INCLINE VILLAGE, Nev. — Glancing at the young men studying with her in Sierra Nevada College's library, 18-year-old Makenzie O'Connor tried to imagine life in 1969.
“My brother could have been drafted, any of my friends here could have been, without a choice. It's unfathomable. It's hard to comprehend fully,” O'Connor said.
Just the thought of war is hard to comprehend, the freshman in Environmental Science admitted.
However, conversations about conflict are popping up more frequently on the quiet campus of this four-year, liberal arts college, preceding Friday's visit by acclaimed author Tim O'Brien.
O'Brien, a novelist who has written extensively about the Vietnam War through fictionalized experiences, will speak at 7 p.m. Friday at Sierra Nevada College to an expected audience of 300, followed by a writing craft workshop on Saturday as part of the Writers in the Woods series. Friday's event is free, and Saturday's is $50. Reservations for Friday can be made by going to www.sierranevada.edu/read and for Saturday by calling 775-881-7435.
In November, O'Brien will be awarded the 2012 Richard C. Holbrooke Distinguished Achievement Award for a lifetime achievement of award-winning novels and stories which reflect the Dayton Literary Peace Prize mission.
“The Dayton Literary Peace Prize promotes the cause of peace by helping people understand the ugly realities of war on a deep, personal level, which is exactly what I strive to do in my work,” said O'Brien, in a press release from the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
In 1973, after returning from serving in the Vietnam War during 1969-70, he published a memoir about his war experiences, “If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home.”
O'Brien's later novel, a collection of stories, “The Things They Carried,” received the National Magazine Award for the title story, and was named one of the 20 best books of the last quarter century by the New York Times. Its title refers to the things a soldier takes into combat, including physical items such as weapons, but also intangibles including fear, exhaustion and memories.
This is the book selected as a “Community Read” for Incline Village: SNC freshmen analyzed it in English classes; Incline High School required it for summer reading; the Incline Village Public Library promoted it; and community groups and book clubs talked about it.
“There's a lot of people reading this book,” said Betts Markle, SNC's librarian, explaining that the grant-funded Community Read is designed to engage a large component of the community through a common book.
However, it is students, both at SNC and Incline High School, who are learning just how much they don't know about war by reading “The Things They Carried.”
“My freshman students had very little knowledge about the Vietnam War, except that a few mentioned that their uncles or grandfathers had fought in it,” said SNC Professor Ann Marie Brown. “Reading O'Brien's book has given my students perspective on what it was like for kids of their own age to be shipped off, against their will, to a completely foreign landscape to fight in a war that nobody understood.”
SNC Junior Jake O'Leary said he doesn't know the motives behind the Vietnam War, but he pondered aloud about whether those drafted to fight in Vietnam knew the motives either.
“I'm fairly ignorant. Honestly, I'm embarrassed about it,” O'Leary said.
Incline High School junior Tori Baker's impression of Vietnam is a father who fought in it, but won't speak of it.
“I showed him the book, but he's not interested in talking about it,” Baker said.
“The Things They Carried” opened the eyes of Baker and her friend, Sarah Wright, to the horrors of Vietnam, but they are most interested in what O'Brien says about it now.
“I want to see how he's come out of it, how he's lived his life after the war,” Wright said.
O'Brien will be speaking to students from both Incline and North Tahoe high schools Friday morning at IHS. On Thursday, Sept. 20, history teacher Amy Henderson is offering a short Vietnam briefing at lunch for students who haven't taken her U.S. History course yet.
SNC English Program Chair June Saraceno said she hopes the O'Brien visit does more than just inform students about Vietnam.
“I am hoping that they get a broad picture, not just of American history, but that history and politics are not separate entities. We tend to separate those,” Saraceno said.
When war affects people in your life, politics become personal, she said.
In writing about Vietnam, the master craftsmith made “incomprehensible comprehensible by putting it in its human form,” she said.
“The power of his words transcends more than just one moment in time and conflict,” she said.
On Thursday, Sept. 20, a Fireside Chat at 7 p.m. at the Tahoe Center for Environmental Sciences on campus will make that link, as host Andy Whyman will be asking six SNC students who served in Iraq or Afghanistan, along with Vietnam War veterans Bruce McNulty and Ted Fuller, to tell their stories.
“I suspect a lot of emotions will come up,” Whyman said.
Bringing students who served in the military to the Fireside Chat panel is one way to make war real to a student population which doesn't know much about it. Overall perceptions of war changed after the draft was replaced with an all-volunteer army and military policymakers shut down public images of war dead and body counts, he said.
“The damage this does to our culture, for me, is that we've sanitized war so enormously that there's not much reality to it,” Whyman said. “If you run the clock back to 1968, this country was exploding with aggressive activism. Every college campus in America was alive with foment about the war.”
Hanging out in the sun Monday on Sierra Nevada College's campus, two sophomore men agreed.
“It's extremely sanitized,” said Danny Kern, a Digital Arts and Journalism major.
Video games glorify it, noted his friend, Alex Daoussis, a business major.
“My cousin did two tours in Iraq. All the stuff you see on TV is nothing like what it is,” Daoussis said.
Neither has registered to vote, and both agree they don't know much about war in general.
“I feel like the only way to have a true perspective of war is to be in a war,” Daoussis said.
O'Brien's visit to Incline Village will bring that perspective to students and the larger community audience.
“This is the beauty of what O'Brien brings to the table. A guy like O'Brien is a real hero because he makes people think,” Whyman said.