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Author to speak about combat in Vietnam

By KBell
Feb. 13, 2012 at 5 p.m.
Updated Feb. 13, 2012 at 8:14 p.m.


IF YOU GO

WHAT: ABR presents Tim O'BrienWHERE: Alcorn Auditorium of University West, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St.WHEN: Noon ThursdayCOST: Free, open to public. Light refreshments will be served.

EXCERPT FROM 'THE THINGS THEY CARRIED'They were tough.

They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing - these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. They crawled into tunnels and walked point and advanced under fire. Each morning, despite the unknowns, they made their legs move. They endured. They kept humping. They did not submit to the obvious alternative, which was simply to close the eyes and fall. So easy, really. Go limp and tumble to the ground and let the muscles unwind and not speak and not budge until your buddies picked you up and lifted you into the chopper that would roar and dip its nose and carry you off to the world. A mere matter of falling, yet no one ever fell. It was not courage, exactly; the object was not valor. Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards.

Of all the fears ushered in by war, author Tim O'Brien calls a soldier's greatest, heaviest fright, the fear of blushing.

"Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment," O'Brien wrote in his 1990 book, "The Things They Carried."

More than 30 years after the Vietnam War, O'Brien's depiction of combat continues to resonate with students who study his fictional accounts of a war that was very real to him as well as to hundreds of thousands of soldiers.

On Thursday, O'Brien will read from "The Things They Carried," a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, at the American Book Review's Spring Reading Series at the University of Houston-Victoria.

"I'm hoping people will feel something viscerally about what it is to be a combat soldier," O'Brien said. "If people sit through a story, they can identify a little more about what it is to be young, afraid, confused, doing things you were taught never to do as a little boy - like kill people."

O'Brien was drafted to the U.S. Army in 1969, the same year he graduated from college. The year he spent in combat became the catalyst for the young man who said he always wanted to be a writer.

With Vietnam, he had a familiar yet shivering story to tell.

"It was just hard to come up with a language that was adequate to express what the experience was like ... so it wouldn't sound like a cliché, (but) something that would be striking and move peoples' hearts."

O'Brien, who is the endowed chair of the Master of Fine Arts program at Texas State University, has been called one of the best American writers of war. He received the National Book Award in 1979 for his book "Going After Cacciato."

His novel "In the Lake of the Woods" won the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Best Historical Fiction in 1995.

He'll stick to "The Things They Carried" for his lecture at UHV, and left it up in the air as to which passages he'll choose to read.

For as many are the emotions of war, so are the audiences who show up to experience the emotions through storytelling.

"Some (stories) are funnier than others, some are really sad, and I try to get a feel from the audience," O'Brien said.

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