Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O'Brien and the Power of Storytelling

Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O'Brien and the Power of Storytelling

Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O'Brien and the Power of Storytelling

Vietnam and Beyond: Tim O'Brien and the Power of Storytelling

Excerpt

In March 2010, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt brought out the twentieth anniversary edition of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award finalist The Things They Carried, marking with this decision the book’s status as Tim O’Brien’s most accomplished and significant work – a remarkable compliment indeed, if one thinks that his earlier Going After Cacciato had won the National Book Award in 1979. With its publication some six months before President Obama declared the end of the war in Iraq and set July 2011 as the deadline for the beginning of the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, the twentieth anniversary edition of this seminal text about the war in Vietnam has rekindled comparisons between the conflict in the Southeast Asian peninsula, and the more recent American military interventions in the Middle East. Echoing O’Brien’s epistemological insecurity of two decades ago, Joseph Peschel declares that ‘the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity’, regardless of one’s stance on ‘the moral and political validity of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan’. On his part, having drawn his own explicit comparison between these conflicts and Vietnam, O’Brien focuses on the human and emotional cost of warfare, on the soldiers as well as their families and, by extension, on society as a whole:

Obviously there are differences [between now and then], chief among them the
absence of the draft. But there are enough similarities. These are wars in which
there are no uniforms, no front, no rear. Who’s the enemy? What do you shoot
back at? Whom do you trust? At the bottom, all wars are the same because they
involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons
and daughters.

1 Joseph Peschel, ‘Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, released in 20th anniversary edition, renews war’s ambiguity’, in Steven Levingston, ‘Political Bookworm. Where Tomorrow’s Must-read Political Books Are Discovered Today’, The Washington Post, 24 March 2010, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/political-bookworm/2010/03/ tim_obriens_the_things_they_ca.html (accessed 25 November 2010).

2 Tim O’Brien, quoted in Susan Hodara, ‘Asking the Whole Country to Embrace a War Story’, The New York Times, 29 January 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/31/ nyregion/31bookwe.html (accessed 25 November 2010).

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