Courage and Cowardice - Tim O'Brien

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Final paper for a Tim O'Brien seminar at Hendrix College in Conway, AR. Deals with the Courage & Cowardice of characters in Tim O'Brien novels.

Text of Courage and Cowardice - Tim O'Brien

Krueger 1 December 17, 2003 Tim OBrien: Courage and Cowardice Tim OBrien, 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 OBriens 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 OBrien, 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, OBrien 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 OBriens war literature involves the conflict between going to war, and dodging the draft. Two of OBriens 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 , OBrien 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 couldnt 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 ones own self is the act of cowardice. This theme will be repeated again in the other novels, as OBrien 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 OBriens position. Indeed, OBrien 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 OBriens 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 Berlins 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 Pauls 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 ones 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 OBrien character receives his draft notice in June, and att