** Update at 2:24 p.m. – See Tim O’Brien speak this evening at 7:00 p.m. at Central Library, for the final segment of this year’s Arlington Reads: The Soldier’s Story. **
He starts out by telling a story about the older of his two little boys, peeing into a mesh trash can instead of the toilet. His son’s explanation was that “he had two heads.” One head told him that his dad would be mad if he peed into the trashcan, and the other head wondered how cool it would be to pee into the trashcan instead of the toilet. That night, O’Brien told his boys a story about having two heads himself, when he joined the army – one that was full of patriotism, and the other thinking there was no way he going to war.
He says that carrying two heads through life is hard, but has an upside – it may keep us from making horrible mistakes.
O’Brien hopes that The Things They Carried helps readers to navigate their own ambiguities. He grew up being told Thou Shalt Not Kill. Then he ended up in Vietnam being told, “You’d better kill!” Behaviors that seemed wrong back in this world, that would look “utterly uncivil” here, were normal in Vietnam. He wants readers to question what they know to be “true.”
O’Brien is reading a section of The Things They Carried that illustrates his own feelings at the time about being in Vietnam (will add video) “War was like a ping pong ball. You could put fancy spin on it, you could make it dance.” This is the 3rd chapter, Spin. The chapter is arranged somewhat randomly. The war felt random – the sense of something driving you was utterly missing. Spin is meant to replicate that randomness.
“Much of our comportment as soldiers was utterly devoid of political reason,” what mattered was your humanity, how you carried yourself. Back in the civilian world, the little pieces of metal matter. But his main act of courage was just to keep moving, keep going. What was the worst they could do – send him to ‘Nam? And yet he kept going. There was no way of knowing where the safe spots were, but he kept going. Which brings him to his final point before questions –
The title, The Things They Carried, is meant to apply to all of you – to the burdens you carry. It’s a book about war, but it’s a book about the burdens everyone carries.
Questions from the Marymount students:
What did Lieutenant Cross tell him not to mention?
“Nothing – Cross is a made up character.” But O’Brien knows what the fictional character didn’t want him to say, and if you read that chapter 4 or 5 times, he thinks you’ll figure it out.
Was there anyone who kept his company from crossing the line, from going from human to animal?
There were officers who’s job it was, and they tried, but also failed a lot. However, there was a boundary that his company would not cross, which was that of full scale atrocity, like My Lai (which happened before he got to Vietnam). O’Brien says that none of the men at the My Lai Massacre deny their actions, and only one was vaguely punished – and that is part of the horrible fabric of war. The actions of his company never crossed the ML line, but they did engage in smaller, daily nastinesses, which are also part of that fabric of war.
Do you pick up the characteristics of the people you write?
“Yes – they’re all me.” The hard nastiness of Azar is in O’Brien – he was always trying to be harder in Vietnam – and the rest of the characters are also him, even the women.
None of the stories happened as they are written – he’s written what nearly occurred, could have happened, and sometimes what should have happened.