The Impact of War
11:56 am
Tue January 29, 2013

War And Foreign Policy Through The Eyes Of Vietnam Veterans

Originally published on Wed January 30, 2013 1:25 pm

Sen. John Kerry was confirmed Tuesday by the Senate to become the next secretary of state. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel awaits his turn before the Senate Armed Services Committee to become secretary of defense.

Both men are decorated Vietnam War veterans, and their critics and supporters point to their experiences in Vietnam as essential to their qualifications.

Hagel volunteered to serve in Vietnam and was wounded twice. Kerry commanded a swift boat in the Mekong Delta, and on his return home, he angrily threw away his decorations to protest the war.

"I think both Hagel and Kerry, having served in combat, had to come back with at least more skepticism than they brought with them to Vietnam," says Tim O'Brien, who served as an infantryman in Vietnam.

O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried, says his combat experience made him more skeptical and changed his outlook on war and foreign policy. "Bullets can kill an enemy, but ... bullets can also manufacture an enemy and make one."

"The bullet strikes a 6-year-old kid in the head and kills him, you've got a lot of angry villagers and relatives, moms and dads. The efficacy of war itself struck me as a little questionable."

Karl Marlantes, author of Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War, served as a Marine in Vietnam. "One of the things that I think I came back with from the war is there's one thing America can't export, and that's democracy," Marlantes tells NPR's Neal Conan.

"I think that the way that we need to have our ideas spread throughout the world is by setting a good example," he says. "Doing it by force is just almost a contradiction in the very terms of what we're trying to put forward to people."

During the decadelong war, more than 58,000 Americans died, as well as more than 2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians.

Tom Ricks, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is the author of a number of books on America's wars. He says that in researching his latest book, The Generals, he found hundreds of operational histories about World War II but saw a void in material about the Vietnam War.

"It really is an extraordinarily different war than the way we tend to think of American history," Ricks says. "I think it's our least understood war, even now."

Marlantes, who grew up in a small logging town in Oregon, has a distinct memory of the moment his attitude toward government transformed.

"The war had been heated up — this is like 1966 — and the people I was talking to were saying, 'Oh, well, you know, they're not telling us the truth about this war,' " Marlantes says. "And I remember saying — I remember this so clearly: 'But an American president would never lie to Americans.' And they all laughed at me. And that was like, whoa, you know? ... We did wake up from naivete."

O'Brien says there are countless lessons from his service that he carries with him today.

"I went to Vietnam with that kind of Cold War rhetoric booming in my head that if we lost this war there'd be a catastrophe, the dominos would fall and so on," he says. "And now, 40-some years later, I go off and give talks around this country wearing a Van Heusen white shirt. There's a little tag in the back of this thing that says Made in Vietnam. Catastrophe?

"To be skeptical of that catastrophic kind of language I think is one of the important things that I still carry as a kind of moral lesson with me through my life now, all these decades later."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Earlier today, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmed Senator John Kerry as the next secretary of state. The full Senate's expected to agree before this day is out. On Thursday, the Armed Services Committee starts hearings on the nomination of former Senator Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense.

Both men are decorated veterans of the Vietnam War. Both critics and supporters point to their experiences in Vietnam as critical parts of their resumes. Sergeant Chuck Hagel volunteered to serve in Vietnam, was wounded twice. Lieutenant John Kerry commanded a Swift Boat in the Mekong Delta. On his return home, he angrily threw away his decorations to protest the war.

In testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in 1971 he posed a bitter question.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED TAPE)

SENATOR JOHN KERRY: How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam? How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

CONAN: We want to hear from Vietnam veterans in our audience. How do your experiences shape your view of war and foreign policy? Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, nightclub fires and fire safety. But first, war, foreign policy and Vietnam. We begin with Karl Marlantes, he served as a Marine in Vietnam, wrote "What's It Like to Go to War" and "Matterhorn." He joins us from member station KUOW in Seattle. Nice to have you back with us.

KARL MARLANTES: Thank you.

CONAN: Also with us, Tim O'Brien, he served as an Army infantryman in Vietnam. He's best known for "The Things They Carried." He joins us by phone from his home in Austin. Tim, nice to have you back.

TIM O'BRIEN: Thank you very much.

CONAN: And with us here in Studio 3A is Tom Ricks, now at the Center for a New American Security, the author most recently of "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today." Tom, nice to have you back.

TOM RICKS: Thank you.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes, let's start with you. How did your time in Vietnam change your view of war?

MARLANTES: Well, I think that the primary thing is changed is you don't ever want to go into a war without knowing exactly what the objective of the war is. I think when we went to Vietnam, we weren't sure. And there were many events, taking hills at great cost, that were later abandoned. And it's like what exactly is winning, and are we winning.

It used to be you could say, well, you know, we invaded Normandy, and then we crossed the Seine, and then we crossed the Rheine. You could actually measure progress. And I think Vietnam started out - and unfortunately I think we still suffer from that problem.

CONAN: It sounds you drew some of the same lessons that Colin Powell did.

MARLANTES: I agree with Colin Powell right down the line on what's known as the Powell Doctrine. I think that he's correct on that.

CONAN: I wonder, Tim O'Brien, if we bring you in, what did you learn about war from your experiences in Vietnam?

O'BRIEN: Well, certainly the old model from World War I and World War II of modern industrial states, you know, fighting one another and victory usually ending up in surrender of one sort or another, certainly didn't apply in Vietnam, a guerrilla war much like the wars we're fighting now in Afghanistan and to an extent still in Iraq.

And I think that I came home from my combat experience skeptical. Bullets can kill an enemy, but in the kind of war I was - I found myself, bullets can also manufacture an enemy and make one. The bullet strikes a six-year-old kid in the head and kills him, you've got a lot of angry villagers and relatives, moms and dads, and it - the efficacy of war itself struck me as a little questionable.

CONAN: And Tom Ricks, you're writing about this from an historical point of view, clearly the American experience in Vietnam, the war we lost, at least the first war we lost. All right, the War of 1812, you can get involved in an argument with the Canadians. But anyway, this is modern American experience is unlike anything else.

RICKS: It really is an extraordinarily different war than the way we tend to think of American history. I think it's our least understood war, even now. I was noticing when I was writing my most recent book that there are a couple of hundred good operational histories of World War II.

There is not a single good operational history that has a day-to-day military balance of the Vietnam War. There was one written in 1982 by Dave Richard Palmer, "Summons of the Trumpet," but it's not something that people have gone near since. So it really is kind of this big question mark still hanging out there.

CONAN: Stanley Karnow, who wrote "Vietnam," just passed away.

RICKS: Just one other thing I need to mention, what an honor it is for me to be on this show with Tim O'Brien and Karl Marlantes. I think I've read every one of Tim O'Brien's novels, and I'm in the middle of reading "Matterhorn."

But what might mean more to him is that my nephew, who is a Marine lieutenant, had everybody in his platoon read the section of the novel about going on patrol before he took his platoon out on patrol for the first time in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes, what might they take away from that, from that chapter?

MARLANTES: Well, I think one of the things is that some things just don't change no matter what the technology is and that, you know, military units are led in general by very young people who have, you know, uncertainty and fear and in spite of all their training always are wondering whether they're going to do the job or not. I think that that has never changed.

CONAN: Tim O'Brien, your books certainly are about young people in situations where they have often no idea what they're doing.

O'BRIEN: Yes, that's really true. I was - found myself drafted right out of college and hoped against hope that I would find myself in a, you know, rear-echelon job. And instead, the Army being the Army, they put this kid who hated Cub Scouts in an infantry company. And, as Karl just said, I found myself, you know, hoping that I could, you know, perform decently in combat but always wondering, even after going through firefights and real horror, wondering the next day would I be able to, you know, keep going.

And I think that almost all of my fellow soldiers, bar just a few, felt the same.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some of the ex-soldiers in our audience in on the conversation. We want to hear from the Vietnam vets listening today. How did your experience of war change your views on war and foreign policy? 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. And we'll start with Dane, Dane on the line with us from Gainesville.

DANE: How are you doing, my friends?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

DANE: I'm a 72-year-old former Marine, '65 to '70. I learned very quickly that our ethnocentric ideas about society do not work throughout the world. I often wondered, and I have two boys, one in the Navy and one a paratrooper in the Army, Army boy served two tours in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan, and he somewhat came to the same conclusion: Why are we trying to make people think as we do? Because we take for granted so much of our freedoms and how we can speak and what we can do and how we can tell the federal government we don't think they're right and not have any consequences.

Yet you go to Vietnam, and most of the people out in the villages and things of that nature, they looked up to their senior people in their village, the papasans who ruled the roost, and they could care less of what's going on in Saigon. You get the same thing in Afghanistan, where you go into villages, and you go into other places, and they don't - they could care less about, quote, "Afghanistan," end-quote. All they care about is their local area and what's going on there.

And I think that we have a tendency in this country to try to take our ethnocentric ideas about what freedom and everything else is and try to push them on other people that are really not only not ready for it, but they don't even understand it.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes, does that resonate with you?

MARLANTES: Oh yeah, definitely. I mean, I - one of the things that I think I came back with from the war is there's one thing America can't export, and that's democracy. I think that the way that we need to have our ideas spread throughout the world is by setting a good example. Doing it by force is just almost a contradiction in the very terms of what we're trying to put forward to people.

I always loved the idea of apartheid in South Africa. We didn't send the Marines to South Africa. We just didn't play rugby with them. We didn't invest in their businesses. And believe me, that helped change the way they viewed the world without any violence. I think there's a lot of things that we can do.

People always talk about well, you know, you're going to be an isolationist, Vietnam syndrome. I mean, not using military force doesn't in any way mean that you're an isolationist. You can be completely active in the world trying to make your ideas...

DANE: Well, if I might interrupt, I think that a lot of times certain people and certain ethnic people and certain types of societies, they almost need some sort of a centralized, strong government telling them what to do or not to do. And when we go in and say, well, you can't do that, they look at it with a puzzled eye, saying what do you mean, that's the way it is. They don't even understand what we're talking about half of the time.

CONAN: Tom Ricks, you wanted to get in here?

RICKS: Yeah, one thing that has struck me about President Obama is this leading from behind thing that's been mocked, but I think that's kind of what the conversation is talking about. You don't have to have American boots on the ground, even if you think military force needs to be used.

In Libya, we provided the things that only we could provide; essential, difficult things like air-to-air refueling, satellite reconnaissance and communications gear that enabled rebel leaders to talk to each other.

DANE: And the funny thing about it is we're supporting governments that most of the people don't like anyway, which gives us a bad - gives them a bad taste in their mouth. Most of these people that are the head of these governments, (unintelligible) Afghanistan or even Iraq, they want to take over just like Saddam did or the Taliban did, and they want to tell people what to do and where to go.

And here we are supporting them, supporting this central government. And the main people have - are looking with puzzled eyes and say, all of the same, doesn't make any difference.

RICKS: I kind of wish that Colin Powell had had this conversation with George Bush, you know, before we invaded Iraq.

CONAN: Well, just to point out, though, we did have this experience of exporting democracy successfully in Japan and Germany after the Second World War, but very different places than Afghanistan or Vietnam certainly.

RICKS: And with the huge, global commitment of the entire nation. The last 11 years have been a 1-percent war, 1 percent of the people fighting and 99 percent of Americans not paying attention.

CONAN: We want to hear from Vietnam vets today. How did your experience there shape your view of war and of foreign policy? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. Our guests are Karl Marlantes, who served as a Marine in Vietnam, the award-winning author of "What It Is Like to Go to War" and "Matterhorn."

Tim O'Brien is also with us. He served as an infantryman in the Army in Vietnam. His book "The Things They Carried" is probably the one he's best known for. And Tom Ricks is with us, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, the author most recently of "The Generals: American Military Command from World War II to Today."

I'm Neal Conan. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Today as Senator John Kerry is poised to become Secretary of State John Kerry, and as Chuck Hagel awaits his turn before the Senate Armed Services Committee, we're looking back at Vietnam. U.S. forces entered that country in significant numbers in 1962. After more than a decade of war, the U.S. and three Vietnamese parties, the North Vietnamese, the South Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, signed the Paris Peace Accords, which provided for the full withdrawal of American troops in 1973.

More than 58,000 Americans died, as well as more than two million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians. The government of South Vietnam collapsed just two years later.

If you served in Vietnam, how did your experience shape your view of war and foreign policy? When did you realize it had changed? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Our guests are writers Karl Marlantes, who served as a Marine in Vietnam; Tim O'Brien served as an infantryman; and Tom Ricks, writer, now at the Center for a New American Security here in Washington. D.C.

Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Jack is on the line from Boise.

JACK: Good to talk to you. I agree with one of your previous callers, who indicated that we were an ethnocentric-type culture growing up, or at least I was. I grew up in the South during segregation. So I didn't really interact with many different cultures. It was a small town, and there weren't very many people from other cultures there.

But when I got to 'Nam, I went over as a patriot, which I still am, but I went over kind of a gung-ho, we're going to save the world, we're going to do our part, all that stuff. But I was there less - you know, a short period of time, a week, two weeks, when I saw my first soldiers who were killed in action.

And my eyes kind of opened up then. But as time went by, I served in the ICOR, which was up by the DMZ, and with the 101st. And there was a time when a monsoon came, we were guarding both ends of a bridge, and it was really heavy flooding, everything. And choppers couldn't get in for re-supply, and the roads were washed out.

So we actually ran out of C-Rats, believe it or not. We even ate date-nut bread and stuff that nobody ever ate. And there was a village right there at the end of the bridge, and one of the mama-sans, as we called them back then, came over and offered us some food. She was cooking some duck.

And I noticed when she was cleaning the ducks - we were watching - and rice and stuff, but she was cleaning the ducks and she pulled all the entrails out, and she put them right there beside the duck. And I picked them up to throw them in the river, and she said no, no, no, no, no. And she was going to put it in with all the food.

But just her graciousness and her kindness to come over to us, knowing - and I knew in my heart that some of her relatives probably had been killed, whether by accident, by American soldiers or by VC or whatever, that - and her country was enduring a whole lot of stuff. When I thought of her kindness and her, as I said, her graciousness to come over and offer us food, I thought, wow, you know, we aren't the only nice people in the world.

And so I got really ingrained. My brother-in-law sent me a Vietnamese-English dictionary and I started learning the language a little bit, enough to communicate anyway, along with pointing my finger at things. And - but I met a number of Vietnamese people that were just - you know, they're human beings. And we used derogatory terms to refer to them, and I think that was a way the military had taught us to sort of forget the fact that they're another human being.

CONAN: Depersonalize, it's called, yeah.

JACK: Yeah, depersonalize it, exactly, and - which was supposed to make it easier. And I'll give you one quick incident, that after all these things happened there was a guy in our outfit, he was called Pops, he was 38 years old, private. He had re-enlisted. He had been in Korea. And he - we asked him one time why he re-enlisted.

And he said I thought maybe by me coming in, it would save one young person. Excuse me, I get broken up about Pops. But his platoon sergeant, you know, really, really liked Pops, and when he got killed in an ambush, after - a few days later, we had captured some VC, and they were - hands were tied behind their backs. They were squatted down.

And I just happened to be walking by them when the sergeant yelled at me: Bynum(ph) , kick that guy in the face. And there were two of them. And I was caught off-guard for a moment, and I was thinking as fast as I could. I said which one. And he said it doesn't make any difference.

And so I was brought up different than that. I couldn't just kick some guy in the face with his hands tied behind his back. And so I stretched out my foot like I was kicking, and I just pushed him gently. But he did fall over. But he looked at me, and he knew that I hadn't done what I was supposed to do. He knew I was supposed to really kick him.

And there was a thing in his eyes that just - we communicated. And I didn't know - you know, we didn't know for sure if was VC. We assumed. But incidents like that just made me think, you know, if there's anything I can ever do to help avoid war, and right now I'm a pastor, so...

CONAN: Thank you very much for sharing that story, Jack. I know it's not easy to talk about people like Pops even today.

JACK: Yes, thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much. Tom Ricks?

RICKS: It brings to mind, actually, one of the few good things about the My Lai Massacre, in which members of the Americal Division killed about 400 Vietnamese villagers - men, women and children - and raped about 40 women and girls with the knowledge of officers who watched, watched much of it - was that Hugh Thompson(ph), a helicopter pilot, landed his helicopter between the villagers and some of the soldiers to stop the killing.

And when he was asked later why he did that, he said because I was raised to stop bullies, and it looked to me like it was bullying. (Unintelligible) keeping your moral center, because what you see and what you do you will carry for the rest of your life, which is one of the themes, I think, of what you just heard in that conversation, and also of the wonderful books these guys have written.

CONAN: Tim O'Brien, your book is called "The Things They Carried." And yes, you talk about the physical things they carried, but some of these things too.

O'BRIEN: Yes, my book moves from the physical things we carried but moves rapidly to the emotional and spiritual and psychological things that soldiers carry through a war and then carry home and then that are picked up by their daughters and their sons and their wives.

I went to Vietnam with that kind of Cold War rhetoric booming in my head that if we lost this war there'd be a catastrophe. The dominos would fall and so on. And now, 40-some years later, I go off and give talks around this country wearing a Van Heusen white shirt. There's a little tag in the back of this thing that says Made in Vietnam. Catastrophe? Normalized relations, trade going on, tourism, college kids taking bike trips up and down Highway 1 - that we tend to, in the moment, at least, when wars are being waged, to cast them in our rhetoric as impending, you know, catastrophes.

And to be skeptical of that catastrophic kind of language I think is one of the important things that I still carry as a kind of moral lesson with me through my life now, all these decades later.

CONAN: Here's an email we have from Ron in Cutline, California: My experience serving in Vietnam made me aware that politics and foreign policy are too important for all of us to just accept reassurances from our political leaders justifying armed intervention anywhere on the planet.

I was politically unaware until realizing while in the service I was participating in something I should have questioned. I found respect for those who resisted service and who spoke out against the stated purposes and the discovered motives for involving ourselves in armed conflict in Asia.

And Karl Marlantes, this was the war that saw the publication of the Pentagon Papers and what many regarded as exposing the lies that government had told us. This is the war that saw the secret bombings of Cambodia and Laos and a different attitude towards government, I think, ever since.

MARLANTES: Absolutely. I grew up in a small logging town in Oregon, and I was fortunate enough to go to Yale. And I can remember one night, in a typical late-night session, talking about it, and of course the war had been heated up - this is like 1966 - and the people I was talking to were saying, oh, well, you know, they're not telling us the truth about this war.

And I remember saying, I remember this so clearly, but an American president would never lie to Americans. And they all laughed at me. And that was like, whoa, you know? And if I tell that story today, people will go, like, well, what kind of an idiot were you? We did wake up from naivete. I sometimes worry that we're slipping into cynicism, which is, you know, just the opposite side of the coin, and we shouldn't do that either.

CONAN: Tom Ricks?

RICKS: Tim, I want to ask you a question about your book, "In the Lake of the Woods."

O'BRIEN: Mm-hmm.

RICKS: My Lai has come up in the conversation already. I loved "In the Lake of the Woods," but I'm not sure I understood it. I still think about that book. It's probably one of the things I carry because I didn't understand it. But my question for you is what was that book saying about My Lai?

O'BRIEN: Oh, it's addressed, in part, at least, to the - those - if you can imagine, all around this country right now, there are men living in small towns and big towns who took part in that massacre in which anywhere from, you know, 400 to 500 innocent people died. And they're bearing with them this horrible sense of personal sin, and they're bearing it largely in secret.

They don't go around talking about it and going on talk shows, saying, hey, I was at My Lai, and I did this and I did that. It's about the burden of committing real evil in this world and carrying that burden largely in secret inside. I can imagine these men waking up late at night, and lying in bed at 2 in the morning - as a good many of us do in smaller kinds of ways who've been in wars - thinking, I did that? What happened to me? Where did my moral compass go or my moral gyroscope?

And that is one of the burdens that I think all soldiers carry. It can go from that man who just called in and talked about, you know, kicking that Vietnamese. Didn't do it hard. Did it even gently, he said, but he certainly remembers it enough to call a national talk show and talk about it and tear up. So the - in "The Lake of the Woods," at its heart - for me, at least - is about a man bearing the secrets of having committed real sins in a war.

CONAN: And as we're learning in a new book called "Kill Anything That Moves," it wasn't just My Lai.

O'BRIEN: I read that book, and I thought it was an incredibly strong indictment of the American military presence in Vietnam, an indictment not just of the war crimes that we committed, but of the incredible and detailed cover-ups that ensued after the commission of these war crimes.

RICKS: There's a similar book that came out recently about Iraq and torture called "None of Us Were Like This Before," which had very similar themes as to what you were talking about, the burden people carry.

CONAN: And because he won't let me recommend Tom Ricks' book, "The Generals," in which there is a detailed examination of My Lai and its effects on the U.S. military, the cancerous, if I'm not going too far, effects that it had on the U.S. military. And that is an instructive part as well.

Tom Ricks is with us here in Studio 3A. Tim O'Brien with us from his home in Austin, Texas. Karl Marlantes is with us from KUOW in Seattle. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

But let's go back to where we started and how did this experience shape, do we think, the proposed secretaries of defense and state. And, of course, everybody's experience is different. Tom Ricks, you pointed out as you came in to talk to me, yes, the first Vietnam vet to be secretary of defense if he's confirmed, also the first enlisted man.

RICKS: He's the first enlisted man to have been in combat ever to be secretary of defense, and that's a very meaningful distinction. Senator Hagel gave an oral history with the Library of Congress about 10 years ago in which he discussed his experience of being a young soldier in Vietnam, of being wounded in Vietnam, of taking point a lot in Vietnam because he was good at it and thought, well, I'm good at it. I don't trust these other guys. I better do it.

Taking point is when you're the lead man in a patrol, a very nervous-making and hazardous role to play. Most of all, he took away a real skepticism about officers. He said his sergeants were good, but he didn't think so much of the lieutenant colonels and the majors he saw in Vietnam.

CONAN: It's interesting. Vietnam syndrome. Are we back, after the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan, in Vietnam syndrome, when the United States is reluctant - some would argue too reluctant - to use its power in situations - Syria, for example - where U.S. intervention might make a real difference?

RICKS: Frankly, I'm quite happy to see that sort of consideration taken in, of thinking that military force should be the last resort, not the first, and that sometimes there is not a role for us. And this is why I like what Obama did with Libya. He did what we could do. He left to others what they could do. That working only with partners, I think, is a very good approach and one informed by the Vietnam experience in not a bad way.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes, I wonder if you had thoughts about that.

MARLANTES: I definitely do. I think the first thought that comes to my mind is this criticism about whether Kerry and Hagel are going to be too cautious. It's like these people are supposed to be advisers to one of the two centers of decision-making. They aren't the ones who are supposed to decide about going to war. It should be the Congress and also, of course, the president if it's an emergency and he doesn't have time to get Congress lined up. But...

CONAN: Which he's not had time for since Pearl Harbor.

MARLANTES: Exactly. It's been since Pearl Harbor that Congress has actually been involved, and I think this is a terrible lapse in the way that this country is meant to be run and that they need to start acting more proactively than they have been.

CONAN: Tim O'Brien?

O'BRIEN: Oh, I agree with both Tom and Karl that I think both Hagel and Kerry, having served in combat, had to come back with at least more skepticism than they brought with them to Vietnam. The - I mentioned in my introductory remark that I came home with a skepticism about the efficacy of war itself and how effective is it in the modern age, especially given, I mean, non-combatant casualties and what happens when, say, a few children die in a drone strike. And what would that - how it - I brought with me too a kind of sense of it's helpful oftentimes just to reverse things. What if Pakistan, for example, where to draw up a list of people in the United States who presented danger to Pakistan, and what if Pakistan were to begin making drone strikes on say, Sioux City or Birmingham, Alabama or Austin, Texas or Hartford, Connecticut, how would we respond? And to reverse things, to have some kind of empathy or sympathy for the other side, seems to me really important. I didn't have it before going to Vietnam, But in listening to the comments of the two gentlemen who called in, I find myself thinking, yeah, in a war, you do begin to develop with some irony a sense of sympathy for what other are going through, the so-called enemy.

CONAN: We're talking with three people about Vietnam to serve there; Karl Marlantes, the author of "What It Is Like to Go to War," and Matterhorn Tim O'Brien, "The Things They Carried" is what he's best known for. Also with us is military journalist, Tom Ricks. We're going to take this conversation over for another couple of questions after the break. We're also going to talk about how to do a fire inspection and this, of course, after the dreadful fire earlier this week in Brazil that cost well over 200 lives. So stay with us for that. I'm Neal Conan. It's THE TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: Right now, we're talking about how service in Vietnam can shape a veteran's world view. Our guest, Tim O'Brien, veteran, author of "The Things They Carried." Karl Marlantes, veteran and author of "What It Is Like to Go to War" and Tom Ricks who wrote "The Generals." If you served in Vietnam, Tell us about the moment you realized how it changed your view of war and foreign policy, 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Let's go to Mark and Mark is from St. Louis.

MARK: Hi. How are you guys doing?

CONAN: Good. Thanks.

MARK: Thank you for your program. I listen to it as much as I can. I'm on my way home from work now.

I served '71, and then from '71 to '72, and then a brief period from '72 to'73 before the evacuation of Saigon. I was a gunner's mate. I'm a retired master chief. I served on a river patrol boat during that time, and our main job was to extract Special Forces teams from the area that could not get out by helo. And most of the time, when we go get these guys, it was very intense. A lot of times, these guys would be moving to the extract location for us to pick them up from a riverbank and the Viet Cong, the enemy soldiers, would be right behind them, and it was always pretty much hectic.

A couple of times, we had some CIA intelligence officers onboard to boat with us, and it was just a bad deal.

I lost a very close friend all the way through boot camp, all the way through the Navy training before we went to Vietnam, and he would - we were very close. He would take a bullet for me, I would take a bullet for if it was necessary. He was killed during my '72, '73 tour.

And since then, it has kind of changed the way I looked at friendships, my personal life and I haven't been able to find a friend that was that close to this day, and on - in my early - late 50s, almost 60 years old, and I just - I'll always remember that, and I've always remembered how when we had our first experience, when we went to an area outside of Cambodia to pick a Navy Seals team, that I realized that, from what my uncle and (technical difficulties) and my step father told me from back in the World War II and Korean days, we are dealing now with a totally different enemy that fights now you see him, now you don't, or they'll fight in a group of civilians or they'll fight from house to house or they'll fight from - they don't come out in the open and fight anymore like, you know, older wars where there were groups of soldiers on a battlefield and you could actually see the enemy you are shooting at. I very seldom saw the enemy when we were - are being attacked from different shores along the riverbanks. I could see the enemy fire, but I could never see the enemy really because of the thick, thick, thick foliage, but we - I could see the effect even when I was injured and I still had to continue supporting fire even though I had a bullet in my left leg.

CONAN: Mark, can I ask? Is your difficulty finding a friend as closest, the friend you lost back all those years ago, is that, in part, because you're afraid that you might lose him again?

MARK: Yes, I am. His name was James. I mean, we were very close. We would - we always went - when we're on - we had our furloughs and our time off, we would always go with each other. We always go with each other. We pick up girls and we just enjoy ourselves together. And we always promised that if we get out, we would open up a business together here in St. Louis. I have actually opened up the business and I still keep his picture on the wall. This would have been my business partner. I haven't found anybody else that I can trust like I could trust him.

CONAN: Tim O'Brien, I wanted to ask you about that, the friendships that are forged in those situations, the bonds that are forged in those situations are unlike any other.

O'BRIEN: They are - it's hard to describe. I've lost contact with a good many, almost all of my members of my infantry company after Vietnam. But in the last, only year and a half, may be two years, one member of our company began, through email, putting us back in contact. And although there's a great deal we don't share about politics and our views of Vietnam and so on, there's a closeness to it that can't be replicated in this world. It's the closeness of the blood stake in life that you can't replicate with your stockbroker or your tile man or your plumber, or even with people who are your really close friends. It's not quite the same.

CONAN: Mark, we're sorry for your loss.

MARK: Thank you. Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks for listening and thanks very much for the phone call.

MARK: That's all. Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an email. This is from Jerry: Appreciate your program. I'm a Vietnam Era vet. I faced the prospect of going to that country but was assigned stateside. My thanks to those who did serve there. One of your guests mentioned how few people really are involved in this world largely, I believe, because we have a volunteer army. In other countries, they might be called mercenaries, not to speak of private contractors who clearly are mercenaries.

I believe we err by not having an active draft where men and women are compelled to perform some sort of service for their country, some of whom should be in the military serving in combat zones. One of the reasons Vietnam ended was because people had an investment. Both the soldiers and their relatives were far more objective about that conflict than is are the general public. Now, I wonder, Karl Marlantes, have you given that any thought?

MARLANTES: Oh, definitely. I think that - we thought that we would solve the unfairness of Vietnam, which was basically if you could go to college for most of that or you didn't have to fight in it. And we're still in the same sort of position. I like to call it the all-recruited military, not the volunteer military. Volunteering is when, you know, you go down at the recruiting station after Pearl Harbor. That's a volunteering situation.

But a very, very small percentage of people are actually involved in it in fighting for the Republic, and I think that's unhealthy for a republic to have such a small percentage. And I think the other thing that is really - that bothers me is that if you take, like, the lower income - the lower three deciles of income and compare it to the upper three deciles. The lower three deciles are killed at something like 1.65 times the rate as the upper.

In other words, the poor kids are dying faster than the rich kids.

RICKS: Actually, Karl...

MARLANTES: This is just not right.

RICKS: These days, actually, Karl, the poor kids can't get into the military. I've written about recruiters. Basically, they don't recruit in the inner city anymore. You have to be drug-free, crime-free and have a high school degree or a good GED. I remember walking in New York City, in the Bronx, passed a bunch of kids playing basketball in the afternoon, about 1 in the afternoon and the recruiter just walked by them. And I said, why? And he said those are the reasons: drugs, crime and lack of education. They've got no place in today's military.

CONAN: Thank you all very - I'm sorry. You wanted to come back on that, Karl?

MARLANTES: Yeah. No, I agree that that's true. I mean, there are people that, you know, can't get into the Marine Corps today that would have been snapped up during Vietnam. But I think it's still - from the statistics I'm seeing is that a great many people who are from our privileged classes are not going into the military. I mean, just look at the Ivy League graduates. And I think it's changed. I think there's a big change.

CONAN: I think that's right. Small town America is not necessarily, though, the poorest of the poor. But thank you very much, Karl Marlantes, for your time today. We appreciate it.

MARLANTES: Thank you.

CONAN: Karl Marlantes, with us from KUOW in Seattle, "What's It's Like to Go to War," "Matterhorn." Tim O'Brien, with us from his home in Austin, Texas, "The Things They Carried." Thank you, Tim.

O'BRIEN: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: Tom Ricks, with us here in Studio 3A. As always, Tom, thanks very much.

RICKS: You're welcome.

CONAN: And our thanks to everybody who called and wrote. We're sorry we could not get to all of your calls. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.