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“The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien draws a fine line between courage and cowardice although the difference is small. Courage is the ability to confront fear; in the book, it relates to many things and is described as a skill that must be learned. It is viewed that courage comes with fear as many actions of people are motivated by shame rather than courage. Cowardice simply denotes the lack of bravery in the book.

In his book, O’Brien writes, “Men killed, and died because they were embarrassed not to’’ (21). This text shows that men in the Vietnam War did not go to fight just because they were brave; they did it because they were afraid to be called cowards and to be humiliated in front of their peers. The text suggests that many soldiers are, indeed, cowards and would not stand up to what they wanted if it makes them appear to be cowards.

Assessing O’Brien’s character, we will find both courage and cowardice in his journey. First, we can see that O’Brien portrays courage; if his draft notices that he does not want to go to the war, it would not be right. “.. I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything. It could not happen. I was above it” (41). Taking off to Canada showed that he had self-courage as he took a stand against the war and did what he could to avoid it especially when everyone else did the opposite.

Cowardice as portrayed by O’Brien himself was evident when he considered entering the war “... and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived but not a happy conclusion. I was a coward, I went to the war” (61). We also see that the main reason that kept him from running from the war was the fear that people in his hometown would call him a coward.

The fact that the soldiers did not march into war not because of their bravery but simply because they did not want to be embarrassed in front of their peers can be illustrated by Curt Lemon’s character. This notion is depicted where he had the dentist pull out a perfectly good tooth in order to prove that he was not afraid.  

O’Brien did show that Lemon’s behavior could be explained by the shame rather than bravery. It was known that Lemon was terrified of dentists because of childhood fears; he fainted even before the army dentist examined him. He could not live with such embarrassment among his peers; he further went to fake a toothache and had the tooth removed.

Norman Bowker is introduced as a courageous soldier who is experienced and who fought ‘bravely’ against his enemies. His courage in combat had earned him a number of medals and praise from his father (155). However, he feels that he was not brave enough to save Kiowa from his gruesome death when he drowned in a sewer. The book depicts Norman having a hard time when dealing with Kiowa’s death simply because he kept reminding himself that he could not help Kiowa because of the odor (184). This illustrates that the difference between courage and cowardice is very small like the odor in this case.

Unable to get over the guilt of not being able to save his friend, Bowker is haunted by his own demons and is unable to live with himself. As defined, courage is being able to face fear; bowman depicts cowardice when he is not able to confront what happened in the field when Kiowa died and hangs himself for being unable to find meaning in his life anymore (157).

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