Tim O'Brien

“Storytelling is the essential human activity," said American novelist and Vietnam veteran Tim O'Brien. "The harder the situation, the more essential it is. In Vietnam, men were constantly telling one another stories about the war. Our unit lost a lot of guys around My Lai, but the stories they told stay around after them. I would be mad not to tell the stories I know.”¹ O'Brien's career as a writer centers around recounting his personal experience as a soldier in a war. Although his books and short stories are works of fiction, his characters are directly influenced by the horrors he witnessed in the Vietnam War.

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    Tim O'Brien Biography

    William Timothy O'Brien was born on October 1, 1946, in Minnesota. He grew up in Worthington, Minnesota, which so deeply affected his sense of place that it became the setting for many of his short stories in The Things They Carried (1990). O'Brien attended Macalester College, graduating with a bachelor‘s degree in Political Science in 1968. Directly after college, however, O'Brien was drafted into the Vietnam War, and he served in the United States Army for two years.

    O'Brien served in the 23rd Infantry Division, also known as the Americal Division. The year before O'Brien was drafted into the war, a platoon from this unit perpetrated the My Lai Massacre. Unarmed Vietnam civilians, including men, women, and children, were brutalized and murdered in the massacre. Although O'Brien wasn't involved in the army at that point, the event impacted his identity as a Vietnam veteran significantly. He reflects on the massacre and the trauma that it inflicted in his 1994 novel In the Lake of the Woods.

    Tim O'Brien, O'Brien's identity as a war author centers around his personal experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War,  StudySmarterO'Brien's identity as a war author centers around his personal experience as a soldier in the Vietnam War, unsplash

    It is important to note that O'Brien was opposed to the Vietnam War, and during training, he planned to go AWOL to Canada. Although he is a veteran, his books are anti-war. He has been called America's "poet laureate of war," but he firmly believes that war is not always a necessary thing. He hoped that more people would realize the impact of war through his writing.

    The Vietnam War lasted from 1955 to 1975. It pitted the communist government in North Vietnam against the government of South Vietnam and its American allies. The first United States Marines landed in Da Nang on March 8, 1965, marking the start of America's direct presence in the war. U.S. forces joined the war to stop communism from spreading.

    The war was highly unpopular throughout America as World War II. The Korean War had recently ended, while the Cold War was underway, with many Americans fearing nuclear aggression from the Soviet Union. Much of the American population also believed America's involvement to be unjust. O'Brien was not a supporter of the war, but he reluctantly fought for his country when drafted. In his writings, O'Brien constantly questions the morality of war.

    After Vietnam, O'Brien returned to the United States and was presented with a Purple Heart medal for his injuries in the war (grenade shrapnel to his hand). He then attended graduate school at Harvard University. He worked for the Washington Post first as an intern and later as a reporter from 1971 to 1974.

    In 1973 O'Brien published his first book, a memoir entitled, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. The book details his personal experience in the Vietnam War. The majority of his following books are works of historical fiction dealing with the war, including Going After Cacciato (1978), The Things They Carried (1990), and In the Lake of the Woods (1994). In 1979, O'Brien won the National Book Award for Going After Cacciato.

    Today, O'Brien lives in Texas with his family. He teaches full-time every other year at Texas State University-San Marcos and hosts workshops for MFA students in the creative writing program in his off years. In 2019, O'Brien's latest book, Dad's Maybe Book, was published. It is a memoir about parenthood and wisdom from war.

    Tim O'Brien Books and Short Stories

    O'Brien's books center around his identity as a soldier and his experience in the Vietnam War. Two of his most famous novels are In the Lake of the Woods and Going After Cacciato. The Things They Carried is a collection of linked short stories.

    Tim O'Brien's In the Lake of the Woods

    In the Lake of the Woods follows a haunted politician and veteran, John Wade. Despite Wade's personal issues caused by the trauma of his childhood and the Vietnam War, his career as a politician was excelling. But as he's running for the U.S. Senate, Wade's career and life crumble around him when the media reveals that Wade's platoon was responsible for the infamous My Lai Massacre. Although Wade was deeply disturbed by what happened at My Lai—he never wanted to hurt anyone and is haunted by his role in the accidental death of his friend and an old Vietnamese man—his reputation is ruined.

    When Wade and his wife retreat to a cabin in Minnesota near the Canadian border to recover from his public disgrace, Wade's wife goes missing. Giving readers clues, anecdotes about Wade's history, and quotes from other people in town, the narrator leaves it up to the audience to determine what actually happened to Kathy Wade: did her husband murder her? Did she run away? Did she get lost in the Canadian wilderness?

    Tim O'Brien, Lake, StudySmarterThe rural setting adds to the tension in the story: did the haunted veteran hide his wife's body in the Canadian wilderness or was he uninvolved in her disappearance?, unsplash

    Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato

    Another war novel set in the Vietnam War, Going After Cacciato, tells the story of a traumatized soldier going AWOL and his unit attempting to chase after him. The third-person narrator, Paul Berlin, details the events that transpire after Cacciato, another soldier in his squad, flees the war. Cacciato decides to walk from Vietnam to Paris by traveling through Asia. Berlin and other members of the unit attempt to capture him, but others argue that they turn back instead of risking their lives for one man. The timeline switches throughout the story, employing flashbacks and glimpses into the future.

    Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried

    The Things They Carried is a short story collection that links together stories from the Vietnam War. Although this is a work of fiction, the narrator is named Tim O'Brien. He catalogs everything he and his fellow soldiers in the Alpha Company brought on their missions. From tangible things like letters, rifles, and candy, to intangible things like fear, anxiety, and guilt, the soldiers are all weighed down by one thing or another. The stories are full of recurring characters as they experience camaraderie, violence, loss, and death in the war. The narrator also discusses the guilt that several characters felt after killing people. Towards the end of the book, the narrator contemplates what he could tell his young daughter about killing a man with a grenade.

    Tim O'Brien, War and Fighter, StudySmarterThe Things They Carried is about both the literal and figurative things soldiers carry in war, such as guns, backpacks, fear, and pride, unsplash

    Tim O'Brien Family

    One of O'Brien's main sources of contention and his now-wife Meredith Baker was his reluctance to have children. Growing up with an alcoholic father, O'Brien said in interviews that he was worried that as a father, he would be physically and emotionally absent as his father was. He was also scared that having children would stop him from writing, and he didn't want to give that up.

    In his 2020 documentary The War and Peace of Tim O'Brien, O'Brien said he would give up every book he wrote to have more time with his children. O'Brien didn't have his first child until he was 58. Now his two sons, Timmy and Tad, are the pride of his life. Having children so late has made O'Brien confront his mortality and nostalgic about the time he lost with them. He touches on this in his documentary as well as in his 2019 memoir Dad's Maybe Book, a composition of letters and advice that he shares with his sons.

    Tim O'Brien Quotes

    As O'Brien is considered a war author, many of his quotes center around wisdom he learned in Vietnam. Although the majority of his books are fiction, his characters are based on his personal experience.

    There's something about being amid the chaos and the horror of a war that makes you appreciate all you don't have, and all you may lose forever."³

    This quote comes from an interview with O'Brien in 2010. It speaks to one of the most dominant themes throughout his books: the horrors of war. O'Brien himself never believed in the Vietnam War, and many of his characters are soldiers who are also ambivalent about the violence of warfare. At once proud of their status as defenders of America and filled with guilt over the death and destruction they cause, O'Brien's characters know the chaos and horror of war all too well. Throughout his books, they also struggle to cope with their loss of innocence and their past lives, and the potential for death and the ultimate loss. O'Brien's fearfulness of loss is reflected in nearly all of his soldier characters.

    “That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are" (pg. 24).

    This quote is taken from O'Brien's The Things They Carried. It speaks to O'Brien's personal tendency to work through his emotions in his fiction. Although the narrator in The Things They Carried is a fictional "Tim O'Brien," many of his experiences reflect those of the real O'Brien. In interviews, O'Brien has stated that often the war still doesn't feel real to him. Although his fellow soldiers are proud of their role in the war, he uses fiction to work through his feelings and remember his own past.

    At the bottom, all wars are the same because they involve death and maiming and wounding, and grieving mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters.”4

    This quote was taken from a phone conversation with O'Brien in 2010. He talked about the similarities between the Vietnam War in the mid-20th century and the conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq at the start of the 21st century. Although O'Brien admired his fellow soldiers for their bravery, he never fully embraced his own identity as a soldier in the war. When reflecting on Vietnam, he stated that he felt guilty and constantly "questioned the rectitude of the war."² When thinking about war, he doesn't think in terms of which country is right or wrong. Instead, he thinks of the soldiers who are forced to commit atrocities and face death in the name of patriotism.

    Tim O'Brien - Key takeaways

    • Tim O'Brien was born in 1946 in Minnesota, which he uses as a setting for several of his works.
    • He is mostly known as a war writer and was himself a veteran of the Vietnam War.
    • Although he is proud of his fellow soldiers, O'Brien himself did not want to fight in the war. Many of his novels examine the psychological trauma of war on soldiers.
    • His most famous works include Going After Cacciato, In the Lake of the Woods, and The Things They Carried.

    (1) "Tim O’Brien Biography," Chicago Public Library.

    (2) "Tim O'Brien On Late-In-Life Fatherhood And The Things He Carried From Vietnam," npr.org,

    (3) "'The Things They Carried,' 20 Years On," npr.org,

    (4) Hodara, Susan. "Asking the Whole County to Embrace a War Story," The New York Times, (2010).

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Tim O'Brien

    Who is Tim O'Brien?

    Tim O'Brien is an American novelist and short story writer who uses his experience in the Vietnam War to write anti-war novels. 

    Where did Tim O'Brien grew up?

    He grew up in Worthington, Minn.. 

    How did the war affect Tim O'Brien?

    O'Brien didn't want to fight in the war, but he was drafted into the army. He is anti-war now, as evident in his novels, and very aware of how psychological trauma hurts soldiers during and after the war. 

    When was Tim O'Brien born?

    He was born in 1946, right after World War II. 

    Is the author Tim O'Brien still alive?

    Yes, O'Brien is still alive. His last book is from 2019 and there was a documentary about him in 2020. He is now teaching and raising his two sons.  

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What war does In the Lake of the Woods reference? 

    What two events traumatized John Wade? 

    How is the novel structure? 

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