Tim O’Brien and ‘Ethics’ at the U.S. Naval Academy©
Gerald L. Atkinson
15 October 2002
Tim O’Brien, renowned for his award-winning Vietnam War fiction, beginning with his personal memoir, ‘If I Die in a Combat Zone,’ and including ‘Going After Cacciato,’ and ‘In the Lake of the Woods,’ is an author whose books are required reading at the U.S. Naval Academy. The fact that the latter two books (both reviewed on this Web Site) are on the required reading list of the mandatory English Literature course is evidence that a ‘shadow’ Jane Fonda Distinguished Chair of anti-Vietnam War Studies is alive, but without fanfare, in the Department of English, Law, and Ethics at the Academy.
Even more surprising is the fact that a former uniformed instructor in that department, CDR Ward Carroll USN (Ret.), himself a best-selling author, has publicly defended the New Age ‘ethics’ program at the Academy and gave glowing tribute to O’Brien in his recent book (Punk’s War). CDR Carroll’s record at the Academy and his book are reviewed at the link The Pretender.
One might ask, ‘What is wrong with reading anti-Vietnam war literature in the English Department at the Academy?’ After all, nearly all leading universities in America assign students text materials that deal with the Vietnam War. And that war was a very contentious one – especially for those (like O’Brien) who were of draft-age during that time.
Aside from the fact that many U.S. Naval Academy alumni fought and died in that war and some survivors who served and most who fought there might take extreme umbrage at the prospect of a ‘shadow’ anti-Vietnam War studies program at the Academy, there is another, even more fundamental reason for resenting this prospect. And that reason has not become apparent until just recently.
Before giving this reason, it is important to understand a bit of O’Brien’s personal background. As discussed in my book review of ‘Going After Cacciato,’ O’Brien was drafted and served as a combat infantryman on the ground in South Vietnam. But he was a very different kind of soldier. He quit college and took his chance with the draft and lost. He tells us in his autobiography ('If I Die in a Combat Zone,' Broadway Books, 1975) that he actively campaigned and voted for Eugene McCarthy in the 1968 presidential election. In that book, he gives an in-depth description of his opposition to the Vietnam War even before he was drafted and went to fight there. The most telling revelation in that book is the fact that O'Brien was an avid reader of, catch this, Eric Fromm. This salient fact places O'Brien smack dab in the middle of the 'cultural Marxist' Frankfurt School milieu even before he went to Vietnam. His reasons for opposing the Vietnam War are never given in that book, only the Kantian dictate that the war was unjust. This was, and still is, a typical elite Boomer generation verity based on a misplaced idealism that went awry but wound up as the most salient identification of unity among those coming-of-age youth during the counter-culture revolution of the mid-1960s.
It was during the National Book Festival held on the U.S. Capitol lawn in Washington, DC on 12 October 2002 that I attended a presentation (at 11:00 a.m.) by Tim O’Brien and learned the fundamental reason that his works, and especially his anti-Vietnam War novels, are detrimental to the teaching of sound moral standards and practices at the U.S. Naval Academy.
The National Book Festival, an annual event which is given national media attention (primarily through C-Span2 TV), presented authors of renown in major areas of published work. These areas included books on subjects such as; history and biography, children and young adults, storytelling, mysteries and thrillers, and fiction & imagination. In the last category, O’brien made a presentation of his new book, ‘July July,’ in a huge outdoor tent holding approximately 300 people. It was a packed tent – nearly all were in the Boomer generation age group. O’Brien has been acknowledged by The New York Times (Book Review, pp. 6, 10/13/02) to be as “…close as any American fiction writer to having a lock on [the decade of the 1960s] and its survivors.” He is, indeed, a cult hero to the anti-Vietnam War crowd – including those in the media, universities (now tenured professors) and the intelligentsia.
I sat through Tim O’Brien’s discussion of his new book and the question/answer session afterward. It was there that we learned, first hand, the character of Tim O’Brien and the reason that his works – subject matter aside – are not appropriate as a model of ethical/moral principles for potential naval officers, or anyone else for that matter. Let me explain.
After reading an amusing passage from his book, O’Brien told of a woman who sent him a letter after he had become famous for writing his anti-Vietnam War novels. In her letter, she told a story that had to do with Tim O’Brien in an oblique and amusing way. She had met a stranger in a bar who offered to buy her a drink. She accepted and in the introductory phase he told her that he worked in the insurance field and that he was a writer. He said that he wrote under the name of Tim O’Brien. After a pleasant conversation, they made an appointment to meet for dinner – and started dating. During this time he sent her paperback copies of Tim O’Brien’s novels, each without his picture on the cover pages.
She began to wonder how a person working in the insurance industry found enough time to write so many novels. Her curiosity up, she confronted her friend who then said that he didn’t write the novels himself, but was a co-author of them. This, presumably, did not require such major effort and time. So he could do both with writing as a hobby. She accepted this explanation.
After they moved in together in the same quarters she noticed that he was only receiving mail from insurance sources, not literary sources. Being a bit suspicious, she asked him why. He then told her that he and his co-author had had a falling out and the he – Tim O’Brien – had sold his part of the royalties to the co-author and thus divested himself of the writing venture. He said he had become bored with it anyway.
Unsatisfied with her lover’s answer, she went to a library and checked out a copy of one of Tim O’Brien’s anti-Vietnam War books which had his picture on a cover page. She realized immediately the picture was not her man and that he had been lying to her all along – a long string of lies. She confronted him with the book, showed him the picture, repeated the lies that he had built on the falsity of his true identity.
When asked why he would do such a thing, his answer was to admit everything, but that he lied because he had fallen in love with her. He said that the initial lie of claiming to be Tim O’Brien was purposely done as a lark to make himself appear important. After all, he figured that all they both wanted was a ‘one-night-stand’ and it didn’t make much difference what he told her.
But then, her lover said, I fell in love with you and didn’t want to lose you by admitting my initial lie. So, out of love for you, I told lie upon lie so as not to lose you, he said. That was the end of the tale told in the woman’s letter to the real Tim O’Brien.
The real Tim O’Brien continued to say to his audience that this was such a touching story that he incorporated it into his July novel as a chapter on one of his characters. O’Brien then exclaimed, “Who wouldn’t have believed him … it was such a breathtaking lie. We will believe anything … especially a lie in the name of love.” The women in the crowd sitting around me nearly swooned in universal agreement with O’Brien. Then he exclaimed, “Everybody lies!”
Taken aback, the crowd was silent. To which, O’Brien exclaimed in a hurried attempt to recover, “…it’s like farting. Everybody does it but nobody talks about it.” That brought a mirthful murmur among his largely Boomer generation audience – presumably once-upon-a-time flower children.
As I sat there, somewhat aghast at this pontification on his Boomer New Age ‘ethics’ regarding the TRUTH, it dawned on me why so many of his contemporaries supported Bill Clinton throughout his trial in the Senate for removal from office after his impeachment in the House. Oh, yes, a la Bill Clinton – if the lie is sufficiently preposterous, they will believe it. “I did not have sexual relations with that women, Miss Lewinsky…” And then the stained blue dress exposed the President’s lie to the public.
O’Brien continued to explain how the author of novels – his novels anyway – disregards TRUTH and writes for emotional impact. “As writers, we try to make you believe the story even though we make it up…Everybody lies!”
During the question/answer period at the end of O’Brien’s discussion of his new book, a woman rose and asked him whether or not he made up [i.e. used his ‘Everybody lies’ dictum] the events about the Vietnam War just to make a ‘good story’ for his novels. O’Brien, using the example of his decision whether or not to go to Canada to avoid the draft or accept it, said, “Of course the events were made up. His decision was real (but unexciting with a simple one-sentence statement of fact), but the literary emotional drama was made up to make it worth reading.” In justifying this position, O’Brien stated that “…a good story is supposed to be written so it hits you in the stomach, in your mind, in your heart.”
So there you have it. Lying is OK as long as it makes you feel good. Lying is OK as long as it makes a ‘good’ – read marketable – story. Lying is OK as long as it pleases a specific group of people, i.e. targeted at the attitudes, biases, agenda, ideology of – in his case – the anti-Vietnam War counter-culture revolutionaries, the power elites of the Boomer generation. And Tim O’Brien’s novels are required reading in the Department of English, Law, and Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy. The Tim O’Brien who publicly states that he and Everybody else lies! That’s OK; ADM Larson who implemented the new ‘ethics’ program at the Academy must have said so, VADM Ryan who continued the program must have said so, ADM Edney who held the Distinguished Chair of Leadership under Larson must have said so, and ADM Chiles who currently holds the Distinguished Chair of Leadership must also agree. Why else would the Academy make Tim O’Brien’s anti-Vietnam War novels required reading at the Academy unless they also concur with his basic premise – it is OK to lie because ‘Everybody lies!’
So, what about the ‘shadow’ Jane Fonda Distinguished Chair of anti-Vietnam War studies at the Naval Academy. Headlines are abuzz with the account of Rep. David Bonior (D, MI) and Rep. Jim McDermott (D, WA) who, while visiting Baghdad, spoke disparagingly of President Bush's attempts to muster support of the American people for taking Saddam Hussein out. This reminded some of Bill Clinton's speaking out against the Vietnam War while a student in Britain and traveling to Prague to visit a communist family there during the same period.
Wes Pruden, the editor in chief of The Washington Times, calls Bonier and McDermott "...dim bulbs amidst the bright lights of the House minority caucus, [who] are home from Baghdad, where they did amateur-night impersonations of Jane Fonda..." Mackubin Thomas Owens, a brilliant professor of strategy at the Naval War College, reminds us that the case of John Walker Lindh, the so-called 'American Taliban,' "...has resurrected the issue of treason," and asks "Why wasn't Lindh...charged with treason?"
Owens informs us that the answer can be found in "...a very useful new book" about Jane Fonda entitled, "Aid and Comfort: Jane Fonda in Vietnam" by Mark and Erika Holzer, which is a "veritable sourcebook on treason." The Holzers provide a history of the concept of treason, and its place in constitutional law. They "make a very strong case that Ms. Fonda should have been indicted on the charge of treason for her actions in North Vietnam."
Over the past three years or so there have been scathing attacks on Ms. Fonda, especially by Vietnam War veterans, for her anti-war (and anti-American) statements made while visiting Hanoi during the war and being pictured sighting down the barrel of an anti-aircraft gun, wearing a North Vietnamese military helmet. The frenzy was so strong that a few stories which turned out to be hoaxes were written and distributed on the Internet -- and are still making the rounds.
What is astounding about this series of events is that these same Vietnam War veterans, some even U.S. Naval Academy graduates, are not the least bit upset that the Naval Academy requires its Midshipmen to read the offerings of Tim O'Brien, a famous anti-Vietnam War author and self-acknowledged purposeful liar, in its English Literature course.
What is even more astounding is that these same Vietnam War veterans, many even U.S. Naval Academy graduates, have not objected to nor taken issue with the foremost defender of this 'Shadow Anti-Vietnam War' Studies Program -- CDR Ward Carroll, USN (Ret.). Carroll taught in the English, Law and Ethics Department at the Academy until his recent retirement and was/is the most vocal defender of the New Age 'ethics' program there.
In the forward of his new book, 'Punk's War,' CDR Carroll gives glowing tribute to Tim O'Brien, the rabid anti-Vietnam War author whose works are required reading at the Academy. It defies belief that CDR Carroll, whose father (a Marine aviator) fought in that war, would defend a program at the Academy which essentially denigrates and dishonors the role of all who fought in that war. It is even more astounding that other Naval Academy alumni (Vietnam War veterans) who have supported the New Age 'ethics' program there have not taken CDR Carroll to task for this perfidy. Where is ADM James Stockdale? Where are the other flag-rank Naval Academy Graduates who fought in that war? Why are they silent on this matter? Where is the outrage?
Take a look at the supporting material at the link: Anatomy of a Collaborator to understand the role that CDR Carroll, today's reincarnation of yesterday's 'useful idiot,' plays in this drama.
It has taken over three years for the criticism of the New Age 'ethics' program at the Academy by Concerned Alumni to rid the curriculum of the required reading of an essay by the infamous Peter Singer (defender of neonaticide and bestiality) and to eliminate the counterproductive and often damaging films (as examples to which ethical principles were applied -- often misapplied by amateurs and neophytes -- when there were absolutely no ethical principles involved) that were a staple of the Character Development Seminars.
In addition, it defies reason that CDR Carroll is the 'chosen one' to grace the pages of the U.S. Naval Institute 'Proceedings' from time to time on topics of naval interest, including (inter alia) the defense of the sorry record of the New Age 'ethics' program instituted there by Ms. Nancy Sherman, a radical feminist 'change agent' for the Clinton administration.
And finally, it defies belief that the U.S. Naval Academy has mandated Tim O’Brien’s anti-Vietnam War novels as required reading at the Academy. That’s right, the same Tim O’Brien whose basic ethical principle is that it is OK to lie, especially novelists, because “Everybody lies!” The New Age ‘ethics’ program at the Academy promotes a debauched morality which is completely alien to the traditions of that revered institution.
Please read the materials referred to above, including my reviews of Tim O'Briens books, 'Going After Cacciato,' and 'In the Lake of the Woods.' This should help you make up your own mind on this subject. If you oppose the view forwarded here without reading the material, then I guess the 'useful idiot' pool is expanded by one.
It is important to note that ADM Charles R. Larson, USN (Ret.) was the Superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy when Tim O’Brien’s anti-Vietnam War novels were made ‘required reading’ at the Academy. He is the ‘leader’ who implemented the New Age ‘ethics’ program there (see this program at the link: Leadership and ‘Ethics’ Training at the Academy). He is currently running for Lt. Gov. of the State of Maryland with the radical leftist Kathleen Kennedy Townsend ticket for Governor. Learn of his role in this political race at the link: ADM Larson: Anatomy of a Closet Leftist.
Home Essays Going After Cacciato In the Lake of the Woods CDR Ward Carroll