On Cowardice and Bravery in The Things They Carried

/ 11 September 2010

The main topic in Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is what things, both physical, emotional, and mental, soldiers carried in the Vietnam War. In the process of describing these many things (there are many more non-tangible things than tangible things) O’Brien lends us his views on cowardice and bravery in the war. This is a relatively short reflection on where he talks about these two and what my thoughts are on his message. In the process of explaining what all soldiers carried (most of which stands true in today’s Middle East conflicts) O’Brien talks about how most, if not all, soldiers carried some sort of superstitious item of luck or remembrance for a loved one back home. For the leader of the army company the book follows these were mainly items reminding him of his girlfriend (letters, photos, etc.). One strand of the story is a man from his company getting killed, which I’ll touch on more later, but my point with that here is this: After the death, the leader (Jimmy Cross) reflects that he loved his girlfriend so much that he put his troops in danger just with that love. Is this one form of cowardice? In answer to that question I’d say yes, it is a form of cowardice because Cross allowed himself to huddle in the corner with his love life instead of be the strong, attentive, leader he should be for his men.

One of the core examples of cowardice and bravery in O’Brien’s book is a chapter depicting his own struggles when he gets his draft notice. To leave the fun and depth of the story for you to read later if you haven’t already, he gets to a place where he can either swim to Canadian land and evade the draft, or go back to United States land and fight in the Vietnam war. The question he was faced with here is: Which option is bravery and which is cowardice, and which option do I take? He could have swam for his life, but instead he was forced still by an intense squeezing pressure that he says he still feels while writing the book. In the end all he could do was sit and cry. To evade the draft and abandon his United States life would be cowardice, he decided, and taking his chances fighting the war would be the only brave option.

If posed with the same dilemma, of being able to survive the war by evading the draft in Canada, or go and fight, what would you choose? I can tell you my moral answer. I would go and fight. Yes I run the risk of dying, and if I don’t die then I will certainly inherit blame and guilt for the deaths I witness, but I would still be doing the right thing. I wouldn’t say that I have the strongest sense of patriotism around, I’ve opposed the Middle East conflicts from the start, but if my government asked me to fight I certainly wouldn’t run like O’Brien was seriously considering doing.

Generally cowardice and bravery are two sides of the same coin. You can either be brave about something or be a coward about it, but you can’t really be both. In wars it may sometimes be different. For one, everyone is be definition some level of brave for being there, but then be a coward when it to actually shooting their gun or volunteering for patrol. Not every person shoots their weapon, for example, in the Vietnam War only 90% of soldiers actually fired their weapon (Chris Hedges’ What Every Person Should Know About WAR, page 72). Sometimes even the military conditioning doesn’t turn out soldiers who can shoot to kill.

So the question remains, what exactly is the message that O’Brien is trying to send about cowardice and bravery through The Things They Carried? I have to admit that though I’ve read more than is required as of now of the book I have not yet finished it, so I have no way to tell for sure what the message is, just guesses based on all that I have read thus far. Most of my assumptions about the message are also taken straight from the examples noted above.

The way I look at it, the message on cowardice and bravery goes something like this: Being a coward may be looked down upon, but is easier than being brave. Bravery comes with its own challenges, including potentially being strung between two realms of thought that could harm you (ie: Cross with his girlfriend and troops), but is more rewarding in the long run. Sometimes, however, it becomes morally correct to be a coward in a situation rather than be brave. In these situations the common misconception that only bravery leads to honors is put into question. Okay, some of that may have been my own thoughts, but there it is.

It is also good to note that though O’Brien is the author of the stories in The Things They Carried, it can still be left up to us as the readers to determine what messages we take out of the book. Obviously those messages will be influenced by what O’Brien says, but we still have the chance to fold them into our own beliefs. As I’ve read this book (and the others for each class here so far) I’ve read critically enough to understand the author’s perspective and purpose, but leave my mind open to filling in the blanks so to speak. I come out with both the author’s intent, but also my own take on what I read. It is both of these that get folded together to form whatever analysis and response is required of me for each journal entry or reading response.

To conclude this journal entry, let me state, and then fold into the message of the book, the actual dictionary definitions of both cowardice and bravery. According to the New Oxford American Dictionary “Cowardice” means “lack of bravery”. “Bravery” means “courageous behavior or character”. As noted above, by definition a person is brave to accept the draft, but they could still be cowardice. Overall I believe, and it seems that so does O’Brien, that everyone is at heart enormously brave. But depending on the situations they find themselves tangled within, that bravery could turn to something I’d like to nickname “negative bravery”, or “cowardice”. So the old “two sides of one coin” perspective still fits, but you can also think of cowardice as a negative reaction that is still actually bravery of a kind.