Krueger 1 December 17, 2003 Tim O’Brien: Courage and Cowardice Tim O’Brien, as a veteran of the Vietnam War, is greatly
concerned with the courage and cowardice of his characters. Throughout many of his novels, the discussion of what makes a man, and how courage is woven into that persona, seems evident either in forward discussion of the topic, or through the subtle exploration of the themes. In O’Brien’s three main Vietnam novels, If I Die in a Combat Zone , Going After Cacciato , and The Things They Carried , the themes of courage and cowardice are discussed heavily in a number of different manners. For example, in both If I Die… and Going After Cacciato , the subject of desertion of duty are central and important themes. The Things They Carried , however, deals with a similar subject of draft-dodging. The themes are also investigated by explication certain events which demonstrate the ability of the characters to be strong, or weak, during stressful situations. Overall, it is difficult to pass judgment on these characters and their comrades. Tim O’Brien, as an author, seems to take the stance that his characters are cowardly, while painting a portrait of them as humans only reacting naturally to the circumstances they find themselves in. Numerous scenes throughout the novel show the characters engaging in both cowardly and courageous acts. Perhaps, though, O’Brien seeks to clarify the position that no one person is relegated to a final and sole category for the remainder of his life, based solely on a small microcosm
Krueger 2 of actions. The myth of the two soldiers: one heroic, and one cowardly, seems dead in the eyes of the author, as he seeks to show that all those who participated in the war were at once both courageous for their participation, while also cowardly for not having resisted further. This paper seeks to investigate desertion, draft-dodging, cowardly and courageous acts in an attempt to facilitate the understanding of the soldier as a whole person, wrought with both fears and the ability towards heroism.
Desertion One of the critical elements of O’Brien’s war literature involves the conflict between going to war, and dodging the draft. Two of O’Brien’s three main war novels includes scenes in which the primary character grapples with the decision to flee the draft and move to Canada. In If I Die… , O’Brien recounts his experiences with considering dodging, starting in chapter six, called “Escape.” “Tim,” the main character, gets his first “pass” soon after arriving on the base, and heads to the Tacoma Librar y, where he researches the subject of deserting his post through magazines and books. Looking for specific information on what exactly the process requires, he reads interviews and articles, until finding a specific piece in Time magazine concerning organizations set up in Europe which aid deserting soldiers. After this, he begins calling airlines to schedule flights to Europe. He plans to begin his flight from
Krueger 3 the U.S. from Vancouver, next to Dublin, and finally to Sweden, which believes to be the most hospitable location for draft-dodgers. “No one would stop me at the Canadian border, not in a bus. A flight to Ireland would raise no suspicions. From Ireland, it was only a day or two by boat to Sweden. There was no doubt it could be done,” (If I Die in a Combat Zone 54). Planning the “escape” even further, he postulates exactly how much money will be required to make the trip, and how he can acquire any extra he will need. He writes a letter to his parents, and requests his passport. The method is methodical and well designed. With little remorse over his intentions to leave the service, Tim seems to, at this point, have not concerned himself much with the consequences of his actions – which will become clearer to him as time wears on. With his plan complete, Tim prepares to head back to the base. He notes, “It was dark when I left the Tacoma Library” (If I Die 54). Clearly, the darkness of night metaphorically stands for the impending personal crisis Tim will soon face. The decision to leave the service has cast more than a simple metaphorical shadow over him; it has indeed cast an entire night. Later, the Tim character manages to get a “pass” to visit Seattle, after falling mildly. Considering his options, the stress soon becomes too great for him. After renting a hotel room, he vomits repeatedly. Finally, he decides he will not desert, but will instead continue his training and
Krueger 4 eventually go to Vietnam. “I simply couldn’t bring myself to flee. Family, the home town, friends, history, tradition, fear, confusion, exile: I could not run. […] I was a coward. I was sick” (If I Die 68). The paradox of presented in this chapter is both interesting and unique. The concept of avoiding escape from war as a cowardly notion does not appear often in literature or popular culture. Indeed, it is usually the opposite: dodging military service for the sake of one’s own self is the act of cowardice. This theme will be repeated again in the other novels, as O’Brien seeks to challenge the notion of what makes a person courageous. Interestingly, there are real life instances where avoiding militar y service seems to have become a noble endeavor. Preston King was drafted for military service in Vietnam, but fled the draft and moved permanently England, where he was in college previously. King is black, and demanded to be treated with equal respect as his peers when appearing before the draft board. After his third deferment for academic purposes, he was asked to appear before the draft board, during which time he was referred to as “Preston,” his first name. He demanded that they call him “Mr. King,” as a show of equal respect, which the members of the draft board denied to him. He returned to England after the meeting with the board, and after having received notice that he was to serve in Vietnam. He has remained abroad for almost 40 years. Here, Mr. King argues that the issue was not of military service, but of racism -- contrar y to O’Brien’s position. Indeed, O’Brien was being drafted as a middle-class, young white man. He
Krueger 5 has no such argument for wishing to flee, other than to avoid war itself (Edwards 1). In 1997, dodging the draft in Russia became an activity that has become a dire and necessary need. Indeed, at least one organization, the “Soldiers’ Mothers Committee” was holding instructional meetings for those at risk for being drafted, and for their family and friends. The meetings sought to illuminate the legal loopholes inherent in the Russian draft system, to assist the thousands of young men in danger of being conscripted on how to avoid service. The Russian army suffers from a number of severe issues, including an absurdly low pay, high alcoholism, and beatings of conscripted men by officers (Holdworth 1). The question becomes, however, of how legitimate O’Brien’s desire to dodge the draft really is. The lines of moral duty are grayed, as he is being forced to enter a war to which he has only an ambiguous objection. In “Beginnings,” Tim barely manages to argue that he does not wish to fight on intellectual grounds – those around him at college say things like “’No war is worth losing your life for,’” (If I Die 21). Just a page later, however, Tim says, “It was an intellectual and physical standoff, and I did not have the energy to see it to an end. I did not want to be a soldier, not even an observer to war. But neither did I want to upset a peculiar balance between the order I knew, the people I knew, and my own private world” (If I Die 22).
Krueger 6 The argument is vague, at best. It is not clear until later, when Tim visits the chaplain on his base, that he formulates a better argument for not going to war. Nonetheless, the argument case seems forced – more a plea to not have to sleep on the ground than a plea to avoid dying. Does Tim really, then, deserve a “pass” to avoid the war? Doubtful, at best. Although, he is surely morally opposed in some context, Tim is an able soldier, only held back by his half-hearted desire to remain with the status quo. The issue of desertion is a central element in the novel Going After Cacciato , although the entire experience actually takes place in the imagination of Paul Berlin, a young draftee. How then, does this experience affect Berlin’s “courage karma,” if one will, if he is solely escaping the service in the arena of his imagination? If anything, one could conclude that, in fact, this is a normal occurrence with little impact on Paul’s ability to be courageous. The mind constructs, through natural defense mechanisms, functions which allow sanity to remain in stressful and unrealistic situations. In war, especially one in which there is little certainty about one’s safety (based on the “underground enemy”), a defense mechanism which allows a person to retreat into a more pleasurable existence would seem natural. In addition, although Paul Berlin has difficulty maintaining composure in stressful circumstances (explored below), it should be noted that he does not, in fact, actual desert the service. Although he finds the war objectionable, and repeatedly in his
Krueger 7 fantasy sequences speaks of his opposition to the conflict, he remains a part of his contingent – determined to achieve some kind of recognition for his service. Thus, there remains little doubt on the subject of Paul Berlin that he is not guilty of violating any “sacred” precepts of courage for mentally deserting the war. Indeed, he seems to “return” to the war in a more optimistic situation after having “purged” the fantas y from his body.
Draft-Dodging The Things They Carried narrates a stor y somewhat similar to that found in If I Die… , although here the action occurs before the character has actually begun training. As such, it is more of a draft-dodging moment than one of desertion. The O’Brien character receives his draft notice in June, and attempts to continue living life as he normally would through the rest of the summer. He mentions working in a meatpacking factory, in which he removes blood-clots from pigs before they are butchered to be packed. There seems to be a good deal of metaphor in the job description, as the character uses a gun to bath himself in “a lukewarm blood-shower” (The Things They Carried 43). The reader is to understand that the character here is undergoing a baptism into the “religion” of war. The character then, as his report-date approaches, decides to drive north to Canada. As he reaches the boarder, he stops at a small lodge
Krueger 8 where he meets the owner, Elroy Berdahl, who he describes as “eighty-on years old skinny and shrunken and mostly bald” (Things 48). Through the course of the next six days, the O’Brien character spends a good deal of time with Berdahl. Together, they play board games, hike, eat meals, and even chop wood. The days leading up to the last full day at the lodge seem to linger in an entropic stasis, with O’Brien attempting to forget his quandar y while remaining just a few miles from the border of Canada. On the sixth day, O’Brien and the old man go fishing on the Rainy River, and end up crossing the Canadian border. O’Brien says, “Twenty yards. I could’ve done it. I could’ve jumped and started swimming for my life” (Things 56). O’Brien describes the next few minutes as the character cries and reviews portion of his life. Finally, he “tried to will [him]self overboard” (Things 59), to no avail. Resigning himself to his fate, he realizes that he would simply be too embarrassed to have avoided the draft. After heading back to the lodge, he packs his things and leaves the next day. Here, he uses an almost identical resolution to the issue as he did in If I Die… , as he ends the chapter with “I was a coward. I went to war” (Things 61). The river imager y is interesting, as there seems to be a number of connections to the River Styx, from Greek mythology. Berdahl seems to share with Charon (the ferryman) the common element of silent meditation. Numerous times, Berdahl’s taciturn nature is mentioned, with him saying ver y few words on the river itself. Furthermore, the Canadian
Krueger 9 beach seems to embody the underworld/afterlife of mythology. Here, O’Brien would become completely disconnected with his former life, in effect, beginning a new existence for the rest of his days – seemingly doomed to remain there forever. So what of the Styx metaphor, and O’Brien’s detailed description of his near desertion? This account is similar to that found in If I Die… , but seems more emotional and less physiological. Nonetheless, the conclusion is the same: O’Brien believes himself a coward for not having the strength to cross over into a new life. The important aspect to divine from this passage lies in the fact that the author wishes to convey the emotional confusion of the would-be soldiers at this age. Clearly, the character O’Brien is still a young man, unsure of his purpose or way in life. The pairing of the character with the temporary moral hero, Berdahl, creates the important contrast of ages to communicate that Tim has no personal experience to draw on for this decision; he is forced only to accept the action forced upon him unless he would choose to shun his former life for a completely new one. At least, it would seem, the draft gives a clear and understandable ending-date. O’Brien is to serve a specific amount of time in the service, after which he will return home to his “normal life.” Or, he will die. The consequences of going to Vietnam are few and apparent. The decision to dodge into Canada is less concrete, though. There is no guarantee that O’Brien will ever have the opportunity to return home.
Krueger 10 Nonetheless, there is no clear resolution on how courageous it is to follow the policy of the draft. O’Brien seems to maintain through two novels that following draft policy is the cowardly thing to do. Conventional wisdom would state otherwise.
Acts of Cow ardice Although the characters of Tim O’Brien’s novels have a difficult time finding their way to the battlefield in the first place, it is not always a guarantee that they will act in a manner normally seen as fitting of a solider. There are numerous instances throughout the three novels in which the main characters, as well as supporting characters, can be found shying away from the duties inherent with their job. In If I Die… , one notable scene of rather ambiguously cowardly actions comes relatively early in the main character ’s tour in the field. While sitting in a paddy, the team is ambushed by Viet Cong soldiers. The narrator ’s helmet is hit with a makeshift grenade, which explodes nearby without injuring him. Another soldier, “Clauson, a big fellow, took the force of the grenade” (If I Die 117). The ambiguity here is in the deciding of whether or not it would have been more foolish to assist his comrade, or simply remain in his position. The text states that there seems to be a melee of bullets, which, if true, likely means that it was safer for the narrator to remain hidden as much as possible. Even so, he states, “The battalion commander was on the radio, asking where my captain was,
Krueger 11 wanting to talk to him, wanting me to pop smoke to mark our position, wanting me to call the other platoons” (If I Die 117). The reader would be led to believe that the narrator should, indeed, be acting in some manner. He states, however, “I couldn’t move. I kept hollering, begging for an end to it” (If I Die 117). Strangely, nearby passages in If I Die… do not include mention of these types of panic moment. Indeed, there are a number in this same chapter in which the character seems nonchalant about the entire experience of coming under fire. The reader then, is unsure. Is one to believe that the character cannot find any courage within him to act in moments of desperation? Or is it more simply that there are some moments in which it is possible, while at others it is not? Or, perhaps a third possibility: the narrator is unreliable, and the reader cannot trust him to clearly and truthfully tell the events as they occur. Likely, it is all three. The reader must assume that again, the age and maturity of these soldiers is a critical element of their ability to be called to action. Furthermore, the recounting of the narrative is indeed an imprecise one; both the chaotic nature of war and the emotional confusion of the narrator should be taken into account. Going After Cacciato may contain one of the most stereotypically “cowardly” moments of the three novels, as Paul Berlin loses control of his bowels during the attempt to capture Cacciato. The event occurs as the narrative switches from Berlin’s imaginar y account of tracking Cacciato to
Krueger 12 an apartment in Paris, to the “actual” event of tracking him to a hilltop. As the group moves in to finally capture Cacciato, Berlin loses control of himself, firing his rifle wildly into the air. Seemingly disconnected from his own actions, he soon loses control of his bowels: “Then there was a floating feeling, and a swelling his stomach, then a wet release feeling. He tried to stop it. He squeezed his thighs together and tightened his belly, but it came anyway. He sat back” (Going After Cacciato 331). Berlin is comforted by “Doc,” though the humiliation seems present and painful. The strangeness of the situation is also present for the reader, who is left wondering why, exactly, Berlin has failed to act in a manner that would be conducive to the capture they are attempting. Although Berlin attempts to explain, saying “I was tense. I didn’t mean it,” (Cacciato 332) and other such statements, clearly there are deeper issues than the stress level of the situation. This is an especially difficult section for any reader to dissect, in consideration of the fact that Paul Berlin is an unreliable narrator, based on the assumption that a good deal of the novel takes place solely within his own imagination. The question remains, nonetheless, of what specifically O’Brien is attempting to convey in this scene. It would be logical to assume that, if nothing else, the timing of the loss of control at the point of change from imaginary narrative to “real events,” is meant to convey some type of expunging of emotions from Paul Berlin. Clearly, the
Krueger 13 preceding narrative involving the chase of Cacciato to Paris is one emotionally charged with numerous metaphorical symbols concerning Paul’s time in Vietnam. Thus, it is logical to assume that the unintended bowel movement may actually be the physical “illness” of this unhealthy imaginar y quest from Paul’s body. What does this say of courage? Undoubtedly, of all the unintended bodily functions one could procure in a time of stress, the movement of bowels or the loss of control over urination is the most embarrassing. It would also stand to reason that there are few greater embarrassments for a soldier than to have lost so much control over one’s self that a loss of bowel control is the consequence. It is, however, important to note that the bowel movement was completely unintended. Indeed, the reader is led to believe that it is more a function of the physiology of Paul’s body than it is something that he can stop. A natural force, if you will. With that in mind, the label of having less than admirable courage is truly undeserved. Paul was a victim of his own physical elements. Nonetheless, Paul is treated less than heroically. “’Dumb,’ Oscar said. ‘Stupidest thing I ever seen’” (Cacciato 332). Stink merely giggles repeatedly through the scene as Paul recovers. The reader should again revisit the issue of age and maturity, as tedious as it may seem. O’Brien has, through Cacciato , shown that Paul’s experiences are tainted by both age and relative immaturity. The childish fantasy, replete with Alice in Wonderland imager y, and a lack of understanding of world politics (among
Krueger 14 other things), demonstrate Paul’s lack of maturity, or his desire to immerse himself in a mental landscape devoid of maturity. Paul’s behavior on watch, while not necessarily life-threatening (considering the remote location), also shows a lack of responsibility and understanding for the requirement of regimented behavior. Overall, the reader is to understand that Paul is little more than a child himself, forced to fight in a war that he does not understand, and can only barely comprehend. It would seem, though, that although Paul is treated with both pity and perhaps some ill will, he is, again, merely a victim of circumstance. The loss of bowel control should not be levied against him as a mark upon his courage. Rather, it should be understood that he has not had the chance to prove his courage without the emotional onslaught the night at the Observation Tower provided. Moments of panic are not limited only to the main characters. Philip, a character in If I Die… , reacts to the order to “police up one of his friends” (If I Die 124) by digging “a foxhole four feet into the clay. He sat in it and sobbed” (If I Die 124). He is consoled by others in the group after darkness falls, and is later told by the captain, in a benevolent manner, that he will have him returned to the rear, where he will be engaged in more mundane jobs. The reader here may question just how inappropriate Philip’s response is to the death of his friend. Obviously, man y others in the war lost close friends, but few were coddled and allowed special circumstances due to those reasons. In O’Brien’s novels,
Krueger 15 the main characters actually seem to be unrealistically disconnected with the rest of the platoon members. After all, although there may have been quirks to their relationships (i.e. - never learning each other ’s last names), there are, indeed, special bonds which are created among the members of a military group. O’Brien’s “protagonists,” however, seem to rarely be emotionally invested in the other members of the group. A number of times throughout the novels (especially in the instance of Kiowa’s death), the main character seems touched, but certainly not moved to an overt emotional response. So what then of Philip and his reaction to the death of the friend? It is unclear just how much of an emotional response any soldier would be “allowed” by his compatriots in the circumstances, to grieve. Again, death is an issue visited almost daily in war, and as such, one must be prepared to continue on without being too effected by grief. But, grief is a human response that is (like Paul Berlin’s bowel movements), uncontrollable. One cannot dismiss the emotions connected with the response, try as one may. Thus, it would seem that Philip’s response is natural and acceptable, but there remains a disparity in Philip’s reaction to his friend’s death, and the reactions others procure in such moments. Even though we can assume that O’Brien’s unreliable narrators did not, at times, accurately convey the reactions of other soldiers to death, for the sake of this argument, it is logical to only consider the material presented. Therefore, the inconsistency between Philip’s response to his friend’s death, and the
Krueger 16 responses of other soldiers to the deaths of their friends (when applicable), does seem to mark on Philip a sign of uncourageous behavior. For, if the reader is to assume the guise of a stereotypical “American response” to such a situation, the reader would likely argue that Philip should “soldier on” and not be given any special treatment for his grief.
Courage and Bravery So then, what defines courage and braver y – those elements which stand as the antithesis to cowardice? As with many words, these are subjective in the meaning given by each person who speaks them. Tim O’Brien chooses to define courage in a number of ways. Many times, his definition is cryptic, enigmatic, or simply subtle. The chapters “Courage is a Kind of Preserving” in If I Die in a Combat Zone and “Speaking of Courage,” from The Things They Carried both deal with courage only in a visceral and mysterious way. It is relatively easier, though, to attempt to define O’Brien’s courage through the investigation of the less-than-brave acts discussed here. When taken as a whole, the primary characters who are seen in the novels cannot truly be described as cowards. Although they certainly have numerous moments in which they defy the traditional notion of what it means to be brave and courageous, Tim O’Brien seems to be reiterating over-and-over that the characters flawed, immature, and unprepared for
Krueger 17 the circumstances of war. Even those like Jimmy Cross, who is idolized by the O’Brien character, has moments of failure and insecurity. The reader should seek to understand within O’Brien’s works, war itself often creates and perpetuates the chaos which the characters have difficulty acclimatizing to. While the Vietcong were a ready and sometimes less-than-apparent enemy, O’Brien also seeks to paint a portrait of them as humans who are also fighting a war that is morally ambiguous. In the face of such tr ying circumstances, the characters, nonetheless, find a way to remain steadfast to some basic morality. The moments of cowardice are only seen as such when taken out of the context of war. Despite O’Brien’s continued insistence that he and his characters are guilty of cowardly behavior, it would seem that they are instead guilty of simple self-depricating mindsets. The American public seems to have realized that the Vietnam war was a creation of two political systems, and not of the soldiers involved. In closing, the reader is to comprehend upon reading the novels, that courage is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Each person must come to understand the definition of courage for themselves.
Krueger 18 Works Cited Edwards, Bob. “Profile: African-American man who fled the US four decades agoafter being convicted of draft dodging wants to come back.” Morning Edition (NPR) 5 Jan. 2000. EBSCOHost . University of Arkansas, Little Rock. http://search.epnet.com/direct.asp?an=6XN200001051003&db=nfh Holdworth, Nick. “Youth Taught Draft Dodges.” The Times Higher Education Supplement Issue 1290, Pg.13: 25 July 1997. LexisNexis . University of Arkansas, Little Rock. O’Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato . New York: Broadway, 1978. O’Brien, Tim. If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home . O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried . Boston: Houghton, 1990. New York: Broadway, 1975.