Life and career
O'Brien was born in Austin, Minnesota. When he was ten, his family, including a younger sister and brother, moved to Worthington, also in southern Minnesota. Worthington had a large influence on O’Brien’s imagination and his early development as an author. The town is located on Lake Okabena in the western portion of the state and serves as the setting for some of his stories, especially those in the novel The Things They Carried.
O'Brien earned his BA in 1968 in Political Science from Macalester College, where he was student body president. That same year he was drafted into the United States Army and was sent to Vietnam, where he served from 1969 to 1970 in 3rd Platoon, Company A, 5th Battalion, 46th Infantry Regiment, part of the 23rd Infantry Division) that contained the unit that perpetrated the My Lai Massacre the year before his arrival. O'Brien has said that when his unit got to the area around My Lai (referred to as "Pinkville" by the U.S. forces), "we all wondered why the place was so hostile. We did not know there had been a massacre there a year earlier. The news about that only came out later, while we were there, and then we knew."
Upon completing his tour of duty, O'Brien went to graduate school at Harvard University. Afterward he received an internship at the Washington Post. In 1973 he published his first book, a memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home about his war experiences. In this memoir, O'Brien writes: "Can the foot soldier teach anything important about war, merely for having been there? I think not. He can tell war stories."
While O'Brien does not consider himself a spokesman about the war, he has occasionally commented on it. Speaking years later about his upbringing and the war, O'Brien described his hometown as "a town that congratulates itself, day after day, on its own ignorance of the world: a town that got us into Vietnam. Uh, the people in that town sent me to that war, you know, couldn't spell the word 'Hanoi' if you spotted them three vowels."
Contrasting the continuing American search for U.S. MIA/POWs in Vietnam with the reality of the high number of Vietnamese war dead, he describes the American perspective as
A perverse and outrageous double standard. What if things were reversed? What if the Vietnamese were to ask us, or to require us, to locate and identify each of their own MIAs? Numbers alone make it impossible: 100,000 is a conservative estimate. Maybe double that. Maybe triple. From my own sliver of experience — one year at war, one set of eyes — I can testify to the lasting anonymity of a great many Vietnamese dead.
One attribute of O'Brien's work is the blur between fiction and reality; labeled "verisimilitude", his work contains details of the events he encountered. His conscious, explicit, and meta-fictional approach to blurring the distinction between fact and fiction is a unique component of his writing style. In the story "Good Form" in The Things They Carried, O'Brien discusses the distinction between "story-truth" (the truth of fiction) and "happening-truth" (the truth of fact or occurrence), writing that "story-truth is sometimes truer than happening-truth." He suggests that story truth is emotional truth; thus the feeling created by a fictional story is sometimes truer than what results from reading the facts. Certain sets of stories in The Things They Carried seem to contradict each other, and certain stories are designed to "undo" the suspension of disbelief created in previous stories. For example, "Speaking of Courage" is followed by "Notes", which explains in what ways "Speaking of Courage" is fictional.
O'Brien's papers are housed at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin.
O’Brien writes and lives in central Texas. He is raising a family and teaches full-time every other year at Texas State University–San Marcos. In alternate years, he teaches several workshops to MFA students in the creative writing program.
O'Brien was interviewed for Ken Burns' 2017 documentary series The Vietnam War.