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 from the first story, “The Things They Carried,” is part of a longer passage about the emotional baggage of men at risk of dying. O’Brien contends that barely restrained cowardice is a common secret among soldiers. He debunks the notion that men go to war to be heroes. Instead, he says, they go because they are forced to and because refusal equals cowardice. This detached generalization foreshadows several later references to courage and juxtapositions of courage and cowardice. In “On The Rainy River,” O’Brien explains that the only thing that kept him from listening to his own convictions and running away from the war and across the border to Canada was the notion that the people in his hometown would think him a coward. Later, O’Brien kills a man himself and is forced to negotiate his guilt with his fellow soldiers’ rationalization that killing was the right thing to do. By alluding to this killing early, and indicating that men do unspeakable things partly because of impulse but mostly because of peer pressure, O’Brien suggests that the greatest fear of all soldiers is not death or killing but simple embarrassment. By pinning the unnecessary deaths of his friends, especially Kiowa, on these false notions of obligation, O’Brien suggests that the greatest tragedy of the Vietnam War is not its violence but its ability to inspire compliance.
He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay with one leg bent beneath him, his jaw in his throat, his face neither expressive nor inexpressive. One eye was shut. The other was a star-shaped hole.
This quotation, from “The Man I Killed,” describes the corpse of a young Vietnamese soldier whom O’Brien killed with a grenade. In this story, the narration is from a third-person perspective, and is largely a series of unconnected observations and fantasies about the young, dead soldier. This particular passage is an example of the concrete description O’Brien uses to come to terms with his killing of the boy. He is blunt in these moments, perhaps because he thinks matter-of-factness is the only way to negotiate committing the unthinkable. But the observation that the man is dainty and the idea that his face might hold an expression speak to the humanity of both the dead young man and that of his killer-turned-observer. O’Brien’s description of the star-shaped hole in the boy’s eye is both a means of detaching himself and an idea that in death a body becomes mystical and beautiful. These particular words become a refrain for O’Brien—they are repeated several times in reference to this killing, to reinforce the notion that the memory of the young man’s body is one still fresh in O’Brien’s mind.
By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.
This passage comes from “Notes,” a story about O’Brien’s efforts to allay Norman Bowker’s guilt about Kiowa’s death and his feelings of aimlessness after the war by telling a story. O’Brien reflects on his own storytelling after Bowker sends him a letter asking for a story because he, Bowker, wants to explain his feelings of frustration and disillusionment but doesn’t know what to say. The letter inspires O’Brien to consider his own storytelling as a means for coping with his traumatic experiences. This particular passage is one of several that support O’Brien’s contention that in storytelling, objective truth is not as important as the feeling that a story gives. Later, in “Good Form,” O’Brien says that the stories he tells may be entirely made up and forces us to decide whether his characters and contentions are just as powerful and valid if the facts behind them are simply made up. All of this commentary serves to prove that sometimes, in storytelling, factual truth is not as important as emotional truth.
I’d come to this war a quiet, thoughtful sort of person, a college grad, Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude, all the credentials, but after seven months in the bush I realized that those high, civilized trappings had somehow been crushed under the weight of the simple daily realities. I’d turned mean inside.
When, in “The Ghost Soldiers,” O’Brien tries to exact revenge on Bobby Jorgensen for his failure to treat him competently, he concedes that he is acting irrationally. Though it is difficult for O’Brien to admit, after a certain amount of time in Vietnam he realizes that he is capable of evil. The only way for him to deal with hurt is to hurt back. The terms O’Brien uses juxtapose his previous life—one of intellectualism and striving for success through studying—with his life in the jungle, where accolades like Phi Beta Kappa have no relevance. The foreign, academic terms “Phi Beta Kappa” and “summa cum laude” contrast starkly with the simple, blunt descriptions of life in the “bush,” just as the civility of his college years contrasts starkly with his newfound meanness.
[S]ometimes I can even see Timmy skating with Linda under the yellow floodlights. I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.
In the closing story, “The Lives of the Dead,” O’Brien broadens the scope of his work by juxtaposing his first encounter with death as a soldier with his first-ever experience with death when, at age nine, his friend Linda succumbed to a brain tumor. In this particular passage, O’Brien explains how memory and storytelling are comforts for times of mourning and how they have equipped him to deal with the painful past. In this extended metaphor, he considers how his need to tell stories evolved through daydreams of Linda. He is optimistic that the power of memory in storytelling gives immortality to both the one who has died—in this case Linda, making her vibrant and able to skate with Timmy in a warmly lit dream—and the one who tells the story—in this case O’Brien, enabling O’Brien to cope with his traumatic past.