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.