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The Vietnam War as a backdrop for important questions in life

IU freshmen this year read Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried, as a prelude to the Themester focus on issues of war and peace. O'Brien, a Vietnam veteran, has used his experience in the military as a vehicle for a number of his books that focus on larger questions of life.

O'Brien gave the Branigan Lecture sponsored by the IU Institute for Advanced Study to a full house on Oct. 19. On Oct. 20, as part of the College of Arts and Science Themester, he conversed at the Poynter Center with a smaller group of faculty and students. On both occasions he spoke about having two heads -- of having two points of view that are not compatible -- and about the struggle to figure out which head to listen to.

As an example, he talked about the Rainy River chapter in the book, in which he had a boat that could have taken him to Canada to evade the draft notice that he had received. He got in the boat, but in the end he went back to U.S. waters, joined the Army and went to war.

O'Brien talked about how rationality can sometimes fail us. Part of knowing involves tears, laughter and stomach (gut instinct). He noted that words fail him when he listens to politicians who talk and act with willful ignorance. Rationality fails, so O'Brien tells stories. His stories are made up, but they are rooted in things that happened. Sometimes people want to forget the terrible things they saw or did, so they forget in order to survive.

In the end, O'Brien invited participants to think about who makes decisions, and about what their frame of reference is. O'Brien noted that the U.S. saw the Vietnam War as about containing communism, but the peasant woman in Vietnam who was poor and hungry saw the Viet Cong as the people who offered rice.