Transcript for Dissent Then & Now - Tim O'Brien

Jim Fleming: Tim O'Brien went to Vietnam as a young man. He returned to write some of the best fiction around about the experience. His book, "The Things They Carried," is considered a classic Vietnam collection. Some years later, he wrote a novel called, "July, July," looking back at those days. And he came in to talk with me about the lifelong consequences of the decisions the Vietnam generation made, and about the difference between dissent them, and dissent now.

Tim O'Brien: Vietnam will always cast a shadow over my work, I'm sure, but I'm writing about it less directly now, and probably more obliquely.

Fleming: Thinking about all the characters in "July, July," it says, though, Vietnam is an extra one on the end, 'cause it affects everybody.

O'Brien: Yeah. I mean, it's the story of a class reunion. These people graduated in 1969, so it's natural that Vietnam would play a role in their lives, to a greater or lesser extent.

Fleming: Do you think that there is something about that generation? This book suggests that there was a greater awareness of good and evil, maybe, in 1969 than there is 30 years later.

O'Brien: It seems to me that what you just said is pretty accurate. That is a personal matter of my skin was alive, in a way, and my corpuscles of my body were alive and attuned to the good and evil in this world. I feel, now, a kind of "bandwagon effect" in this country, of patriotic "let's go get 'em" fervor that wasn't quite so universal back then, back in 1969. There more debates were raging. For one thing, the debates now seem very muted, to the point where I haven't really heard one. There's a kind of bowing to the inevitability of violence and war, that I didn't feel that bowing back in 1969.

Fleming: What's happen, do you think? Is there--are we really a different country, now?

O'Brien: I think there's a kind of terror to speak one's mind. I think people are afraid to say--I mean, I'm afraid to speak my mind. I'm afraid to say things like, "Boy, we sure tend as a country to demonize our enemies." First it's [sic] and he's a Satan, and Hitler's a Satan, and Geronimo was a Satan, and Crazy Horse was a Satan, and Ho Chi Minh was Satan, and Bin Laden's a Satan. They're all Satans, every one of them, without exception. And that's a big mistake; to devalue opposition to American policy. I find it disgusting, but I'm afraid to say these things. It's a little bit reminiscent of my time back in the Vietnam War, where this sense of violence is the quick and easy solution to everything, that it frightens me.

Fleming: You know, 30 years ago, those things were more easily talked about, so it was a different time, a different country.

O'Brien: Mmhmm.

Fleming: You could protest then and people would pay attention, and you can protest now and nobody will. Something's happened, but the same people are alive, now, that were, then.

O'Brien: Mmhmm.

Fleming: The people in your book are still here, they're just 30 years older.

O'Brien: Life has a way of willing you down, I think. I don't know, it seems to me as if people of my generation care about tending their own backyards, and making sure things are in shape in their lives, and in their relationships. And their scope of vision has narrowed a bit, because it is hard to tend your own backyard, to keep relationships together.

Fleming: It's hard work.

O'Brien: And it's, you know, and take care of children. It's a lot of work, and it's time consuming, and it's important work. The unfortunate consequence of that is that maybe less attention is paid to global geo-politics.

Fleming: Well, I look back; I was a conscientious objector in 1969 and did not go to Vietnam, and I'm not out on the barricades today.

O'Brien: Well, you know the difference... I mean, this is what the characters in the book face, are these moments of, I don't know, decision. I mean, you decide to file for, you know, CO status, or to go on a plane to Vietnam, you're making an over the cliff choice that is gonna follow you for the rest of your life, in various ways. And it's gonna be in your--and I don't mean issues of guilt, or pride, I mean simply issues of defining who you are for the rest of your life. And I think the same is true of the characters in this book. Sure, they've changed. They have lost a little bit of the zip and the passion of political idealism, but at the same time, there's something about the maturing process that's not all bad. It's not bad to pay attention to issues of love and personal relationship. It's not bad to pay attention to a sense of lifelong loss that some of the characters have. The past is part of the present, and "July, July" is partly about that. What the title means; July then and July now. They are, in some ways, identical.

Fleming: Could that time ever come again, for another generation?

O'Brien: Oh, sure. I'm sure it could. I wouldn't exclude anything. Anything's possible in this world, I've lived long enough to know. Some of the things in the late 1960s, I don't know, I'm not sure I want to see return. I'm not sure I wanna see the Kent State happen again. I'm not sure I wanna see hard hats colliding with young people in New York City, and people being beaten up. Some of that stuff I don't wanna see again. I do wanna see civilized discourse; I wanna see people finding the courage to talk about, you know, their values and their beliefs. But not all of the 1960s. I think that looking back on the 1960s, you get a bit nostalgic and sentimental, and I think that's a mistake. I've never been to a college reunion like the characters in this book, and maybe I never will go. Yet in my heart, I'm kind of both places at once. Now, I'm back in 1969 in my head. You know, standing in peace vigils. I'm also back in 1969, getting on an airplane to Vietnam. And then I'm the man I am today. A writer. I'm both. I'm sort of young now, in my heart, but I'm also carrying the burdens of, you know, late middle age. That's our generation.

Fleming: Tim O'Brien is the author of "The Things They Carried," "July, July," and many other books. He won the National Book Award in 1979 for his novel, "Going After Cacciato."

Comments for this interview

Vietnam War and demonstrations in the 1960's (Frances Bicknell, 01/19/2014 - 5:26pm)

In the fourth segment of the program, Jim Fleming and Tim O'Brien were discussing the comparative calm with which we Americans accept the wars of the past dozen years as contrasted with the demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam. I was surprised that they did not mention the lack of a universal draft in the U.S. today! People ask hard questions when they are confronted with difficult decisions. Our recent wars have been fought by young men (and women) with fewer opportunities and fewer choices in life. Our college students do not have to face compulsory military service!