of admitting their own mind numbing horror at having to kill a sunken-chested Vietnamese man with a grenade, watching that man launch with a "poof of cloud" instantly into the sky, and then land, seemingly hours later, missing half his head, in the intensely raw, "The Man I Killed".
"War is Hell" is a trite cliche. And it's an inaccurate trite cliche as well. Because Hell's got nothing on War. War is worse than what those with no experience of it can ever hope to imagine. Tim 'O Brien helps us better imagine it immeasurably, even though we, the civilian, can never hope to comprehend it.
And it's cowards who throw yellow paint on soldiers at the airport returning home from Vietnam. That's just the sort of thing a coward would do. A coward could never have authored The Things They Carried, the best damn book I've read this year.