Archive for the ‘Letters’ Category

An Open Letter to Tim O’Brien

Posted: March 10, 2013 in Letters

Dear Mr. O’Brien,

My name is Sebastian Clarkin, and I’m a student at Bristol Community College, where you spoke for about an hour on December 1st. I didn’t get the change to ask you my question (I wasn’t about to cut in front of the President), so I hoped I’d be able to reach you this way.

My father is a Vietnam Vet, so I grew up with war stories. He has funny stories, like the time he accidentally raised the flag upside-down over his base. He has sad stories, like that of his Cambodian friend, Eduard Kem, who was eventually executed by the Khmer Rouge of “Treason.” My father even has stories that are just damn interesting, like when he got a mud-stained letter in the mail from his friend who was afraid to charge up Hamburger Hill, and then read that day’s headline: “Marines take ‘Hamburger Hill.’”

The stories that stood out to me the most, though, are the stories he never finished, either by just trailing off, walking away and lighting a Marlboro, or, on at least one occasion, simply saying “No” when asked to continue.

Part of his reasoning is psychological, of course. Like you said, part of the pain is having to realize and come to terms with the things you’ve done. But, from what I can tell, he, as well as all other veterans, are frustrated. They know they may be able to tell their stories, but they can never make their audience truly understand, truly know, truly feel what they felt and see what they saw. All they want is to be honest, to tell the truth, and, crucially, to be heard. Sounds like a circle of Hell, doesn’t it? The restless mouths and the unhearing masses? The disconnection isn’t just between soldiers and civilians, either. While he opens up more to fellow vets (of all wars), there’s a frustration that no one experienced the war the exact same way he did, and so he can’t get tell his story the exact way it happened.

I read The Things They Carried going into the sixth grade. My dad said I had to read it. He said that you were one of his favorite authors. He said he especially liked Tomcat in Love because he related closely to the main character. When I read that book years later, I felt that he had said too much. But I read The Things They Carried mostly because I was interested in hearing the ends of so many of my father’s stories, and at least slightly because you were wearing a Red Sox cap in your photo, so I knew you were a decent guy.

We never really talked about the book after I finished it, and he certainly didn’t open up any more than he had before. It’s probably because he knew that even after reading the stories (and I’ve re-read them several times since), I still wouldn’t be able to get it. And so he’s still frustrated.

Are you familiar with this frustrated, hopeless feeling? How do you reconcile it with the urge to communicate and be heard? How closely do you feel The Things They Carried, Going After Cacciato, and If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home reflect reality? Would you add anything? Take anything away? When you spoke, you said that you wanted to “bear witness” to Vietnam, but can simple words express the truth? Have you felt limited as a writer or by the form of writing? Can truth only be conveyed by half-truths and verisimilitudes?

I know I’ve asked you a lot. Probably too much. I don’t expect you to answer everything or know the answer to everything.

If nothing else, consider this a thank-you letter for speaking to my school, writing your books, fighting in the war, helping my dad, being a Red Sox fan, and inspiring me to write. I hope that one day I’ll be able to thank you in person.



Sebastian Clarkin