Is it true you’re not just working on the show’s Vietnam-related material?
A little bit. Not very much. I try to cut down other appearances to make room for more Vietnam stuff, basically. I’m just kidding, but I don’t do much with other characters. Sometimes I’ll try my hand at dialogue. But as a novelist, I’m in total control of my vision and my material. I’m the director, actor and writer. But you really have to feel that you’re part of this organism called “This Is Us.” As much as you can, leave your own preferences and identity behind and be faithful to what the show is and wants to be. That was hard at first, but I really enjoyed that new way of trying to make something good.
Where does “This is Us” fit into the canon of art about war?
The answer will depend on what comes in the future. As it stands right now, only one season has been devoted to war, and of that, only a portion of the season. But the groundwork for what will follow has been laid, essentially through Nicky and Jack. “This Is Us” has demonstrated an authentic and important truth, but it’s still Act 1 of what I hope will be a 10-act play over the next couple of seasons.
Do you think the past 18 years of continuous warfare have compelled this generation of veterans to write?
I think it has. I’ve met many compatriots of yours, fellow soldiers now writing. Their concerns are not exactly mine, but they’re inexactly mine. The similarities have to do with the aftermath of it all, really — that war is war. The purpose of war is to kill people, and there are consequences to that enterprise. One way of dealing with that is through writing that has the emotional feel of what it is to bear the spiritual and emotional burdens afterward. That’s what the best of the writing coming out of my war and your wars deals with.
The main difference between our wars is the absence of a draft. Your generation of combat soldiers is a generation of volunteers. That difference is a huge one, because your generation of soldiers is bearing a much heavier burden than mine did. Anyone who doesn’t want to fight and kill people, or get killed — they don’t have to. That’s a strange predicament for a republic like ours to be in.
Do you think volunteers of these wars produce art that is distinguishable from the conscripts of the Vietnam War?
It’s subtle, but I think it does. If I were to volunteer, end up in combat in Iraq or Afghanistan, then come home, I’d be asking myself, “Why the [expletive] did I do that?” At least I was able to blame L.B.J., or my hometown draft board, or Nixon. I had somebody to blame, and as sorry as that excuse would be, it still was there. A volunteer has to understand that they did this to themselves. I’ve got two students of mine who are veterans, and this is what they’re mostly writing about: the former boy who chose to do this and now lives with the consequences.