William Timothy O’Brien was born on October 1, 1946, to an insurance salesman and an elementary school teacher in Austin, Minnesota. He was raised in Worthington, a small town in southern Minnesota that he would later describe as what one would find if one “look[ed] in a dictionary under the word boring.” As a child, the overweight and introspective O’Brien spent his time practicing magic tricks and making pilgrimages to the public library. His father’s New York Times accounts of fighting in Iwo Jima and Okinawa during World War II inspired O’Brien to consider a career in writing. When O’Brien arrived at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota, he decided to focus his studies on political science. His college years, however, were spent trying to ignore the Vietnam War or railing against it—he attended peace vigils and war protests and aspired to join the State Department. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa and had already been accepted to a Ph.D. program at Harvard University’s School of Government when he received his draft notice, two weeks after graduation.
Faced with the prospect of fighting in the war he so actively opposed, the twenty-two-year-old O’Brien felt pulled between his convictions, which could be kept intact by escaping across the border to Canada, and the expectations of those in his hometown who, he once said, “couldn’t spell the word ‘Hanoi’ if you spotted them three vowels.” Though torn, he entered the military for basic training at Fort Lewis, Washington, on August 14, 1968. When he arrived in Vietnam in February 1969, he served in the Fifth Battalion of the 46th Infantry, 198th Infantry Brigade, American Division until March 1970. O’Brien’s area of operations was in the Quang Ngai Province, where he later set The Things They Carried.
O’Brien’s service brought him to the South Vietnamese village of My Lai a year after the infamous massacre of 1968. He was eventually wounded and returned home with a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star for Valor, and a Combat Infantry Badge. He also had a storehouse of guilt and an endless supply of observations and anecdotes that would later comprise his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home. This work was published in 1973 as O’Brien was abandoning his graduate studies for a career as a national affairs reporter for the Washington Post. That reporting stint lasted a year. In 1975 he published Northern Lights, an account of two brothers in rural Minnesota. Going After Cacciato, which won the National Book Award in 1979 over John Irving’s The World According to Garp and John Cheever’s Stories, was the account of a platoon forced to chase one of its AWOL soliders. Winning the National Book Award solidified O’Brien’s reputation as a masterful writer concerned with the ambiguities of love and war. Following this success came The Nuclear Age, a novel about a draft-dodger obsessed with the idea of nuclear holocaust, published in 1985.
After The Nuclear Age’s home-front comedy, O’Brien returned his attention to the battlefields. He wrote a short story, “Speaking of Courage,” that was originally meant for inclusion in Going After Cacciato. In 1990, “Speaking of Courage” was one of twenty-two stories included in The Things They Carried, a sequence of lyrical and interrelated stories that has been heralded as one of the finest volumes of fiction about the Vietnam War. The work gained attention and wide acclaim not only for its subject matter but also for its honesty and specificity, its discussion of fact and fiction, and its commentary on memory and on the act of storytelling itself. Much of the material in the work has been drawn from O’Brien’s experiences; he felt so close to his stories that he dedicated the work to his characters—Jimmy Cross, Norman Bowker, Rat Kiley, Mitchell Sanders, Henry Dobbins, and Kiowa. The most striking elimination of the boundary between fact and fiction is the narrator and protagonist’s name, Tim O’Brien. The main character also has grown up in Worthington, Minnesota, and has attended Macalester College. Like the real O’Brien, the fictional O’Brien becomes a writer who records many of his Vietnam experiences in stories and novels. Nevertheless, several discrepancies exist between the two men. Unlike his protagonist, for example, the real O’Brien never killed a man while at war, and he doesn’t have any children.
The Things They Carried was a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award, and it earned O’Brien comparisons to several eminent fiction writers. Two to whom he is often connected are Stephen Crane and Kurt Vonnegut. Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage, published in 1895, follows a Union regiment during the Civil War and specifically concerns a recruit who, like the protagonist in The Things They Carried, struggles with his fear of cowardice and the “red sickness of battle.” Vonnegut’s 1969 novel Slaughterhouse-Five is about a World War II draftee who is taken as a prisoner-of-war during the Battle of the Bulge. Like Vonnegut, O’Brien inserts himself into his stories—in order to anchor his narratives to a larger world, but also because he is unable to escape the often terrifying memories of his war experience.