DON GONYEA, HOST:
Michael O'Donnell was an Army helicopter pilot who died while serving in the Vietnam War. But he was much more than that. He was a poet whose writings are a sort of time capsule for his generation. In a new book entitled "In That Time: Michael O'Donnell And The Tragic Era Of Vietnam," Daniel Weiss uses O'Donnell's poems, written during combat, to tell the story of a young man grappling with what it meant to be at war.
Weiss, who is president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says what's so compelling about O'Donnell was that he was average - an OK student from the Midwest who loved folk music. And when I spoke with Weiss, he said O'Donnell was like so many others from that era - ordinary guys who had to make really tough choices.
DANIEL WEISS: By about the middle of the 1960s, Michael was not a compelling college student, and he wasn't sure what he wanted to do next. And he saw all around him various friends being drafted or called to war. And he realized at a certain point that if he actually chose to enlist, he might have more control over his fate. And further, he thought that he had heard from friends about becoming a helicopter pilot. And it occurred to him that if he did that, the amount of training that goes into becoming such a - taking on such a role takes so long that by the time he would be ready to go, the war may well be over.
That's not how it played out for him. But he went into the war voluntarily because he thought - as his mother said, he thought they were going to get him, and this way, he would have at least some control over his fate.
GONYEA: The poems really do take us to a place. There's the solitude. There's the danger that is ever present. You can feel that in his writing. There's the waiting and the waiting and the waiting and the boredom. And the poems that you highlight in the book also take us to a very specific geographic place, that northern region of South Vietnam to an outpost near the border with the North. Laos and Cambodia were right there, and the war had expanded into those countries as well.
WEISS: Yes. By the time he had been in Vietnam a few months, he was stationed in a region - at a base in Kon Tum, which was, as you say, in the northern highlands of Vietnam in the middle of absolutely nowhere. These guys were surrounded by the enemy on all sides. They had very little opportunity for community beyond the small number of people that were there. Yet each evening, O'Donnell would fly out of battle and to his base. He'd have an opportunity to take a shower and have a hot meal and think about what was happening around him. And that's when he wrote poetry.
And over time, as he was writing these poems and experiencing the ghastly war around him, at one point he began to believe that he wasn't going to survive the war. And his poems began to change, and the story he began to tell was was much more fatalistic, and in that sense, the beginning of a tragedy that he knew was going to end for him.
GONYEA: The work became more - I guess more descriptive of the war that he was experiencing around him. He even took us inside his helicopter cabin on a mission.
WEISS: Exactly. Within - after being in Vietnam for several months, he began to think really deeply about really not surviving this war and what that would mean. And he began to feel this very heavy pressure of the experiences around him. And for the first time in his life, this happy-go-lucky, joyous young man was no longer those things. He was contemplative, fatalistic and increasingly consigned to the fact that not only was he not going to survive this war, but it was unlikely anyone would really care beyond his family. And he wrote about those things.
So one poem that he wrote - this is the last poem he wrote before he died, about a week before the mission in which he was lost - he wrote the following words. (Reading) I have tasted the air in the early morning before the sun and before the day. I have let it run all down my face and stained my clothes, and I have learned to wash myself with the part of the day that remains. I am dying in the sun at Dak To. I am each day becoming less interested in the way the morning tastes, and I am dying in the sun at Dak To. And I am dying in the sun at Dak To.
With this poem, O'Donnell really was saying something very powerful about how he acknowledged it was probably over for him. But nonetheless, he got up every day. He put on his uniform, and he flew his missions. And the very last mission he flew, where he was lost, was a rescue mission where he was attempting to save the lives of others. Everyone was lost, but in trying to save them, he did something very noble and I think of enduring importance. But that's how it ended for him.
GONYEA: You describe him being fatalistic, recognizing that he probably wouldn't make it out of this war. And he wanted to make sure he was very present with his fellow soldiers. But he also wrote another poem where he seems to be speaking to all of us and asking us to please know what happened here and please remember these soldiers.
WEISS: Yes. I think that one of the things O'Donnell was contending with was on the one hand, the tragedy of losing his friends and so many people to a war that was inconsequential ultimately to the American mission. And the second was that all of these people would be forgotten because the war didn't seem to matter to anyone. So O'Donnell thought about that, and he wrote a poem about what it means to remember them. And it was this poem that I first encountered about O'Donnell that led me to want to know more about his story.
GONYEA: And this is called...
WEISS: And it's called "Letters From Pleiku." It is his most well-known poem and his most important poem. And I'll read it if you like.
GONYEA: Please do.
WEISS: (Reading) If you are able, save for them a place inside of you. And save one backward glance when you are leaving for the places they can no longer go. Be not ashamed to say you love them, though you may or may not have always. Take what they have left and what they have taught you with their dying and keep it with your own. And in that time, when men decide and feel safe to call the war insane, take one moment to embrace those gentle heroes you left behind.
At the time O'Donnell wrote that poem, in January 1 of 1970, he was really thinking about this issue of what loss really means. And this poem was embraced by veterans and soldiers and the public thereafter.
GONYEA: His helicopter went down in the jungles of Cambodia not three months after he wrote those words. But he was not officially pronounced killed in action for three decades.
WEISS: Yes. He was shot down and lost in the jungles of Cambodia, where he and his crew remained missing in action for 28 years before the site was located, and the American Recovery Team came to find him. And he was then buried at Arlington with full honors two weeks before Sept. 11 in 2001.
GONYEA: You worked on this for years. Ultimately, what do you hope people take away from the story of Michael O'Donnell?
WEISS: We thought after Vietnam, that kind of war would never happen again. But we have lived through it in Iraq and Afghanistan. And we are suffering in many ways the same ways. And so I think there is really the occasion for us to think really carefully about when one makes a decision to commit other people's lives in service of an objective. You need to have thought that through really carefully and to be sure that it is the right and best use of our citizens. And it didn't happen in Vietnam, and it didn't happen in Iraq. And we need to think about that.
GONYEA: That's Daniel Weiss, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His book "In That Time: Michael O'Donnell And The Tragic Era Of Vietnam" is out now.
Daniel, thanks for talking to us.
WEISS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.