The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress

December 2002

Tim O'Brien Explains Why He Is Not
A "Vietnam War Novelist"


"I could have found a butt on the ground," mumbled the street person. Instead, she bummed a cigarette from Tim O'Brien, who was happy to oblige. O'Brien had just opened a fresh pack and was sitting with me outside a cafe in Washington, D.C. On this drizzly October evening, the National-Book-Award­winning novelist, whose work often reflects his service as an infantryman in the Vietnam War, was about to give a talk at a local independent bookstore.

He spent an hour beforehand sharing his thoughts on his latest novel, July, July (Houghton Mifflin), on novels as art, and on Hollywood's treatment of his work. The Vietnam War and his generation came up often - although O'Brien was insistent that calling him a "Vietnam War novelist" or characterizing his fiction as "Vietnam War-influenced" does his work a disservice.

July, July
, he said, is not The Things They Carried, O'Brien's critically acclaimed collection of short stories set in the heat of battle inVietnam. The war, he said, "is not everything" in his literary life. "I can't keep writing the same book over and over again, even though people want me to."

July, July, he explained, "is an ensemble novel with ten main characters." The ten characters are members of the Vietnam War generation who come together for a 30th college reunion in the summer of 2000. But the book, O'Brien points out, transcends any kind of genre.

"It is not a baby-boom book or a book 'about' the sixties," O'Brien said. "It's about loss. It's about things that cut across the passage of thirty years. It's about the human capacity for fantasy." He drew analogies to Shakespeare and to Joseph Conrad and Ernest Hemingway. "Great art," he said, is not that specific. "Great art isn't about Vietnam or the Baby Boom or the Lost Generation."

He also addressed the question of why all the characters in July, July are struggling with emotional problems. "No human being who's ever lived hasn't had pain.You don't make books out of happiness," O'Brien said. "Literature comes out of struggle and pain and seeking redemption and coming to peace with oneself and with the world."

O'Brien stressed, though, that in the end, all is not gloom and doom for the characters in July, July. "Each character leaves with some optimism," he said. "Nobody's given up; they're all still trying. They feel that maybe life will deliver a little gift tomorrow." That hint of optimism, he said, comes from his own view of life. "I don't have great expectations," O'Brien said, "but I live with the hope that things will be a little bit better today, and that tomorrow may be a little bit better than today. We can't live without [that hope]. Without the belief that tomorrow can be better than today, we might as well not go on living."

O'Brien, a big movie fan, is not a fan of what Hollywood has done with his work. Talks have dragged on for almost a decade about making feature films out of The Things They Carried and his magical in-country novel, Going After Cacciato. There's even been a script for Cacciato, by the actor/director Nick Cassevetes, and interest from actors Toby Maguire and Leonardo Di Caprio. "Things were very close in 1999. They were going to make it," O'Brien said. But the Hollywood fates intervened, and the project was shelved.

O'Brien is not a fan of the two made­for-TV-movies inspired by his work: In the Lake of the Woods (1996) and Soldier's Sweetheart (1998), based on the short story "The Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong," one of the stories in The Things They Carried. "No writer," he said, "ever likes a movie of his book, especially a TV movie."

As for Cacciato's film future, O'Brien has mixed feelings. "Part of me hopes it doesn't become a movie," he said. "As soon as it does, then an actor’s face - say Leonardo Di Caprio - will be attached to [main character] Paul Berlin. No writer wants that. Another part of me does want it so I can go to St. Bart's and never write again."


The BBC-produced documentary, The Trials of Henry Kissinger (First Run Features, 80 minutes), which appeared in scattered theaters around the country in September, is based on the 2001 book by contentious, controversial journalist and author Christopher Hitchens. The book and film - written by Alex Gibney and directed by Eugene Jarecki - make a case that Kissinger is guilty of perpetrating mass killings throughout the world, including in Indochina.

The film presents evidence that, mainly for political reasons, the former Nixon National Security Adviser and Secretary of State purposely sabotaged the 1968 Paris peace talks, ordered illegal bombings in Cambodia in 1969, and talked Nixon into waging the 1972 Christmas bombing of North Vietnam. For more info, go to


Among the arts-related events that took place this past Veterans Day was a exhibit in the Russell Senate Office Building Rotunda on Capitol Hill of 40 outstanding photographs taken over the last two decades by VVA staff photographer Michael Keating. The exhibit was co-sponsored by VVA and Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV and timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

"The photos are amazingly evocative and provide vivid images of the Vietnam veterans movement, of which VVA has played a large role, and the history of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial," VVA President Tom Corey said. "We are particularly proud of Michael Keating’s work. Michael has for many years taken countless memorable photographs of veterans, of The Wall, and of other veteran-related activities, primarily for our newspaper, The VVA Veteran. We are pleased to share a portion of his work with the public."

Also on Veterans Day, several NPR stations rebroadcast "The Vietnam Tapes of Lance Cpl. Michael A. Baronowski," a radio documentary that first aired on Memorial Day weekend two years ago. The show consists of excerpts from an amazing collection of tapes that Baronowski made during his Vietnam tour, tapes that the aspiring broadcast journalist recorded during patrols, at base camps, and even when he was under fire. Baronowski was killed in an ambush on November 26, 1969.

The Coffelt database, a.k.a. the Vietnam War Combat Area Casualty Database, which contains a ton of information about American KIAs, is now available on the Internet in Excel format. The web address for the database, which we reported on in the August issue, is It will be updated on a regular basis as new information becomes available. If you download it, you can sort the data easily in different ways. You can, for example, create a listing of all the casualties for your former unit or a list of casualties by name or by casualty date. For more info, contact VVA member Dick Arnold, who did yeoman work setting up the database. His e-mail is

Bilingual Books of Seattle specializes in what it calls "language maps," laminated guides to foreign languages with phonetic pronunciations for scores of words and terms. The Vietnamese language map contains such helpful phrases as "I am American" (toy lah ngur-ee mee) and "see you later" (hen gup lye sow). For more info, go to  or call 800-488-5068.

The planned National Vietnam War Museum in Texas will be dedicated, its organizers say, "to educating a broad spectrum of the population of the United States and our Allies in order to honor those who served, while bridging the gap of understanding of the Vietnam era." You can learn about the museum, which will be built near the former Fort Walters, by going to

One of the best tunes on Home, the terrific new Dixie Chicks CD, is "Travelin- Soldier," a bittersweet country ballad that deals with a guy who goes to fight in the Vietnam War and the girl he left behind. The song was written by Bruce Robison, the country singer-songwriter, who has a connection to the Chicks. His brother, the country singer Charlie Robison, is married to Emily, the tall dark-haired guitar, dobro, and banjo player of the hot female trio.

Actor James Spader has been chosen to play Daniel Ellsberg in the upcoming TV movie , The Pentagon Papers, the Hollywood Reporter announced this summer. The film, from FX and Paramount Network TV, probably will air in December. Ellsberg "is a very complex character, and we were looking for a really gifted, strong actor who can play the full range," FX entertainment president Kevin Reilly said. Rod Holcomb is directing.

The U.S. Postal Service announced in August that American military men and women who received the Purple Heart for sacrifices made on the battlefield will be honored with a 37-cent first class Purple Heart stamp next year. The stamp will be available for an indefinite period, rather than the customary year-long sales period generally used for commemorative stamps.

In September, the official Vietnamese Army newspaper, Quan Doi Nhan Dan, condemned Vietnamese actor Don Duong for playing a part in the big Hollywood movie, We Were Soldiers. The paper said the film distorted the reality of the Battle of the Ia Drang Valley and called for the actor to be punished, possibly by banning him from acting in movies for ten years.

The National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum in Chicago joined forces with the Veterans Radio Hour in November. The veteran-oriented radio programs, featuring Retired Gen. David L. Grange, are broadcast live at 9:00 p.m. Central time. You can listen on the Internet at


Robb Lucas, the author of The Little Big Hill, a Vietnam War memoir, is at work on a second book. "After meeting other vets at book signings around the country, I’ve learned there are many other untold stories out there that need to be told," Lucas told us. "So I've begun the interviewing. My focus is on draftees, like me - ordinary guys who for one reason or another ended up in the Army for two years, then the jungle, then back in life, and mostly never talked about their experiences in Vietnam because much of the country had taken a stance against the war." If you’d like to contribute, contact Lucas through his web site, or by e-mail

VVA member R.E. Armstrong, the author of No Rules: Offbeat Tales of Military Life, a book of short stories, is collecting recipes for a veterans cookbook. "Royalties from this cookbook will be donated to projects that provide housing for needy veterans and their families," Armstrong told us. If you have a recipe you’d like to include, send it to: P.O. Box 13218 Maumelle, AR 72113. You can e-mail Armstrong at

Rick Kogan, Ann Landers’ former editor, is writing a book about the famed advice-giver in which he will tell stories about how she helped people through her column. That includes many veterans, to whom Landers often gave words of encouragement. Kogan would like to talk to veterans who were touched by Landers’ words or whose lives were affected by her columns. If you’d like to put in your two cents, contact Sharon Barrett, 2539 N. Southport, #2N, Chicago, IL 60614;


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