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December 17, 2003

Tim O’Brien: Courage and Cowardice

Tim O’Brien, 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 O’Brien’s 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 O’Brien, 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, O’Brien 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
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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



One of the critical elements of O’Brien’s war literature involves the

conflict between going to war, and dodging the draft. Two of O’Brien’s

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… , O’Brien 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

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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


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
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eventually go to Vietnam. “I simply couldn’t 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 one’s own self is the

act of cowardice. This theme will be repeated again in the other novels, as

O’Brien 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 O’Brien’s position.

Indeed, O’Brien was being drafted as a middle-class, young white man. He

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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 O’Brien’s 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).

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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


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 Berlin’s “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 Paul’s 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 one’s 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
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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.


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 O’Brien character receives his draft notice in June, and

attempts to continue living life as he normally would through the rest of

the summer. He mentions working in a meatpacking factory, in which he

removes blood-clots from pigs before they are butchered to be packed.

There seems to be a good deal of metaphor in the job description, as the

character uses a gun to bath himself in “a lukewarm blood-shower” (The

Things They Carried 43). The reader is to understand that the character

here is undergoing a baptism into the “religion” of war.

The character then, as his report-date approaches, decides to drive

north to Canada. As he reaches the boarder, he stops at a small lodge

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where he meets the owner, Elroy Berdahl, who he describes as “eighty-on

years old skinny and shrunken and mostly bald” (Things 48). Through the

course of the next six days, the O’Brien character spends a good deal of

time with Berdahl. Together, they play board games, hike, eat meals, and

even chop wood.

The days leading up to the last full day at the lodge seem to linger

in an entropic stasis, with O’Brien attempting to forget his quandar y while

remaining just a few miles from the border of Canada. On the sixth day,

O’Brien and the old man go fishing on the Rainy River, and end up

crossing the Canadian border. O’Brien says, “Twenty yards. I could’ve

done it. I could’ve jumped and started swimming for my life” (Things 56).

O’Brien describes the next few minutes as the character cries and reviews

portion of his life. Finally, he “tried to will [him]self overboard” (Things

59), to no avail. Resigning himself to his fate, he realizes that he would

simply be too embarrassed to have avoided the draft. After heading back

to the lodge, he packs his things and leaves the next day. Here, he uses an

almost identical resolution to the issue as he did in If I Die… , as he ends

the chapter with “I was a coward. I went to war” (Things 61).

The river imager y is interesting, as there seems to be a number of

connections to the River Styx, from Greek mythology. Berdahl seems to

share with Charon (the ferryman) the common element of silent

meditation. Numerous times, Berdahl’s taciturn nature is mentioned, with

him saying ver y few words on the river itself. Furthermore, the Canadian
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beach seems to embody the underworld/afterlife of mythology. Here,

O’Brien would become completely disconnected with his former life, in

effect, beginning a new existence for the rest of his days – seemingly

doomed to remain there forever.

So what of the Styx metaphor, and O’Brien’s detailed description of

his near desertion? This account is similar to that found in If I Die… , but

seems more emotional and less physiological. Nonetheless, the conclusion

is the same: O’Brien believes himself a coward for not having the strength

to cross over into a new life. The important aspect to divine from this

passage lies in the fact that the author wishes to convey the emotional

confusion of the would-be soldiers at this age. Clearly, the character

O’Brien is still a young man, unsure of his purpose or way in life. The

pairing of the character with the temporary moral hero, Berdahl, creates

the important contrast of ages to communicate that Tim has no personal

experience to draw on for this decision; he is forced only to accept the

action forced upon him unless he would choose to shun his former life for

a completely new one. At least, it would seem, the draft gives a clear and

understandable ending-date. O’Brien is to serve a specific amount of time

in the service, after which he will return home to his “normal life.” Or, he

will die. The consequences of going to Vietnam are few and apparent. The

decision to dodge into Canada is less concrete, though. There is no

guarantee that O’Brien will ever have the opportunity to return home.
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Nonetheless, there is no clear resolution on how courageous it is to

follow the policy of the draft. O’Brien seems to maintain through two

novels that following draft policy is the cowardly thing to do.

Conventional wisdom would state otherwise.

Acts of Cow ardice

Although the characters of Tim O’Brien’s novels have a difficult

time finding their way to the battlefield in the first place, it is not always

a guarantee that they will act in a manner normally seen as fitting of a

solider. There are numerous instances throughout the three novels in

which the main characters, as well as supporting characters, can be found

shying away from the duties inherent with their job.

In If I Die… , one notable scene of rather ambiguously cowardly

actions comes relatively early in the main character ’s tour in the field.

While sitting in a paddy, the team is ambushed by Viet Cong soldiers. The

narrator ’s helmet is hit with a makeshift grenade, which explodes nearby

without injuring him. Another soldier, “Clauson, a big fellow, took the

force of the grenade” (If I Die 117). The ambiguity here is in the deciding

of whether or not it would have been more foolish to assist his comrade,

or simply remain in his position. The text states that there seems to be a

melee of bullets, which, if true, likely means that it was safer for the

narrator to remain hidden as much as possible. Even so, he states, “The

battalion commander was on the radio, asking where my captain was,

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wanting to talk to him, wanting me to pop smoke to mark our position,

wanting me to call the other platoons” (If I Die 117). The reader would be

led to believe that the narrator should, indeed, be acting in some manner.

He states, however, “I couldn’t move. I kept hollering, begging for an end

to it” (If I Die 117).

Strangely, nearby passages in If I Die… do not include mention of

these types of panic moment. Indeed, there are a number in this same

chapter in which the character seems nonchalant about the entire

experience of coming under fire. The reader then, is unsure. Is one to

believe that the character cannot find any courage within him to act in

moments of desperation? Or is it more simply that there are some

moments in which it is possible, while at others it is not? Or, perhaps a

third possibility: the narrator is unreliable, and the reader cannot trust him

to clearly and truthfully tell the events as they occur. Likely, it is all

three. The reader must assume that again, the age and maturity of these

soldiers is a critical element of their ability to be called to action.

Furthermore, the recounting of the narrative is indeed an imprecise one;

both the chaotic nature of war and the emotional confusion of the narrator

should be taken into account.

Going After Cacciato may contain one of the most stereotypically

“cowardly” moments of the three novels, as Paul Berlin loses control of

his bowels during the attempt to capture Cacciato. The event occurs as the

narrative switches from Berlin’s imaginar y account of tracking Cacciato to

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an apartment in Paris, to the “actual” event of tracking him to a hilltop.

As the group moves in to finally capture Cacciato, Berlin loses control of

himself, firing his rifle wildly into the air. Seemingly disconnected from

his own actions, he soon loses control of his bowels:

“Then there was a floating feeling, and a swelling his stomach, then

a wet release feeling. He tried to stop it. He squeezed his thighs

together and tightened his belly, but it came anyway. He sat back”

(Going After Cacciato 331).

Berlin is comforted by “Doc,” though the humiliation seems present

and painful. The strangeness of the situation is also present for the reader,

who is left wondering why, exactly, Berlin has failed to act in a manner

that would be conducive to the capture they are attempting. Although

Berlin attempts to explain, saying “I was tense. I didn’t mean it,”

(Cacciato 332) and other such statements, clearly there are deeper issues

than the stress level of the situation.

This is an especially difficult section for any reader to dissect, in

consideration of the fact that Paul Berlin is an unreliable narrator, based

on the assumption that a good deal of the novel takes place solely within

his own imagination. The question remains, nonetheless, of what

specifically O’Brien is attempting to convey in this scene. It would be

logical to assume that, if nothing else, the timing of the loss of control at

the point of change from imaginary narrative to “real events,” is meant to

convey some type of expunging of emotions from Paul Berlin. Clearly, the
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preceding narrative involving the chase of Cacciato to Paris is one

emotionally charged with numerous metaphorical symbols concerning

Paul’s time in Vietnam. Thus, it is logical to assume that the unintended

bowel movement may actually be the physical “illness” of this unhealthy

imaginar y quest from Paul’s body.

What does this say of courage? Undoubtedly, of all the unintended

bodily functions one could procure in a time of stress, the movement of

bowels or the loss of control over urination is the most embarrassing. It

would also stand to reason that there are few greater embarrassments for a

soldier than to have lost so much control over one’s self that a loss of

bowel control is the consequence. It is, however, important to note that

the bowel movement was completely unintended. Indeed, the reader is led

to believe that it is more a function of the physiology of Paul’s body than

it is something that he can stop. A natural force, if you will. With that in

mind, the label of having less than admirable courage is truly undeserved.

Paul was a victim of his own physical elements.

Nonetheless, Paul is treated less than heroically. “’Dumb,’ Oscar

said. ‘Stupidest thing I ever seen’” (Cacciato 332). Stink merely giggles

repeatedly through the scene as Paul recovers. The reader should again

revisit the issue of age and maturity, as tedious as it may seem. O’Brien

has, through Cacciato , shown that Paul’s experiences are tainted by both

age and relative immaturity. The childish fantasy, replete with Alice in

Wonderland imager y, and a lack of understanding of world politics (among

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other things), demonstrate Paul’s lack of maturity, or his desire to

immerse himself in a mental landscape devoid of maturity. Paul’s behavior

on watch, while not necessarily life-threatening (considering the remote

location), also shows a lack of responsibility and understanding for the

requirement of regimented behavior. Overall, the reader is to understand

that Paul is little more than a child himself, forced to fight in a war that

he does not understand, and can only barely comprehend. It would seem,

though, that although Paul is treated with both pity and perhaps some ill

will, he is, again, merely a victim of circumstance. The loss of bowel

control should not be levied against him as a mark upon his courage.

Rather, it should be understood that he has not had the chance to prove his

courage without the emotional onslaught the night at the Observation

Tower provided.

Moments of panic are not limited only to the main characters.

Philip, a character in If I Die… , reacts to the order to “police up one of

his friends” (If I Die 124) by digging “a foxhole four feet into the clay.

He sat in it and sobbed” (If I Die 124). He is consoled by others in the

group after darkness falls, and is later told by the captain, in a benevolent

manner, that he will have him returned to the rear, where he will be

engaged in more mundane jobs. The reader here may question just how

inappropriate Philip’s response is to the death of his friend. Obviously,

man y others in the war lost close friends, but few were coddled and

allowed special circumstances due to those reasons. In O’Brien’s novels,

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the main characters actually seem to be unrealistically disconnected with

the rest of the platoon members. After all, although there may have been

quirks to their relationships (i.e. - never learning each other ’s last names),

there are, indeed, special bonds which are created among the members of a

military group. O’Brien’s “protagonists,” however, seem to rarely be

emotionally invested in the other members of the group. A number of

times throughout the novels (especially in the instance of Kiowa’s death),

the main character seems touched, but certainly not moved to an overt

emotional response.

So what then of Philip and his reaction to the death of the friend? It

is unclear just how much of an emotional response any soldier would be

“allowed” by his compatriots in the circumstances, to grieve. Again, death

is an issue visited almost daily in war, and as such, one must be prepared

to continue on without being too effected by grief. But, grief is a human

response that is (like Paul Berlin’s bowel movements), uncontrollable.

One cannot dismiss the emotions connected with the response, try as one

may. Thus, it would seem that Philip’s response is natural and acceptable,

but there remains a disparity in Philip’s reaction to his friend’s death, and

the reactions others procure in such moments. Even though we can assume

that O’Brien’s unreliable narrators did not, at times, accurately convey the

reactions of other soldiers to death, for the sake of this argument, it is

logical to only consider the material presented. Therefore, the

inconsistency between Philip’s response to his friend’s death, and the

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responses of other soldiers to the deaths of their friends (when

applicable), does seem to mark on Philip a sign of uncourageous behavior.

For, if the reader is to assume the guise of a stereotypical “American

response” to such a situation, the reader would likely argue that Philip

should “soldier on” and not be given any special treatment for his grief.

Courage and Bravery

So then, what defines courage and braver y – those elements which

stand as the antithesis to cowardice? As with many words, these are

subjective in the meaning given by each person who speaks them. Tim

O’Brien chooses to define courage in a number of ways. Many times, his

definition is cryptic, enigmatic, or simply subtle. The chapters “Courage

is a Kind of Preserving” in If I Die in a Combat Zone and “Speaking of

Courage,” from The Things They Carried both deal with courage only in a

visceral and mysterious way. It is relatively easier, though, to attempt to

define O’Brien’s courage through the investigation of the less-than-brave

acts discussed here.

When taken as a whole, the primary characters who are seen in the

novels cannot truly be described as cowards. Although they certainly have

numerous moments in which they defy the traditional notion of what it

means to be brave and courageous, Tim O’Brien seems to be reiterating

over-and-over that the characters flawed, immature, and unprepared for

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the circumstances of war. Even those like Jimmy Cross, who is idolized by

the O’Brien character, has moments of failure and insecurity.

The reader should seek to understand within O’Brien’s works, war

itself often creates and perpetuates the chaos which the characters have

difficulty acclimatizing to. While the Vietcong were a ready and

sometimes less-than-apparent enemy, O’Brien also seeks to paint a

portrait of them as humans who are also fighting a war that is morally

ambiguous. In the face of such tr ying circumstances, the characters,

nonetheless, find a way to remain steadfast to some basic morality. The

moments of cowardice are only seen as such when taken out of the context

of war.

Despite O’Brien’s continued insistence that he and his characters

are guilty of cowardly behavior, it would seem that they are instead guilty

of simple self-depricating mindsets. The American public seems to have

realized that the Vietnam war was a creation of two political systems, and

not of the soldiers involved.

In closing, the reader is to comprehend upon reading the novels,

that courage is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. Each person must

come to understand the definition of courage for themselves.

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Works Cited

Edwards, Bob. “Profile: African-American man who fled the US four

decades agoafter being convicted of draft dodging wants to come

back.” Morning Edition (NPR) 5 Jan. 2000. EBSCOHost . University

of Arkansas, Little Rock.

Holdworth, Nick. “Youth Taught Draft Dodges.” The Times Higher

Education Supplement Issue 1290, Pg.13: 25 July 1997. LexisNexis .

University of Arkansas, Little Rock.

O’Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato . New York: Broadway, 1978.

O’Brien, Tim. If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home .

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried . Boston: Houghton, 1990. New

York: Broadway, 1975.