Thoughts on Courage
Throughout war literature, characters of soldiers are fundamentally exposed. Young men go to war and come out with countless stories and scars from their adventures. For tremendous acts of bravery, some soldiers are presented with awards such as the Distinguished Service Cross and the Medal of Honor. In the book The Thing They Carried, author Tim O’Brien explores the importance of courage. Many of the stories center around a single act of courage or cowardice that determines life or death for a member of the platoon, a civilian, or even a lone Vietnamese soldier. These daring deeds do not necessarily embody bravery in the same sense; nearly all of the stories depict a separate aspect of it. Although the character of Tim O’Brien fails to be brave in some of his anecdotes, he discusses his understanding of audacity and his observations of it in the worlds around him. In The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien describes his newfound understanding of courage; it develops with experience and is intertwined with fear of death and the apprehension of shame.
Throughout the stories, Tim O’Brien demonstrates the way he learns that courage grows through experience and preparation throughout the stories. In the beginning of “On the Rainy River,” he tells of the conclusion he reached after the war: “[Courage] comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down” (43). Tim comes to understand that courage is built up in experience and can be withdrawn from a person’s internal “account,”, similar to a bank. In “The Lives of the Dead,” Tim thinks back to fourth grade with his “girlfriend” Linda. When she is bullied by the other boys in the grade because of the hat she wears, Tim “wanted to do something about it, but it just wasn’t possible…so I stood off to the side, just a spectator, wishing I could do things I couldn’t do” (221). Tim remembers this time of cowardice and wonders how “if he could not fight little boys, he thought, how could he ever become a soldier and fight the Americans with their airplanes and helicopters and bombs?” (121). At this time, when he was initially drafted, he has not yet developed a thorough understanding of the origin of courage and assumes that he is no braver when he is eighteen years old than when he is nine years old. Later, when he grasps the meaning of courage, he decides: “Besides, it doesn’t get much easier with time, and twelve years later, when Vietnam presented much harder choices, some practice at being brave might’ve helped a little” (221). Tim wishes he could go back to stand up for Linda and “practice at being brave” so he can some courage in his bank. After the war and some reflection on his youth, he also recognizes that “if the stakes ever became high enough-if the evil were evil enough, if the good were good enough, I would simply tap a secret reservoir of courage that had been accumulating inside me over the years” (43). Tim realizes that courage is not an inflexible budget and that he can grow it with experience and use it in time of need.
O’Brien defines courage as something that often comes unexpectedly in the face of death. Close calls with death happen regularly in war, provoking unexpected bravery even from the seemingly weak. Tim kills a lone Vietnamese soldier and later recounts this impulsive, almost robotic experience: “I had already pulled the pin on the grenade. I had come up to a crouch. It was entirely automatic. I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy” (126). Tim later reveals that he was “afraid of him-afraid of something-and as he passed me on the trail I threw a grenade that exploded at his feet and killed him” (126). When he feels threatened by the oncoming soldier, he falls into an “automatic” subconscious state, where he does a thing that would otherwise require an enormous amount of willpower. Kiowa later tells O’Brien, “The man would’ve died anyway. He told me that it was a good kill, that I was a soldier and that I should shape up and stop staring and ask myself what the dead man would’ve done if things were reversed” (127). In this instance, courage is reflexive. However, the courage that wars cause can also lead soldiers to do irrational things that they would never have done outside the wars. In the short story “Enemies,” O’Brien tells the story of Dave Jensen and Lee Strunk, Jensen’s missing jackknife, and a silent tension that eventually drives Jensen to the point where he loses control. After nearly a week of insomnia and avoiding being alone with Strunk, he began “firing his weapon into the air, yelling Strunk’s name, just firing and yelling, and it didn’t stop until he’d rattled off an entire magazine of ammunition” (60). As insane as this act may seem, it is also brave on Jensen’s part. He feels extremely threatened by Lee Strunk and audaciously reacts unlike he ever would outside of war. The war causes the soldiers to do things they would never be brave enough to do otherwise.
O’Brien demonstrates how courage is directly related to the dread of shame, dishonor, and embarrassment. One of the first instances that O’Brien discusses this correlation in the short story “The Things They Carried,” when he references the motif of the “blush of dishonor” (20). O’Brien states that “Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to” (20). The soldiers in the war are afraid that if they did not fight they would be labeled a “coward” or a “sissy.” When Tim is drafted for the Vietnam War, he faces a similar worry. In the story “On The Rainy River,” he deliberates whether he should run from the war or fight in it. He thinks to himself, “I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile. I was afraid of walking away from my own life, my friends and my family, my whole history, everything that mattered to me” (42). O’Brien is more afraid of losing his dignity and being “exiled” by walking away from the war than he is about dying in it. He imagines townspeople chattering away at the café on Main Street, “coffee cups poised, the conversation slowly zeroing in on the young O’Brien kid, how the damned sissy had taken off for Canada” (43). O’Brien’s dream of the town shunning him for being a “damned sissy” if he runs from the war is powerful enough to change his mind. He tells himself on his way back from the edge of Canada: “I would go to war-I would kill and maybe die-because I was embarrassed not to” (57). O’Brien, like other soldiers, was afraid of war, but even more afraid of issues that might arise if he did not do his duty. This example exhibits how courage often springs from an intense fear of humiliation.
After the war, Tim O’Brien finally fully understands how courage is no fixed allotment and can be developed and used up; and that courage often arises fear of death and embarrassment. Tim gathers from his experiences and reflections that characteristic qualities can be recreated and a personality can be altered, especially in times of great emergency. In the war, soldiers are forced to become, or at least pretend to become, completely different people. They often have to do things they would never do otherwise, which definitely attributes to the changes in individuality. Tim concludes that war, along with other experiences, builds up a person’s supply of courage so that they can withdraw it when it is needed the most.
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