Tim O'Brien, author of acclaimed books about Vietnam, is a little annoyed by the talk that victory in the Persian Gulf war has at last laid to rest the Vietnam War's ghosts.
Many things about Vietnam shouldn't be forgotten, he said in a Deseret News interview Thursday. On a nationwide tour following the recent release of his book "The Things They Carried" in paperback, O'Brien stopped off in Salt Lake City after speaking at a student writers conference at Weber State University."I thought we'd learned some fairly important lessons" from the Vietnam experience, he said. Among them was "a sense of caution and not putting our fingers in every pie in the world. . . . I'm no pacifist either, but I think we should be really, really cautious about using bombs and bullets when diplomacy isn't really given a chance."
As for the gulf war, he thinks State Department officials threw up their hands after only five months, not giving the sanctions against Iraq enough chance to work. "I think there is something to be said for caution and patience in war."
O'Brien is an expert on the effects of war. He served in the 198th Infantry in the Vietnam War, 1969-70, receiving the Purple Heart and becoming sergeant. His book "If I Die in a Combat Zone" memorializes that period.
He wrote his first nationally published piece while in Vietnam, and Playboy Magazine published it a month after he returned to the United States.
After graduate studies at Harvard and a year and a half working as a national affairs reporter for the Washington Post, O'Brien was finally able to support himself on the basis of his literary efforts. He and his wife, Ann, live north of Boston.
His book "Going After Cacciato" won a National Book Award for fiction in 1979 and is considered by many to be among the best novels ever written about Vietnam.
He said the sanitized view of the gulf war that showed up in Pentagon briefings gave a distorted picture, far removed from the gritty reality of reports that were filed from the front during the Vietnam War.
"It was an orchestrated sort of thing," he said of the gulf war coverage. "What good is the press if they don't have the freedom to get out there and see what's really happening and not just take the word of Schwarzkopf and the other briefers?"
The Pentagon should have trusted journalists, he said. "In Vietnam, the journalists weren't divulging battle plans . . . they were reporting events from the front," as they occurred.
Yet this time around, the American public seems to simply accept the military's version, fed through briefings; the healthy skepticism that was evident once seems to have disappeared. "I thought that (skepticism) was another lesson from Vietnam," O'Brien said.
"Ultimately it's the American public that matters, and if the public doesn't have access to the truth, it's like `1984.' "
He worries about the American response to the gulf war. "It seems self-congratulatory, bellicose, belligerent - `We're back in the saddle fully.' "
Meanwhile, people should remember that while not many Americans died in the war, possibly as many as 100,000 Iraqi soldiers did. "They're not villains, they're kids," he said.
A feeling seems to have taken over that America is invincible on the battlefield, leading to trouble later, he said. "We can't win 'em all, Vietnam taught us that. Technology can't always save the day."