Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tim O'Brien says My Lai massacre too important to forget

Words have power. Sometimes more power than the writer anticipates. Tim O’Brien realized that one day as a line of fans snaked before him waiting for him to personally autograph a book. A mid-twenties man in line seemed to sway nervously. O’Brien figured the man was another would-be writer with an unpublished manuscript seeking advice from the master. But as the man approached the table, he said something that sent O’Brien back to Vietnam: “I think you knew my Dad.”

The resemblance was uncanny and unmistakable. This was the son of Mad Mark, an assassin Green Beret whom O’Brien did indeed know in the trenches of Vietnam. Mad Mark carried an enemy’s nose in his pocket. He was a true believer. He did his job and O’Brien’s nonfiction war account, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, listed him by his first name only. Wasn’t that enough to hide his true identity? Who would read this book by a then-unknown writer anyway?

The son was but an infant when Mad Mark came home and worked for a while as a short-order cook. Then Mark blew his own head off, and the son grew up and started searching for his father in any way he could. He joined the Army, learned to use a weapon just like the old man. But he never found his father until he turned the pages of O’Brien’s book. Because words have power. Sometimes they float around like a bottle in the murky sea until the right person opens them. That’s when a writer may have regrets.

“I regret hurting people, and I realized I should have disguised him better. I’m not talking about pulling punches,” O’Brien said Wednesday to a few hundred people--most students grudgingly attracted through promised extra credit—gathered in the Southwestern Writers Collection at the school that shall forever be known as Southwest Texas State University (some call it Texas State). “My job here today is to make you uncomfortable.”

O’Brien teaches a class or so every two years in the MFA creative writing program there. (I’m a grad of the program but O’Brien came after my time and I’d never met him until this day.) Part of his contract as holder of the Endowed Chair in Creative Writing is to give a few readings for the campus. It’s easy stuff: stand in front of a lectern and read your own words. He could do it in his sleep.

But the ghosts wouldn’t let him. He’d spoken to an undergraduate class and realized how little they knew about the Vietnam War, his main subject matter, his obsession, his demon. The students had read “The Things They Carried,” the short story from his book of the same name, but they didn’t know the first thing about My Lai. O’Brien’s mission this day was to make it real for them. “That’s like living in Texas and never having heard of the Alamo,” O’Brien said of the students’ ignorance of the event.

My Lai was what the American troops called the Vietnamese area in Pinkville (another made-up troop name for the pink area on the map that identified it as an all-out, anything-goes war zone). On March 16, 1968, 105 American troops massacred anywhere from 200 to just more than 500 mostly women and children in the area. For four hours they shot the Vietnamese in the heads, slit their throats, scalped them, threw hand grenades at them. They took breaks to smoke cigarettes, eat candy bars, tell stories. Not one enemy bullet came at them the entire time.

O’Brien’s novel In the Lake of the Woods alludes to the massacre and a man’s repressed memories of being a part of it. O’Brien read briefly from that work, but he gave just as much time to reading the transcripts of court martial hearings for the soldiers, most famously William Calley, the only man among them to be convicted. “What were you firing at?” one soldier was asked in the trial. “At the enemy, sir. They weren’t human beings.”

One young man with a military-style haircut and wearing fatigue shorts walked out early on when O'Brien's talk started getting brutal. Another Iraq War vet said he was trying to get his own stories down on paper. O’Brien was in My Lai one year after the massacre and saw a combination of fear and utter hatred in the eyes of villagers. It was a look he didn’t understand until My Lai became a headline, a source of shame. “It was as if a black curtain had come up,” he said of the revelation.

I (the guy writing this post) was a child when this was going on. Vietnam was white noise on the television in the background as I played with my toys. And I get O’Brien’s point here about the power of words. “The abstraction dulls the senses,” he told the students. “Atrocity is a numbing word. We lose a moral compass when we hear the word.”

Why was his lecture this day something different? Because his fiction comes from a place of truth, and that’s what it’s all about. “I do not believe in the erasure of history—a nation’s history or a person’s history,” he said and went on to quote from another of his Vietnam stories in The Things They Carried: “Every sin here is fresh and original.”

Sounding like the repentant Minnesota-born Methodist he is, O’Brien asked the crowd, “What do you know about yourselves? I did participate in evil.”

But despite the brutality of much of his talk, O’Brien reasserted his belief in humanity. He said he’d recently encountered during his 20th anniversary tour for the book the real-life model for the young girl whose photograph sustains a soldier in “The Things They Carried."

“She doesn’t look the same as in her college yearbook photo, but her eyes were the same,” he said. “The human spirit does have the ability to sustain.”

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