After dropping out of Yale University, Oliver Stone enlisted in the U.S. Army, specifically requesting combat duty in Vietnam, where he had taught English in 1965. He served from April 1967 to November 1968, and was awarded a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He would eventually get a fine arts degree from New York University and begin writing screenplays. He later started directing films, including two about Vietnam that won him Academy Awards—Platoon (1986) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989). Stone, 61, is widely considered one of the best directors in Hollywood—and, because of his often controversial topics, one of the most gutsy. His upcoming film, Pinkville, explores the investigation into the My Lai massacre.
Q: What was 1968 like for you?
A: Ironically, 1968 was a blur. I was in the infantry for most of the year. It wasn’t a great year. I remember King and Kennedy got killed. And Johnson announced his retirement. And I remember I heard the Doors’ album for the first time, and the Chambers Brothers, and Jefferson Airplane and Jimi Hendrix. That’s about my year, plus a lot of slogging in the bush.
Q: How did you feel about what was going on here in the States?
A: It was hard to tell. You know, I was not political. I didn’t come back from the war against the war. I was numb, frankly. It took me a few years to shake it off. But I can tell you that when King went down, there was a lot of anger with the black troops—I was hanging with a lot of them. And when Kennedy was killed I think there was great sadness, but it wasn’t the same anger.
Also, there was definitely the feeling that we were not going to stick this out, because when Johnson said, “I’m resigning,” from our point of view it was like, “Oh yeah? So, if you don’t believe in this, what are we supposed to die for?” I’m not saying we mutinied, but that’s when the whole thing started to go south….There was a lot of psychic damage.
Q: What was it like when you came back?
A: Nobody in my class at Yale or any of the schools I went to ever went to Vietnam. When I went to NYU film school—I managed to make my way back there a year and a half later on the GI Bill—none of my classmates had been there that I know of. And so they all kinda looked at me like a freak. It wasn’t like they were insulting me or anything. They didn’t call me a baby killer or any of that. That’s an urban myth as far as I’m concerned. It was just, like, “Wow, what a bummer, man.” “What did he waste his life for over there? What’d he go there for.” That was the whole thing: “You didn’t have to go, so why did you go?” You felt weird.
Q: Why did you go?
A: A combination of patriotism. Seriously, I felt it was the right war. I really believed the media. I believed the Time magazine stuff. My father was a Republican. He even didn’t want me to go. But I had problems, you know. I didn’t like the class at Yale. I thought the students were snotty. George Bush was in that class. So was Strobe Talbot. Also, I knew that I didn’t want to go through Yale and work on Wall Street. I didn’t know what I wanted; I just wanted to get out of that.
Q: So what did you later make of your decision?
A: I had to go through a lot more struggle. It took me years more after Vietnam to shape a policy of consciousness about that era. I wasn’t one of the hippies. I wasn’t one of those people who saw that the war was wrong. I wasn’t one of those people who was into free love. I was shocked by all that stuff. The student protesters in Chicago were pretty scary.
Q: But you yourself turned radical.
A: I was involved in the NYU student riots in 1971. I think it was when Cambodia was invaded. I was in the NYU class, and we got our cameras smashed that day. At that point that’s when I felt I really started to change. I started to get the excitement. I said, “Wow, you know, let’s go for it, and let’s go for revolution.” I was starting to believe that revolution was possible, and that we could overthrow Nixon, frankly.
Q: Now you’ve made historical events in America pretty much your territory.
A: It’s not like I’m there as a journalist. I don’t really look at it that way. I have a common citizen’s grasp of the things that are going on around me and I care. But it’s not like I read political journals and papers all the time. I float around. I’m a dramatist.