Author Tim O'Brien on Hagel, Kerry and the Lasting Impact of the Vietnam War

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is "The World". Today on the program, we're looking at wars, past, present, and possibly future. We start with former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel, the nominee to head the Pentagon. He faced intense questioning in Senate confirmation hearings today. Senator John McCain grilled him on his opposition to the troop surge in Iraq. Critics say they're worried Hagel might be reluctant to use US military force and he tried to dispel that today when he dealt with the issue of Iran getting nuclear weapons.

Chuck Hagel: As I've said in the past, many times, all options must be on the table to achieve that goal. My policy has always been the same as the president's. One of prevention, not of containment.

Werman: Earlier this week, former senator John Kerry was confirmed as Secretary of State and if Hagel is confirmed, it would be the first time two Vietnam vets hold two top cabinet positions. Author and Vietnam vet Tim O'Brien has written a lot about the Vietnam War including the classic, "The Things They Carried". I asked him about the lingering impact of the conflict on Kerry and Hagel.

Tim O'Brien: Aging and positions of power can influence a psyche as much as an experience such as Vietnam. But in Hagel's case, for example, he was not only in Vietnam, he was in Vietnam as a sergeant, an enlisted man. Both men, both Kerry and Hagel, saw combat and I think you return from an experience like that with the knowledge that bullets and bombs and artillery shells and so on, can kill the enemy. But bombs, and artillery shells, and bullets, can also manufacture an enemy. A bullet strikes a six year old kid in the head, you've got one very angry mom and dad. The multiplier factor is enormous. It can be counterproductive not achieving the goals you want but instead manufacturing problems.

Werman: Do you think for both Hagel and Kerry, they're likely to be more cautious in the use of force? Or is it just too simplistic?

O'Brien: Well, I hope that they would be more cautious as a consequence of their experiences in Vietnam. I mean, what's wrong with caution? It astonishes me that Hagel is being criticized for possibly becoming too cautious. There are dead people. It's not an abstract issue for someone who has been in combat. It may be abstract to civilians and to officers back in the rear echelon area. But to someone who has had to carry your dead friends and look at dead enemy soldiers, it's not an abstract issue. It's an issue that goes into your bones and I hope it has gone into the bones of Mr. Hagel and Mr. Kerry.

Werman: It was interesting to hear Chuck Hagel's narrative today during his confirmation hearings. We were reminded of his family's almost, destiny to serve in the military. His father was in World War 2. His grandfather in World War 1. There he was in Vietnam, two purple hearts, shrapnel in his chest, war hero. How did it affect him personally? Maybe you have an anecdote that is worth mentioning?

O'Brien: The fact that in the way it affected all of us, in the last analysis that war is hell and it's ugly and it's nasty. The images of heroism are now and then true, but there's the overwhelming temper of war, is ugly and nasty on a day by day, second by second basis. Kicking around civilians, peeing in wells, busting into people's houses, rolling in with your armor, intimidating people. It's ugly, not just in the sense of atrocity. It's ugly in its daily second by second ethos.

Werman: Tim O'Brien, you served as an infantryman in Vietnam. When did the ground shift for you and kind of change your essential notions of war?

O'Brien: It shifted on a hot day in 1969. It was July. We had taken two causalities earlier in the day and we entered a village. In the middle of this village, was this village well and at the well stood an old man, seventy, eighty years old. He was completely blind. His eyes looked liked little aluminum discs. For about a half an hour, that old man dipped into his well with a wooden bucket and gave us showers, dumping the water on us and saying "Good water for good GIs". It could have been a pigeon English. And at one point, one of my fellow soldiers, a kid named Tom from my home state of Minnesota, picked up a little carton of milk and from two or maybe three feet away, hurled that carton of milk at the old man's head, hit him in the face. The man lost his balance, fell down. After a moment, he stood up, milk just dribbling down his face, a little cut over his eye. The village had gone silent. All the kids who had been giggling a little bit before were dead silent. That village, that old man, that moment, lasts inside me even though there was no real bloodshed, in a way that will never go away.

Werman: What was it about that moment? Was it the random cruelty of it?

O'Brien: It was the [sp] inexplicability of it. The question of why? Why would a man do this? Granted, we had lost two men earlier in the day. Granted, we were feeling full of anger and sorrow. But still, that old man had nothing to do with it. And it's an example of what I meant when I said a bit earlier that, war can have the effects that are precisely the reverse of your intentions, to save the world for democracy, to win the hearts and minds of villagers.

Werman: Tim O'Brien, do you, as a Vietnam veteran, feel more encouraged that two Vietnam veterans will likely be Secretaries of Defense and State? Does that make a difference to you?

O'Brien: Yes. A huge difference. To have an experience, face to face, as I did, with the horrors of war. Its sinfulness and the nastiness. When one of these men is being criticized as possibly too cautious, I want to yell at the top of my lungs, "How can one be too cautious??" You can't be too cautious.

Werman: Tim O'Brien, author of the Vietnam era classic, "The Things They Carried". He now lives and works in central Texas, where he teaches at Texas State University San Marcos. Very good to hear your thoughts, Tim O'Brien.

O'Brien: Thank you, Marco.