Faculty Notes: Voices from The War of the Living
April 10, 2008
I was talking with Professor of English Tobey Herzog in Lilly Library three years ago when he told me about an ambitious project he was pitching to publishers: to interview Robert Olen Butler, Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann,
and Tim O’Brien—four of the most acclaimed and respected "Vietnam War writers"—about their lives as sons, soldiers, and authors.
It seemed a like a long shot. Herzog had interviewed O’Brien for one book, but he didn’t know the other men.
He didn’t even have contact information for Caputo.
Even if he was able to interest publishers, he wondered aloud, Would these writers, with two Pulitzer Prizes and
two National Book Awards between them, really trust him? Would they be willing to reflect on their lives so personally for publication? Would they even let him in the door?
The answer to all those questions, as Herzog’s new book attests, is a resounding yes.
"Herzog puts these veteran-authors through a rigorous boot camp of reflection on their craft and personal experience," writes one reviewer of Writing Vietnam, Writing Life."They show what they’re made of—indeed, they
show what writing, war, and life are made of."
And Herzog has come to his own conclusions about why these men tell their stories, and why those works are not only war stories, but life stories with relevance and resonance beyond the battlefield.
He talked with WM in his Center Hall office just before Christmas.
WM: What strikes me immediately about these interviews is how honest and forthcoming the authors seem.
Tobey Herzog: They were very forthcoming, particularly Larry Heinemann. Heinemann just bares his soul.
And with the exception of Tim O’Brien, this is the first time you’d interviewed them?
The first time I interviewed O’Brien was in 1995, and he really got going about his father, who was an alcoholic. That was very revealing at the time.
In fact, when I went back the second day to continue the interview, he said, "You know, you can use that stuff, but I don’t want you to slant my relationship with my father in a totally negative way, because there are a lot of positive things about that relationship."
The only thing I asked him about that this time  concerned the fact that his father had recently died, and I asked if the relationship had improved before then. And it had. His father stopped drinking, for one. It was a more loving relationship.
That relationship is at the core of understanding not only O’Brien the person, but O’Brien the author. That quest for his father’s love gets transformed in his fiction into a variety of quests for love, in all sorts of different contexts and different outcomes.
You use each man’s identity as a son, a soldier, and a writer to organize the chapters, but this also helps the reader to make comparisons between the four men.
I hit upon this in the first interview with O’Brien in 1995. I was struggling. How was I going to interview this guy? Was I just going to ask questions at random?
But I wanted to learn a lot about him as a person, not just as an author: Where did he grow up, and how did that influence his life? How did going to Vietnam influence his life as a writer? So this just seemed a natural progression.
I’ve since done a lot of oral history interviews of Vietnam veterans for the Montgomery County Historical Society, and I’ve used this same tripartite structure in most of them, and it has led to fascinating comparisons and insights. It allows a story of a complete person to come out.
For this book I thought: It’s worked before; why change it?
And I think you’re right: When you move from author to author, you get into some interesting comparisons and contrasts.
Begin with Caputo. His relationship with his father—a very normal, positive relationship. Not overly nurturing, but his father taught him to hunt and fish and they did a lot of things together. His father traveled a lot in the summer so he would take the whole family with him.
Larry Heinemann described his childhood as "not all that unhappy," but when he describes what his life was like, it’s bizarre. His father was a bus driver who seems to have tried to distance himself from the family as much as possible. His father was, at times, into some pretty severe corporal punishment. I mean, Larry had three brothers; two of the brothers just up and disappeared later in life. The third brother, who was a Vietnam vet, committed suicide.
Larry said at one point, that if he hadn’t been a writer after his return from Vietnam, he would have been dead. He says, "If I’d have owned a gun, I would have killed myself."
Then there is O’Brien’s relationship with his father, which is in some sense a very strong love/hate relationship. At one point his father was institutionalized for alcoholism when O’Brien was on a Little League baseball team and his father was the coach. O’Brien had to go and tell the team that his father would not be coaching.
And then there’s Robert Olen Butler’s relationship with his father, which is probably one of the most nurturing relationships. His father was chair of the theater department at St. Louis University and Butler would hang around with him, talk to his father’s colleagues, and then he and his father would talk about plays. If his father directed a play they’d sit down and talk about what he did and how he did it.
Ideal for someone who is going to become a writer.
Initially, he went to Northwestern and wrote plays. It was only in Vietnam that he discovered he was really a novelist and not a playwright.
Four men with very different lives who all end up writing, or at least being best known for writing,
about the same thing.
Boy, you have to be careful how you say that. That drives them all absolutely crazy, this notion of being a war writer, or a Vietnam War writer.
As Heinemann says, it’s almost as if critics spit out the term "Vietnam War writer."
And I think there are critics out there who think, particularly when it comes to books about Vietnam—and it will be interesting to see what comes of writers about the Gulf War and the War in Iraq—that you can churn those things out like crazy. If you’ve been there, you can write that stuff.
There’s a failure to appreciate the work.
As Heinemann says, "If you can write a war story, you can write anything." That’s his veiled challenge to creative writers and to critics: Try to write a war story, if you think it’s so easy. And if you can do it well, you can probably go on and write a lot of other things. I think all four of these writers would subscribe to that.
In the introduction to Writing Vietnam, Writing Life, you quote from Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah: "It is the story that outlives the sound of war-drums and the exploits of brave fighters. It is the story…that saves our progeny from blundering like blind beggars into the spikes of the cactus fence." Sounds like telling war stories is a pretty high calling.
That’s right, but it’s also very easy to write bad war literature, falling into the cliches, never getting beyond the daily routine—"Here’s what I saw, here’s what I did."
The key is not just, "Here’s what I saw, here’s what I did," but also, as Heinemann says, "Here’s what I became." That separates the good from the bad stuff.
And though the context may be war, and the battlefield is the setting, good war writers move beyond the battlefield. They deal with issues that we all deal with. O’Brien calls it "the war of the living." The good war writers move easily from writing about war to writing about the war of the living. That could be anything from a divorce, to the death of a spouse, the death of a father, or a moral decision in your everyday life that has a connection to that battlefield but resonates outside of it. So resonates that a young man sitting in a class at Wabash College in the Modern War Lit course reads a piece of war literature and says, "You know, I have an issue like that in my own life where I had to make a difficult moral decision, and I can identify with this."
That’s when you really begin to move into some good war writing—it’s good writing.
And you’ve seen that connection in the classroom?
I have. I think particularly with O’Brien, there’s a resonance with young men far from the battlefield.
In your introduction, you say that you put this book together because you "wanted to hear war stories," and that the first war stories you heard were your father’s.
My father’s, and then my mother’s.
Can you remember any of those stories?
There’s the story that my mother loved to tell. My mom and dad met on a train to Chicago in 1943 and within six weeks were married at Camp Atterbury. Within three weeks he was shipped out. She didn’t see him again for a couple of years.
Mom worked as what we would call today an administrative assistant, and had carved out her own life in Indianapolis. She had an apartment, decorated it the way she wanted to, had a piano that she bought herself—
she was a very independent woman making her way in Indianapolis.
My dad was attached to the 8th Army Air Corps, and after V-E Day they put him on a troop ship heading for Japan, but with the dropping of the bomb he heads back here, around Christmas 1945. He calls her from some bar in Indianapolis and says, "Surprise! I’m home," and he’s met with this long silence. Even my mom admitted that she wasn’t all that excited. [laughs] In fact, the first thing she did when he came over with pajamas in his back pocket was to yell at him because he tracked mud on her new carpet.
It was a big adjustment for her, a very independent woman with a man she basically knew for nine weeks who now comes back into her life after two years.
The stories my dad told were simply stories about people he would hang around with on the base and in the pubs in England. He was in charge of a medical detachment, so they were dealing with the Army Air Corps guys coming back from the bombing runs; he never really talked about that part of it.
For him, being in WWII was one of the high points of his life. For him, it was the friendships, and that’s not unusual. If you talk to the Vietnam veterans, who were fighting in a war that at times could be disheartening, confusing, and, late in the game, not popular, the reason they fought was for their fellow soldiers and the bond that they had.
Do you think that your father’s stories of friendship may have been lessons— teaching on the value of friendship?
You know, at the time they didn’t have that impact. But later, having gone through the war experience myself, those stories took on a deeper meaning, and I understood better what my father was talking about in terms of that close attachment you have to your fellow soldiers in war.
Elsewhere, you’ve written of your relationship with your dad being "a silent love."
That’s because, other than his war stories, we didn’t talk a lot about other issues. It was that often-typical relationship between males where there’s an implied bond; it doesn’t have to be articulated every moment.
There’s that funny cartoon about a father and son watching television, and the mother walks in and says, what are you doing, and the son says, we’re communicating. [laughs]
So your Dad would tell you these war stories: Was this his way of giving voice to that silent love?
I think it is; certainly, it is. Just as I tell stories about a lot of things to my sons to connect with them—to show them that I care enough about them to share part of my life.
I have to confess that I share a lot more with my sons than my father shared with me. I think I’ve learned as a father to be more open, though I’m far from the ideal father when it comes to that.
As I got older, my father wouldn’t share stories unless specifically asked. And I didn’t ask enough. So now, I’ll tell my sons stories without them asking because these are some stories they need to know.
Important for their formation as men?
In their formation, but also just to know something about me and to know something about our family. I mean, I have so many questions now about my mom and dad: who they were, what their relationships were with other people. I didn’t ask.
I mean, here’s my father, raised by a single mother, a single working mother, and in some of the stories he would tell there is that underlying theme of a quest for a father. He got attached to an uncle who kind of took him on as a son, and the guy committed suicide when my dad was only 14 or 15.
I didn’t ask enough questions.
That was one of the driving forces behind this book—wanting to know why these guys are telling all these war stories. Is it a personal motivation or a public motivation? A warning to others? It turns out to be a combination of these.
What are some of those public motivations?
Many people were motivated to write about their experiences in Vietnam because of the hostility toward the war, towards the returning soldiers. For some people it was to validate their experience, for others it was to explain just how complicated and difficult that experience was, perhaps to generate some sympathy for the returning soldier and some understanding of the moral dilemmas that they faced.
And the personal?
O’Brien and Caputo, I think, live more with the guilt of their war experiences than the other two.
For Caputo, it’s not so much about the Vietnam War but his actions in it, particularly the key event that he was involved in where he gave an order for a small unit to go out and basically kidnap two Vietcong suspects from a village. The orders were given in such a way that the group interpreted it as if it wouldn’t be a big deal if these guys didn’t make it back alive, and both ended up dead before they returned and there was this big investigation. It turned out that one of the captured suspects wasn’t Vietcong at all, but in fact was the son of one of the village leaders.
In the interview I said to Caputo, "But you didn’t kill these people." he said, "Yeah, but I was part of it," and in A Rumor of War he talks about this.
That event and those moral choices haunt him, and at the core of his fiction are moral choices. You see that clearly when you read his most recent novel, Acts of Faith.
Similarly with O’Brien, though in his case it’s the decision he made to go to war. Unlike the other three, he held strong convictions against the war before he entered the military. As he explained in If I Die in a Combat Zone and as the character in "On the Rainy River" explains in The Things They Carried, you do things out of the fear of embarrassment, but you also do things out of that quest for love that goes back to [your] father. And sometimes that quest is not for the love of a father, but for the love of a country, or a community.
So for O’Brien, the stories are an explanation.
There is something Caputo said, and I think the other writers would subscribe to: At the basic level, even writers are trying to figure out who they are, asking that basic question—"Who am I?"—that drives so many of us. Through telling a story, people get a glimpse of themselves. When you tell a story, it’s not only saying something about an event; it also says something about you.
I think these interviews help me understand that better, and at the core of these stories is part of that author in direct or indirect ways. Phil Caputo had a chip on his shoulder as a young man because he thought that coming from a blue-collar family he was treated differently than the rich kids he went to school with. This kind of stayed with him through the military and emerged in his stories in characters who need to prove themselves. Caputo will admit it: One of the reasons he writes is to prove himself to others.
You teach one of O’Brien’s stories not only to Wabash students, but to Crawfordsville High School students.
I do that every year. [CHS English teacher] Helen Hudson has had them read The Things They Carried ever since my youngest son was there, probably 14 years ago. I show them a brief video I’ve put together about Vietnam, then I talk with them about the story.
Given what goes on in our country so often when there’s conflict, I think its important for young people to read about war and to think about it in a thoughtful way—to understand what war is like, and what war does to people who participate in it.
And not all of it is negative. Friendships, the maturity that takes place, the sense of confidence that emerges, and depending on the war and the circumstances, a sense of satisfaction about what one is doing for his or her country.
In Jarhead, Anthony Swofford says that the responsibility of the writer of these stories is "spreading bad when they return, the bad news about the way war is fought and why, and by whom for whom." What is your responsibility as a scholar of these stories?
I think these are complicated stories—extraordinary pieces of literature. I want people to understand that they are more than war stories, that they are life stories, that they do transcend the battlefield, and they do have relevance to their own lives and the moral decisions they’ve made or will make. There is a connection, at the gut level, between the experiences of people who fight in wars, and those who haven’t. An emotional bond. As Tim O’Brien says, "You don’t have to have been in Nam to be in Nam."
You think that can be picked up by a group of high-school students?
I think they can begin that journey to understanding.
In my Vietnam War Lit tutorial we go around the room at the beginning and I ask, "Do you have a relative who has participated in war?" I ask, "Have you talked to them about that?" They say, "No." And particularly if the relative is a Vietnam War veteran, they’ll say, "they don’t want to talk about it."
I’ll tell them that their job is to talk to their relative about the war by the end of the semester. I say, "Tell your relative that you’ve been taking this war literature course, and you’ve got these questions."
A number of my students have come back and said, "Boy, I sat down with my uncle, or my father, and we really talked for the first time about what he did, his views about the war, and how he changed."
One of my goals is to provide young people with a way of opening up communication with war veterans.
You say that you wished you’d asked your father more questions; aren’t you empowering these students to
do just that?
You know, exactly right. If I would have had a war lit course in college, I might have felt more open to ask questions.
What do you hope this book leaves the next generation?
I’m giving you the author’s words, and the book allows you to come away with your own interpretation and response to the individual authors, to the connections among the four, to war. I want people to engage with this and to come up with their own insights.
Some people will be more interested in the Vietnam section, the war stories. But if you read this carefully, you could get a good creative writing course out of this book.
I’m remembering how Heinemann quotes Cochise, the Chiricahua chief, and applies it to writing.
"You must speak straight to us so that your words will go like sunlight to our hearts." It’s a great quote.
And Butler, who is the most theoretical, talks about his notion of writing "from where you dream." O’Brien uses the same term, writing from that "dream space" where you lose contact with the immediate world and get into this other world and go where it leads you, where your feelings and gut take you. That when you start thinking, you’re lost.
What surprised you most about each of these men?
For Caputo, it was the extent that that incident in Vietnam has stayed with him. I was surprised with how that informs his work now.
For Heinemann, just how how dysfunctional that family he came from was. Writing saved him in many ways.
For O’Brien, the joy he gets from being a father. In 2005, he met me at the door with his two-month-old son in his arms. He writes in his home and he keeps the door open, and when his oldest son comes to play, he stops and they play. He said that being a father has changed the lens through which he looks at life, thinking more about how people have acted not just for themselves, but for others.
With Butler, it is how important knowing the Vietnamese language was when he arrived in country. His experience is totally different from the other three, and the difference is because he knew the language, he knew the culture. He was an interpreter/administrative assistant in Saigon, and he had complete freedom to roam there, and his first book, Alleys of Eden, comes out of those experiences.
That also fit with how he’s always been fascinated with the clash of cultures, and as a writer, how he is so concerned with getting the authentic voice of the characters he inhabits.
Any regrets, or things you felt you missed?
I regret not having more space to devote to the father/ son relationships. And it would have been great to probe some of the events that came up in the war in more detail. Heinemann talks about drug use in his unit, and about fragging: He tells an interesting story about how, basically, the men in his unit wanted to shoot the platoon sergeant, and Larry had to have two chats not with the men, but the sergeant, telling him, "Things are dangerous for you right now, and you might want to cool it about how you conduct your personnel management."
I would have liked to have talked in detail with Butler and Caputo about their marriages [Butler has been
married four times, Caputo three], and the issues that emerged.
I didn’t want this to turn into the gossip book. Hey, I was walking a fine line here. These guys did me a big favor, inviting me into their homes. If I had wanted to burn my bridges with these guys, there were a lot of questions I could have asked that would have ended our relationship.
Isn’t there also some sense of camaraderie here? A sense of trust?
At the heart of this is trust. Trust coming in two ways: One, I’m a Vietnam veteran, so these guys know I know something about their experience and I’m not going to ask half-assed questions like, "How many people did you kill?"
There’s also trust because of the two previous books I’d done.
My three books have been my Vietnam trilogy: The first was sort of an overview, 10 books written about Vietnam in the larger context of war literature; the second book focuses in on the work of one author, O’Brien; and here we’re moving beyond the books and getting to the person.
In their own voices.
And in their own voices. Boy, that’s true. O’Brien said to me, "Listen carefully to each one of us as we tell our stories, because that voice is also the voice you’re going to find in our writing." And he’s right on the mark. If you open yourself up and just listen to the words, you’ll hear each has a distinctive voice, and that same voice shows up in their writing.
O’Brien’s advice to the creative writer is that you need to find that voice first, and listen to it. And use it. If you try to use someone else’s voice, that’s when the problems occur.
It’s integrity, and it’s authenticity. And I guarantee that if you read that interview with Heinemann and then read Paco’s Story or Close Quarters, you’re going to be stunned by how that same voice comes through.
So after interviewing these men for hours, you’ve found their writing voices authentic to who they are?
Absolutely. That’s probably the most pleasing thing—that these are authentic interviews, that the voice you et in each interview is the authentic voice.*
Writing Vietnam, Writing Life is published by the University of Iowa Press.
Contact Professor Hergoz at email@example.com