Googled Tim O’Brien last night and discovered he was born three days before I was born. We are both original boomers, along with Susan Sarandon who shares my birthday, which means nothing in any grand scheme of things, but then I’m not sure I believe in grand schemes. Tim ended up in Vietnam. I sat at a desk at the National Security Agency where I kept track of my time served in the navy on a homemade calendar attached on the side tray of the desk. I marked off each day like a prisoner keeping track of every moment he spent in his cell. Retrospectively, I had it easy. Still, I yearned to be somewhere else—one the road, in Crete, letting my hair grow long, just to be free.
I remember how the air tasted different the day I was released from active duty. I drove up to Maine with my first wife and new daughter to visit my aunt, just driving without having to log out. It was October and the Maine leaves were as brilliant as my new found liberty. I chopped wood one afternoon I was there, and chopping wood was the most wonderful thing I had done in years. I met a couple who had a cabin on a lake. They had bookshelves full of books. I picked up a copy of Kafka and read the beginning of “Metamorphosis.” Gregor Samsa wakes up to discover he has transformed into a giant insect. The poet seeks metaphor.
I met Tim O’Brien once in Boston. Tim knew my aunt. “Myra and I used to play poker,” he told me. I doubt he remembers me. He was reading from The Things They Carried that evening—about killing a man who was the enemy, but who was also just a man.
I heard Tim speak once at the Austin book fair. He talked about the nature of war, the mud of war, being bogged down in a field of shit, literal shit. Someone criticized him for taking the war personally, that there were grander and more abstract reasons for our being in Vietnam, for our going into Iraq, that transcend the personal. Then go there yourself, O’Brien answered. Get off your ass and go there yourself, and you will find out how personal it can be. The response should require no explanation, no further debate.
But then we do have patriots sitting at computer terminals guiding drones and killing people half way across the world. There is no courage required, no honor. At the end of the day, these remote killers drive home for supper.
How do you explain what is lost, the poet asks.
This morning I eat breakfast at a retirement community dinning hall and listen to the men at the table next to mine talk about the American and Italian army, something about two soldiers. From their age, I assumed they were WWII veterans, but they could be a little young for that war. Not many are left. I sip my coffee and think about the aging veterans of Vietnam. I remember Tim O’Brien writing that he went to Vietnam because he didn’t have the courage not to. I understand.