In 1985, writers and veterans of the Vietnam War gathered for a literary conference hosted by the Asia Society in New York City. It proved a contentious affair, as scribes committed to the hard truths of their combat experiences went after Tim O’Brien and other fiction writers for bending reality into something else. Five years before the publication of The Things They Carried, O’Brien laid out his case for more imagination in war stories.
“I think that 200 years, 700 years, a thousand years from now,” he said at the end of a panel, “when Vietnam is filled with condominiums and we’re all going there to vacation on the beautiful beaches, the experience of Vietnam — all the facts — will be gone. Who knows, a thousand years from now the facts will disappear — bit by bit by bit — and all that we’ll be left with are stories. To me, it doesn’t really matter if they’re true stories.”
Hot damn! That’s both a snappy comeback and an artistic manifesto if I’ve ever seen one. Beyond O’Brien’s prophetic vision, though, I was struck by his description of a future Vietnam he and his cohorts might vacation to. That must’ve seemed a fanciful notion during peak Reagan America. At the same conference two years later, Jim Webb, Secretary of the Navy, gave an impassioned speech bemoaning the dangers of Soviet access to the Pacific’s warm-water ports via Vietnam — a geopolitical prediction that did not age as well as O’Brien’s literary one.
Less than a decade later, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and Vietnam’s government went through its “Renovation,” trade opened up between Vietnam and Uncle Sam. American tourists followed, including veterans, middle-aged now, some with families in tow, returning to see what had become of the place that took their youth and their friends. The beachfront condominiums O’Brien had dreamed about became reality.
Revisiting one’s old war region is a tradition of sorts, not limited to the Vietnam generation. Vets like Hemingway became expatriates and stayed in Europe after World War I. Returning to France and the former Pacific theater was an international staple for the Greatest Generation.
When I was growing up, my best friend’s father had two framed photographs propped side-by-side on his office desk — one of him as a young soldier, standing against a drab sky somewhere on the Korean peninsula in the fifties, and another showing him walking the DMZ in the early nineties, part of a visiting political delegation.
Some things change, some don’t. And yet, here in 2020, the idea of one day returning to Afghanistan or Iraq for something between pleasure and nostalgia seems as impossible as O’Brien’s vision must’ve sounded in 1985. Open war still rages in the former, while sectarian conflict continues to pop off in the latter. As for American veterans of the more recent Syrian intervention, forget about it — returns require hotels, not rubble. Much of eastern Syria is still years away from even the possibility of economic recovery like that.