The US has fought long, controversial wars in Vietnam and Iraq. Both left deep scars on the people involved.
Authors Tim O'Brien and Phil Klay each know one of those wars intimately. O'Brien served in Vietnam and Klay in Iraq. And through their talents as writers, both have provided readers with some of the most honest and raw perspectives of what it's like to go to a war, fight, see really bad things and come home. O'Brien's book "The Things They Carried" and Klay's "Redeployment" are standout pieces of literature about those two wars, both collections of short stories.
Below is a transcribed excerpt of their interview with Marco Werman.
Marco Werman: Let me start by asking have you ever met each other and more importantly have you read each other’s works?
Phil Klay: This is the first time that I’ve spoken with Tim O’Brien. It’s an honor. Of course I’ve read his work. I think being asked to talk about Vietnam with Tim O’Brien to someone like me is a little bit like asked to talk about enlightenment with the Buddha. So it’s a real privilege.
Marco Werman: And Tim, have you read any of Phil Klay’s work?
Tim O'Brien: I’ve been wanting to meet Phil for I don’t know how many years now. We’ve had a couple of occasions where we nearly intersected. I remember one was at Stanford and it’s been a disappointment until today that I have not yet run into him. So what a pleasure.
Marco Werman: Well, thanks very much for being with us, I mean we’re at this moment where the man who brought troops home from Iraq is now the third president to visit Vietnam. What thoughts occur to both of you at this moment?
Tim O'Brien: Well, this is Tim and on my part, I feel two things simultaneously and they’re merely the reverse of each other. I feel great happiness that our president is in Vietnam and that relations continue to improve between our two countries. I feel immense sadness at the cost of the war — three million Vietnamese lives and who knows how many grieving widows and fathers and mothers and sons and daughters ... and that’s not counting, of course, the 60,000 dead Americans. So there is a — they’re competing feelings I have.
Marco Werman: And Phil, you weren’t alive when Vietnam was happening. What occurs to you as you see this kind of…circuit being closed?
Phil Klay: It’s very strange. When I got out of the military, actually, I went to Vietnam. I was one of the thousands and thousands of Americans who now visit Vietnam as a tourist. And this is in 2009. Iraq, at that point was much less violent than it had been when I first went to Iraq in January of 2007. And I really hoped, walking through the streets of Hanoi or going through Ho Chi Minh City and also seeing the museum to the American war there, that one day that would be a possibility in Iraq…that kind of normalization and I think years later. ... I’ve been out of military — I got out in 2009 for a long time — and we’re still engaged there, there’s still a tremendous amount of violence there, so those hopes certainly not realized and I think one of the things about confronting the legacy of war is that at the same time you also have to confront the fact that we’re still citizens in a nation that regularly uses military force and we have to think about what that means.
Marco Werman: I mean it’s not just how those countries where the United States has fought recover but this country itself. Tim O’Brien what do you think the war in Vietnam is still doing to the psyche of the United States?
Tim O'Brien: Well it’s easy to forget but for every dead or wounded veteran there is a mother out there somewhere in Florida or Mississippi who 45 years after the war, it hasn’t ended for her. She will still bolt awake at 3 in the morning and say ‘where’s my baby?’ and her baby has been dead forty-five years and the signing of a peace treaty and the normalization of the relations and all the political trappings do nothing to comfort that ninety-five-year-old woman, or father , or the child of that long-gone soldier. I think we have the illusion that wars end and there’s a cessation of hostilities, but as Phil knows from his war and I know from mine and soldiers from the civil war knew from theirs, they echo on and on and on, way beyond the formal end of a war.
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