O’Brien’s The Things They Carried

The author of this novel, O’Brien recounts his experiences from the Vietnam war. Joining the war was a battle in itself for O’Brien, after receiving his draft notice in June of 1968, he almost fled out of the strong desire not to enlist. O’Brien describes himself as ‘too good for this war, too smart, too compassionate’. This was an often realized flaw of the Vietnam war, lasting roughly 20 years, that it had questionable purpose. One of the main issues raised in this personal perspective novel is the act of peer pressure and embarrassment regarding the war. This is shown best in this quote from O’Brien near the start of the book – “They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.”

This quotation is part of a longer passage where O’Brien explains the emotional baggage of men at risk of dying. O’Brien suggests that a barely hidden cowardice is common within the soldiers. He explores the idea that men go to war not to be heroes for their country, but to avoid embarrassment. They are almost forced, due to the cowardly stereotype that comes with not enlisting. These ideas are further strengthened early in the novel, within a particularly prominent chapter “On The Rainy River,”. O’Brien has fled his hometown and made it to a lodge just before the Canadian border. Here he resides for 6 days in total, doing odd jobs for the owner of the lodge, Elroy. On the last day Elroy takes O’Brien to the border of Canada on a ‘fishing trip’ and lets O’Brien silently decide whether he stays or goes. O’Briens inner turmoil is finalized by this quote. ’In my head I could hear people screaming at me, ‘traitor’ ‘turncoat’ ‘pussy’.” He voices that the only thing that stopped him from fleeing the war, was the thought that the people from home would think of him as a coward. He consciously made the decision to go against his morals because he was afraid of ‘patriotic ridicule’. Further on in the novel, O’brien eventually kills a Vietnamese soldier. He seeks the help of his fellow soldiers, especially Kiowa, who helps him rationalize this act by saying ”no sweat man, what else could you do?”. By highlighting the normalcy of his action with a casual town, Kiowa is implying that killing is the right thing to do. O’Brien uses this rationalization to suggest that the soldiers commit acts of murder mostly in a simple reaction to peer pressure, therefore alluding to the fact that their greatest fear is not that of taking a life, but of embarrassment.