Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, discussed war and its ethics with fellow author and Vietnam veteran Tobias Wolff at Cubberley Auditorium on Monday night.
Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday tried to address every major problem facing the U.S. in one hour. He arguably succeeded, despite getting interrupted by applause every couple of sentences. While most of what he discussed was to be expected–creating jobs, reforming education, celebrating his administration’s triumphs (or disasters, depending on your point of view)–at the end he touched on a topic one hardly hears discussed at Stanford or in the media: the nation’s two wars.
The United States is nearing its eighth year in Iraq and tenth year in Afghanistan. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Stanford community got a chilling reminder on Monday night about the realities of war from authors and Vietnam veterans Tim O’Brien and Tobias Wolff. O’Brien and Wolff, who teaches English at Stanford, discussed their memories of war, its conflicts with ethics, and the role of conscience in society before a packed audience in Cubberley Auditorium.
The novelty of what these authors shared reinforced how distant we have become from our country’s present conflicts. “All I recalled was generalized chaos,” said O’Brien. “War erases memory. Chronologies get scrambled…. I wrote about the aftermath, what I carried with me for the rest of my life.” O’Brien went on to write novels that would make him one of the most famous voices of the Vietnam generation, including the fittingly-titled The Things They Carried. Yet as O’Brien pointed out, he had to press his content beyond “the killing and dying.” His anger–at the chicken-hawk politicians who had drafted him and sent him into the conflict without putting their own bodies where their thoughts were, at the supposed heroism of his task in the wake of My Lai, at the way war sought to “divorce him from life”–pushed him to expose the “petty horrors of war” that had evaded the rest of his countrymen. Ultimately, O’Brien’s work sought to answer the following question: what is the role of conscience in society?
We talk about conscience like an existential notion that we achieve when we know ourselves. Yet how can we know ourselves when we don’t even think about the men and women getting shot and blown up overseas supposedly defending our way of life? Wolff admitted at one point that he left for war seeking a taste of adventure, a desire that deserted him as soon as he arrived. His misconception is mild compared to the ambivalent way we view the volunteers who serve us today, if we even think about them at all. (more…)