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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