Award-winning novelist discusses ethics of war writing

Jan. 25, 2011, 2:04 a.m.

“I went to war kicking and screaming,” confessed novelist Tim O’Brien to the crowd at Cubberley Auditorium on Monday night.

The celebrated writer, best known for his Vietnam War accounts in award-winning novels “Going After Cacciato” and “The Things They Carried,” delved into his personal experience with war and discussed the ethics of writing about war with Stanford professor and novelist Tobias Wolff during his Stanford visit yesterday.

Despite his resistance to being drafted during the Vietnam War, O’Brien said he believes he has an obligation to write about his experiences, and that literature has the power to confront and examine horrific events such as war.

The discussion touched on the issue of “aestheticizing” human suffering by writing novels about war.

“If to make aesthetic an ugly situation is corrupt, then there would probably be no literature,” O’Brien said. “Literature is the meditation of being human, and human beings, unlike gophers or chipmunks, are aware of tragedy and horror. To dive into that wreck as a writer and try to salvage something beautiful can make the horror float and allow a character to confront it. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”

O’Brien encouraged writers not to recycle the clichés and conventions of war stories.

“Press it beyond the killing and dying,” he urged. “Those stakes are obviously very high, but there are higher stakes of morality. What is the role of conscience in a democratic society? What does it matter if we invade Toronto tomorrow, if the majority of people agree to it? Is there a point at which you say, ‘No, I’m not going to shoot that old guy. I’m not going to go to war,’ or is it just, ‘Yes, sir, we’re going to kill Canadians tomorrow’? To test oneself that way as a writer is important.”

O’Brien admitted that sometimes readers interpret his books in a manner contrary to his original intention, citing the example of a young man who decided to join the Army after reading his novels, despite O’Brien’s intention to warn people about the “pettiness and horrors of war” in his works.

“The consequences of what we write, we’re not in control of,” he said. “We’re trying to write good sentences with some beauty. That’s what we can do. We can’t control that that kid out in the hallway that uses [the book] to march off and do bad stuff.”

In the course of the conversation, O’Brien and Wolff covered controversial issues such as terrorism and the draft. O’Brien was critical of what he perceives as an indifference among Americans today to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“What do you die for? What do you kill for?” O’Brien said. “Those questions have become less relevant to our discourse now than they were [during the Vietnam War]. Not a lot of people worry about there not being weapons of mass destructions found in Iraq. Forty years ago, that would have broken hearts.”

One cause of this apparent indifference, Wolff proposed, might be the lack of a draft, suggesting that since military service is now voluntary, people who are unaffected take less interest in the motivations for war.

“If that wolf is not at the door and your son or your daughter is not being dragged to war, it can be pushed aside,” O’Brien said, though he added he was personally conflicted over whether the draft should return or not.

Both Wolff and O’Brien evaded a question from a veteran in the audience who suggested that a selective draft be instituted at Stanford and other elite institutions in order to give future leaders the experience of combat.

O’Brien responded to a question about coping with post-traumatic stress disorder with what he acknowledged would be an unpopular response.

“I worry that there is not enough trauma,” he said. “We as humans tend to heal too well and quickly and thoroughly. I think you are nuts if you come back from what I went through and don’t have late-night anxiety. If you don’t have anger issues, I think you’re crazy. You’re not human. I think that one of the ways to deal with trauma is to be traumatized…to acknowledge that it hurt.”

O’Brien concluded the evening by reminding his audience that the potential of literature should not be underestimated.

“Literature is not this docile lapdog,” he said. “It can do things that are real in human lives. It is powerful.”

O’Brien will give a reading Tuesday night at Cubberley Auditorium, completing the Raymond Fred West Memorial Lecture Series. The series is organized by the Stanford Humanities Center and the Center for Ethics in Society.

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