Recalling the Vietnam War, 50 years on

By Jeff Falk

A panel discussion at Rice’s Jones Graduate School of Business Sept. 9 commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War by featuring four critically acclaimed writers who served in the war. The authors — Philip Caputo, Larry Heinemann, Tim O’Brien and Tobias Wolff — did not hold back in discussing their war experiences and how these often harrowing and emotionally complex tours of duty shaped their lives, writing and careers as authors.

Co-hosted by the Baker Institute for Public Policy’s young professionals groups and the Rice Veterans in Business Association, the event spotlighted the growing presence of military veterans from the recent wars of the post-9/11 era at Rice.

“We thought (the panel) would be a nonsentimental way of honoring the Vietnam (War) veterans for their service as the war turned 50, while also exploring the human cost of foreign policy and what it’s like to go to war as a soldier,” said Rice MBA alumnus Mike Freedman ‘14, one of the event’s main organizers. He served in the U.S. Army Special Forces as a Green Beret. “This is why we decided to invite four literary fiction writers … to help us better connect to the experience of being an infantryman or in the Special Forces … and the legacy that that has on the individual who experiences it.”

Caputo, whose memoir “A Rumor of War” has been published in 15 languages and sold more than 2 million copies, recalled his 16-month tour of duty in Vietnam as a U.S. Marines infantry officer, which included time as a casualty reporting officer for his battalion. “In that capacity, what I did was to take reports from the field of marines who had been killed or wounded and, in addition, I kept track of what was then known as the ‘body count’ of the number of enemy that we had killed,” he said. “Then I would take how many we had lost to how many they had lost and I would compute what was called the ‘kill ratio.’”

The job of identifying the unrecognizable dead bodies had a more profound emotional and psychological impact on Caputo than leading men in combat, he said. “The worst part of this job that I had was … when I had to identify the body and take the report of my best friend from officers’ basic school at Quantico, Va., an officer named Lt. Walt Levy,” Caputo said. “His death affected me very deeply and does to this day. Not too long ago I was at a reunion in Washington (D.C.), and I went to the (Vietnam Veterans Memorial) wall, and I saw Walt’s name there, and 40-some years after the event, I just started bawling like a child.”

For Heinemann, whose works “Close Quarters” and “Paco’s Story” draw on his combat experiences while on tour in Vietnam as an infantryman, the war was a source of anger. “Maybe the only thing that you need to know about me as a writer (is that) I was a draftee,” he said. “Being in the Army was the last thing on my mind. If you don’t mind the language, I’ll put it this way: I was pissed off to be drafted. I was pissed to be in the Army. I was pissed off the day I went overseas, and I was really pissed off when I got home. I was so pissed off that I didn’t know who to be pissed off at, so I was pissed off at everybody.”

This anger turned out to be abundant fuel for Heinemann’s career as an author. “The other thing that you need to know is that it is a remarkable irony that I became a writer,” he said. “It’s a remarkable irony of the war. If it hadn’t been for the war, for my war year, I’d be driving a bus like my old man. This irony is something that I share with a number of other Vietnam veterans who came home and wrote about that. … The Vietnamese veterans that I know, many of them say the thing. So the writing turns out to be a product of an odd ambivalence.”

O’Brien received the 1979 National Book Award in fiction for his novel “Going After Cacciato,” which follows an AWOL soldier’s journey as he walks from Vietnam to France. O’Brien anchored his presentation by reading a poignant excerpt from “The Things They Carried,” his Vietnam War novel published in 1990:

“When she was 9, my daughter Kathleen asked if I had ever killed anyone. She knew about the war; she knew I’d been a soldier. ‘You keep writing these war stories,’ she said, ‘so I guess you must’ve killed someone.’ It was a hard moment, but I did what I thought was right, which was to say, ‘Of course not,’ and then to take her onto my lap and just hold her for a while. Someday, I hope, she’ll ask again. But here I want to pretend she’s a grown-up. I want to tell her exactly what happened, or what I remember happening, and then I want to say to her that as a little girl she was absolutely right. This is why I keep telling war stories.”

Indeed, the book’s protagonist had killed, as O’Brien read on: “He was a short, slender young man of about 20. I was afraid of him – afraid of something – and as he passed me on the trail I threw a grenade that landed at his feet and killed him.”

Wolff, whose books include the memoirs “This Boy’s Life” and “In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War,” addressed the power of the event in his remarks. “I’m not nostalgic at all for my days in uniform, but the one thing that kind of gave it to me was to be in the company of these people and to share that sense of dark absurdity, which is a special kind of gift of those who have been where they’ve been and done what they’ve done.”

A member of the Army Special Forces, Wolff had been an adviser to a Vietnamese unit in the Mekong Delta, a time captured in an excerpt he read from “In Pharaoh’s Army.” In the excerpt, Wolff muses on his struggle with coming to terms with the knowledge that he eluded death while others were killed in his place: “All around you people are killed: soldiers on both sides, farmers, teachers, mothers, fathers, schoolgirls, nurses, your friends – but not you. They have been killed instead of you. This observation is unavoidable. So, in time, is the corollary, implicit in the word instead: in place of.”

Jones School Dean Bill Glick, the H. Joe Nelson III Professor of Management, and Baker Institute Director Edward Djerejian, a military veteran himself, welcomed the more than 400 attendees to the evening panel in the Jones School’s Shell Auditorium and spoke to the impact veterans have on campus. “We have been able to see that once the veterans got here, they made a difference at Rice,” Glick said. “Veterans have taken on tremendous leadership roles within the student body and have gone on to be highly valued graduates. They enrich Rice and the broader Houston community. We’re very grateful to have them.”