The First Word: Tim O’Brien on life, literature and peace

Acclaimed novelist considers 2012 Dayton Peace Prize top honor of his career —bigger than his National Book Award

“Do not let fear stop you. Do not be frightened by ridicule or censure or embarrassment, do not fear name calling, do not fear the scorn of others. For what is true obligation? Is it not the obligation to pursue a life at peace with itself?” – Tim O’Brien, “Going After Cacciato” (1978).

Novelist Tim O’Brien tells war stories – and there’s nothing moralistic or romantic about ‘em. As a Vietnam veteran, O’Brien knows the horrors of war, the boredom of war, the chaos and cruelty of war, the war soldiers carry home with them. His books ache. They grieve. They implore readers to look, hard, at things that hurt … for the sake of our own humanity.

They long for peace.

“What’s driven me all these years isn’t the desire to describe war. It’s the opposite. It’s peace,” says O’Brien, a native of Minnesota who moved to Austin 13 years ago. As in: “We shouldn’t be doing these things. They are sinful. Even if your goal is godly, it’s still evil to be killing people.”

Honoring the highest calling of literature, O’Brien has sold millions of books over his 40-year writing career. Among his eight works, “The Things They Carried” and “In the Lake of the Woods” have become American classics. “Going After Cacciato” won the National Book Award for fiction in 1979.

But you know what means most to Tim O’Brien? The news, last month, from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize Committee that O’Brien would receive its highest honor: The 2012 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award. The objective of the Dayton prizes is “to advance peace through literature.” The Holbrooke award is a lifetime prize, an international award, presented Sunday, Nov. 11, recognizing a body of work. Past recipients include Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel and Australian novelist Geraldine Brooks.

“The happiest day of my life — except for getting married and the birth of my two kids — was when I read the words ‘peace award’,” says O’Brien. He’s sitting in his office, at home in Austin, cheerful autumn light splashing through the windows. He’s wearing gym shorts, blue sweatshirt, red cotton ball cap. “I mean: I cried. Because it was a word … peace … that I’d yearned to hear all these years. Forty years is a long time to wait, you know? It’s a long time. This means more to me than the National Book Award. Way more.”

O’Brien, 66, has always felt his heart sink upon seeing his works labeled as “war novels” — since his books have always sought to transcend violence, to present alternatives to violence. His primary themes: Moral choice. Ambiguity. The nature of truth. The nature of courage. Our tendency toward denial. The perils of propaganda. The psychology of concealment.

At public readings, O’Brien has autographed his books the same way for decades. “Peace, Tim O’Brien.” It’s not lost on him that the country is engaged in the longest period of sustained warfare — 11 years — in American history. (“You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end,” O’Brien wrote in “The Things They Carried.”) Peace is on his mind. Empathy is on his mind. So is his concern over an “us versus them” absolutism around the world.

“We decorate our wars in cleanliness, with words that have a valorous, jingoistic, patriotic decoration,” says O’Brien. “And some of that decoration is completely true. There is valor. There is self-sacrifice. But that doesn’t mean that you have to avert your eyes simultaneously. You have to somehow integrate the nastiness … of deed and attitude and racism and kicking people and burning houses down … with these things we celebrate.”

“I don’t like absolutism in Mohammed Atta. Or Osama bin Laden. But I don’t like it in American politicians, (either). I mean: The world is not that way… . There is such a thing as conscience… .and when you erase moral purpose — the morality behind killing people — in the decision to go to war, you’re operating with an intoxication of vision that’s bothersome to me.”

Prisoners of War

Tim O’Brien’s “Going After Cacciato” — his National Book Award Winner from 1979, set in Vietnam — is no longer his biggest seller. But it’s certainly the most idealistic. And in this moment of extended warfare in Afghanistan, the most pertinent.

In the novel, Cacciato the foot soldier is presented as slow-witted, plump, naive, out-of-step in every way — at least in the eyes of his fellow Americans in the platoon. Cacciato is a joke. He doesn’t get it. He’s “dumb as a bullet.” “Dumb as an oyster fart.” “See how the eyes slant? Pigeon toes, domed head?” remarks the platoon doctor. “My theory is he missed Mongolian idiocy by the breath of a genetic hair.”

One day, Cacciato wakes up and says “enough” to the war. Walking away from his platoon, he trudges up the lush hillside alone, sheds his weapons, “climbs into the clouds.” His intent is to march 8,600 miles to Paris.

Cacciato’s platoon chases after him — after all, he’s AWOL — while cursing his stupidity. But as the platoon marches and marches, trying to “catch” Cacciato — wow, is this chase really taking us through Kabul? Peshawar? Tehran? all the way to Paris? — the novel enters the philosophical realm. Is Cacciato a coward, or a hero? Is he running from a war or leading his platoon out of madness? Which is the greater betrayal, on a moral plane – running from war or honoring its mission? When does one say no war? And who is best qualified to say it?

Cacciato’s spirit appeared at times in the late stages of the 2012 election. The journalist Martha Raddatz, in the vice presidential debate, raised this question about the war in Afghanistan: “We just passed the sad milestone of losing 2,000 troops there in this war… . We’ve reached the recruiting goal for Afghan forces and we’ve degraded Al Qaeda. So tell me: Why not leave now? What more can we really accomplish? Is it worth more American lives?”

A month before the election, the journalist Bill Moyers – inspired by Florida Congressman Bill Young’s outcry against casualties in Afghanistan – urged this question be asked, “over and over again,” of both Mitt Romney and Barack Obama: “Why are we killing kids that don’t need to die?”

O’Brien, who admires the fictional Cacciato — “I thought the war was wrong. I could have walked away from that war, should have walked away from that war” —believes the journalists’ questions don’t go far enough.

“It’s not just one more soldier dying. It’s one more 6-year-old kid dying. It’s one more grandma.” O’Brien has long believed that bullets don’t merely kill enemies; they manufacture enemies. “How do you win a war when a drone kills that 6-year-old kid and suddenly you have an angry father and mother and cousin and uncle and neighbor and friend and sister and brother — people who may have been indifferent to you before? … Is that winning a war? Or losing a war?”

In “Cacciato,” O’Brien suggests that we’re all prisoners of war, in a sense. And he’s not referring to conventional POWs. Rather, O’Brien is talking about those who fight the wars, the taxpayers who fund the wars, those who grieve the casualties of war.

O’Brien asks his readers to engage in an act of moral imagination in “Going After Cacciato.” Who are we killing? Why are we killing? Who is accountable for that killing? When Cacciato says no to war, it’s not a political act. It has nothing to do with Republican or Democratic politics. What is the consequence of following Cacciato and embracing an ideal of peace?

“It is one thing to speculate about what might be. It is quite another to act in behalf of our dreams, to treat them as objectives that are achievable and worth achieving,” a character of conscience says in the novel. “Now is the time for a final act of courage. I urge you: March proudly into your own dream.”

An absence of ‘Why-ness’

Several years ago, Tim O’Brien accepted an invitation to talk with wounded veterans from the Iraq-Afghanistan wars and write a short magazine piece about the experience. On assignment, he visited a veteran of the Iraq War at the Brooke Army Medical Center.

“He had his lips burned off,” says O’Brien. “Ears burned off. Nose burned off. Eyebrows burned off. His face was all red.”

During their conversation, O’Brien asked him about weapons of mass destruction. He asked, in essence: Do you feel betrayed in any way by the revelation that such weapons didn’t exist, nullifying the Bush administration’s rationale for attacking and invading Iraq in the first place?

“He said, ‘No. I was just driving my vehicle, doing my duty.’” Instead, the veteran talked about his buddies, his sense of community, his desire to “forge his way through recovery.” No bitterness at all.

“That was hard for me to imagine – that some part of you wouldn’t question the rectitude of it all,” says O’Brien. “Was it worth it? Was it worth losing my ears and my nose and my lips? And it’s not even asked. It’s not that important, I guess, to that slim mentality… . Nobody mentions the elephant in the room. There were no weapons of mass destruction. And it’s just eradicated from the national discourse.”

Tim O’Brien is a cheerful man. He laughs a lot, in a gentle way. And he’s playful. The colors of his black sneakers give away him away: orange trim, blue stripes, yellow shoe laces.Yet O’Brien’s worried eyes tell a deeper story. Informed by the mistakes of Vietnam, O’Brien yearns for larger national introspection about matters of war and peace.

“Sooner or later,” he says, “Americans have to ask themselves why did they attack the World Trade Center? Did they just do it because they were evil, that’s it, end of story? That we were a great country that got attacked for no reason? Even bad reasons? There’s zero interest in the why-ness of things. And I’m not just talking in regard to the citizenship — the tile guy or your plumber — I’m talking about people on television and politicians.”

O’Brien worries about “an absence of empathy.” He wishes Americans could feel a palpable connection between the tragedies of Hiroshima, or Dresden, or My Lai — and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “My only plea is for understanding. Diversity of opinion,” says O’Brien, sitting on a leather sofa in his writing room, a bold tangle of live oak branches in the sky outside his window. “And to get rid of an absolutism that is a corrosive decaying force in the world. ‘I’m right, you’re wrong, that’s it, and let’s start killing each other.’ It’s dangerous.”

Tim O’Brien grew up in a generation that declared “never again” after Vietnam. His books – “the defining literature of the Vietnam War,” according to the Dayton Peace Prize committee — channel that grief. In that sense, the decade-long wars in Middle East and Afghanistan sadden him.

“It makes you feel like a failure,” says O’Brien, referring to the years of war. “I get kids coming up to me (at readings) saying, ‘Yours is the only book I ever finished. And now, man, I’m joining the Marines.’ I hear it all the time. People in uniforms say, ‘Now I can’t wait to get over there.’ I think, ‘God. How can people take that from a book that so plainly tries to discredit this attitude.’”

As a young man, O’Brien never thought about his books having great sweep or “stopping war.” But in retrospect: “I was secretly hoping – not that my books would stop wars – but that they would exert even a modest pressure against them.” Or maybe: That a good book might prompt a teenage kid to think twice before enlisting.

“I want art to sort of win, in the way you want a symphony to win. Or want a great rock and roll song to enthrall and expand in such a way as to make the world a better place. You want ‘Hey Jude’ to make the world a better place. Just by being in the world.”

A Kind of Miracle

For most of his life, Tim O’Brien has written about matters of war and peace, moral choice, moral precipice – informed by his exposure, in war, to the darkest dimensions of humankind. In his 1994 essay “The Vietnam in Me,” O’Brien expressed personal desperation approaching suicide. He has long felt isolated from old Army buddies. As one who defines himself a coward, a deserter of conscience, for not defying the draft, O’Brien does not often feel kinship with members of the modern volunteer military.

Nine years ago, however, O’Brien found light in life as a first-time father. He and his wife Meredith have two boys now, ages 7 and 9. He’s truly content. O’Brien describes parenthood as an antidote to the sorrow he’s seen in the world.

“It is an antidote,” he says. “It’s not that my cynicism and skepticism about the human race is gone. It’s still there. Big time. But an antidote is like a bat against it, as opposed to just surrendering to betrayal or loss or sorrow or horror.

“There’s a kind of fulfillment in parenthood that’s a bit like writing a novel – watching a kid move from a sentient being to doing algebra in the fourth grade is in the same way like watching a novel take shape,” says O’Brien, who is writing a book of essays, with fictional touches, about fatherhood. “Each day brings with it a suggestion of growth. … It’s kind of a miracle.”

On the surface, Timmy and Tad – the O’Brien kids – live a fun life. A big tree house in the back yard. A dad who recites impromptu bedtime stories. And a father who performs magic. The O’Briens are famous, in fact, for staging elaborate family magic shows for their friends – some requiring months of rehearsal. There’s a roulette table in his living room right now, a prop for the next show.

O’Brien admits he fought the prospect of fatherhood “tooth and nail.” He told Meredith he was too old for it, that he wouldn’t be any good at it, that he’d probably hate it. “Turns out I wasn’t as smart about it as I thought I was,” he says. “I was wrong, and she was right, as usually is the case with Meredith.”

As a father, O’Brien wants to share “the gift of things that enable virtue”: good words, a good book, a good movie. Or awakening them to ambiguity. He drops everything for Timmy’s baseball practice. “It’s a kind of rooting feeling, an investment in a kid’s happiness.” O’Brien is aware of time. “Sooner or later, the door closes on every living creature,” he says. “So this thing called Now-ness is really important.”

For so long, Tim O’Brien has devoted his attention to the subject of moral choice — scolding himself for not having the courage to say no to Vietnam. No to violence. No to nationalism. No to orders to shoot. Now he’s saying “yes” to fatherhood. And by extension, much to his surprise: Yes to peace.

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