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Ethics of the US in the Vietnam War

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Aaron Sanders

I think that O'Brien says that courage is something that is gained once and as you encounter times where you have to break through your fears to do what is right, your courage slowly gains. His specific point of, "stashing it away" alternatively shows that you have to not be courageous all the time. He says that "We must steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn out." meaning that there is that one time where all of your previous experiences that gained you courage, now lead you past a major barrier, unlike anything you had ever dealt with before. I wasn't exactly that surprised that he was a coward to enter the war, mainly in the sense that this was a war that many people had been opposed to, O'Brien specifically stated on page 38 that, "I was drafted to fight a war I hated... Young, yes, and politically naive, but even so the American War in Vietnam seemed to me wrong.". If you don't want to do something, like go to war, then, of course, you were cowardly. Do I agree on these grounds? Yes, and No. First off, this is possibly the choice between living as a coward for the rest of your life, or by joining your brothers as they get slaughtered in the jungle a whole hemisphere away from home. Both sides of which I have an equal opinion for. It may be cowardice to not join in a fight overseas, but at least you get to live out your life at home but be labeled a coward. I also think though that you shouldn't be forced to fight for a cause that you don't believe in. However, if you get drafted, then you do have a moral obligation to go and fight for America's beliefs. If you are drafted, you should think about the broader impact of what you not answering the draft call entails. When America enters a war it is always supposed to be for what is right. If you then don't answer that call you aid the enemy because they have a more dedicated military and citizen population all fighting for what they believe is right.

Shame has a major role within the lives of the soldiers, because they feel that killing people is shameful and something that no one should have to do, or watching a buddy die and feeling as though you could've stopped it. O'Brien especially feels shame after he killed his first Viet Cong soldier, "[Kiowa] told me that it was a good kill, that I was a soldier, and this was war, that I should shape up and stop staring... Sometimes I try to forgive myself and other times I don't." (O'Brien, 127-128). I would say that heroism and stupidity is both a result of the shame they feel. Heroism is shown in the sense that it gives the soldiers something more to fight for. Take the Alpha company after Kiowa died, "'Move it,' [Mitchell Sanders] said. 'Kiowa's waiting on us'"(O'Brien, 160). They had all felt shame that he had died in such a cruel way, having drowned in the village's latrine during a mortar strike. After that he is used as a rallying cry for the rest of the soldiers. However shame also caused stupidity, "The next morning [Rat Kiley] shot himself. He took off his boots and socks, laid out his medical kit, doped himself up then shot himself in the foot." (O'Brien, 212) Rat was so shamed by the war that he would do anything to get out of it, even shoot himself in the foot. It's sad the lengths someone would go to rid themselves of the burden of shame. It ends up being stupid what it will drive them too, it may not even be a conscious decision that pushes them off the edge though in Rat Kiley's case he fully made the decision. Shame can and should be used though as a rallying cry of sorts, because it gives you a reason more powerful than anything else to make the shame go away. In my mind the relationship that O'Brien is talking about, between shame and courage is that the shame in life helps you grow courage if you use, like in question 3, put it away and let it grow. These little acts of heroism that may even seem like stupidity at times, though but not stupidity in the sense of shooting yourself in the foot or injuring yourself in other ways, but it is these acts of heroism that will grow your courage.

After reading the chapter entitled "Speaking of Courage" and then getting sort of an analysis in "Notes", the effect is actually quite powerful. I felt as though what O'Brien had explained in "Notes" about some parts being fake and others real, couldn't take away from the empathy that I had developed with Norman. I think since some parts had to be fabricated, it actually made it more connectable mainly in the sense that you have a character in a town that takes you along and makes you feel what he is feeling through him reliving the memories. He had to keep thinking to himself because no one had let him just spill his guts, and it's just an emotion mix of loneliness and shame. The feeling of shame of "'The truth,' Norman Bowker would've said, 'is I let the guy go.'" (O'Brien, 147). My appreciation actually doesn't change for the story. The important parts are completely there and they are backed up by incredibly life-like storytelling, a town that doesn't feel much at home, and just being alone with the thoughts of the character as he relives one of his most shameful moments. With "Notes" after it, the message of just how lost Norman was feeling that late evening on July 4th as he drove around the lake becomes painfully clear, "[O'Brien] received a long, disjointed letter in which Bowker described the problem of finding a meaningful use for his life after the war." (O'Brien, 149). This reality check that Mr. O'Brien put into the first few paragraphs of "Notes" really hit home what soldiers that come home from the war filled with shame and confusion really put up with. For me "Speaking of Courage" was really sealed as being completely true in my mind when Mr. O'Brien said "'Speaking of Courage' was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Norman Bowker, who three years later hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central Iowa." (O'Brien, 149). I think Norman ending up committing suicide after all of his pain and suffering finally got to him, fit with how "Speaking of Courage" ended, with him deciding that,. "It was a pretty good show." (O'Brien 148), it was this easing of pain that he wanted so badly after witnessing his best friend and comrade drown while he just stood and essentially watched helplessly, that made him decide to hang himself. Overall I think that Mr. O'Brien really made me appreciate "Speaking of Courage" by making it believable with just the powerful simplicity of the complex feelings  Norman was experiencing. It was this simplicity that made it so easy and believable to be Norman, and feel what he was feeling. His narration of the reasoning behind how he got the idea also added to the authenticity because he tried to make it sound as though Norman was telling his story, perfectly relaying what he felt at every revolution around that lake.


O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried: A Work of Fiction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. Print.

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