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Tim O'Brien | Biography


Born on October 1, 1946, Tim O'Brien grew up in Worthington, Minnesota, and studied political science at Macalaster College in St. Paul. When he graduated in 1968, O'Brien had already been accepted into Harvard's PhD program to study government but received his draft notice shortly after graduation.

O'Brien disagreed with American participation in the Vietnam War, but he also felt it would be immoral to evade the draft because so many young men with fewer advantages were being drafted. The 22-year-old O'Brien reported for training and was deployed with the 23rd Infantry Division from 1969 to 1970. Wounded by shrapnel near My Lai, he received a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star before being discharged.

Back in the United States, O'Brien went to Harvard to study government and eventually became a reporter for the Washington Post (1971–74). His Vietnam experiences permeate his first book, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1973), and much of his later award-winning writing.

In a 2009 interview for PBS's American Experience, O'Brien described the "frustration" and "rage" that the mere landscape of Vietnam—the "shaggy, tangled" jungles and the fields littered with land mines—created in soldiers, who often felt they could not defend themselves against its "terrifying" threats. The soldiers were plagued by internal conflicts too. O'Brien felt at times like an "occupying evil guy" who had invaded the villages of "poor people" who, like all people, just wanted to survive and get on with life. His sympathy for these victims of war and his empathy with young soldiers required to take part in its "sanctioned homicide" are topics he explores in The Things They Carried.

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