After the war, Norman Bowker returns to Iowa. On the Fourth of July, as he drives his father’s big Chevrolet around the lake, he realizes that he has nowhere to go. He reminisces about his high school girlfiend, Sally Kramer, who is now married. He thinks about his friend Max Arnold, who drowned in the lake. He thinks also of his father, whose greatest hope, that Norman would bring home medals from Vietnam, was satisfied. Norman won seven medals in Vietnam, including the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. He thinks about his father’s pride in those badges and then recalls how he almost won the Silver Star but blew his chance. He drives around the town again and again, flicks on the radio, orders a hamburger at the A&W, and imagines telling his father the story of the way he almost won the Silver Star, when the banks of the Song Tra Bong overflowed.
The night the platoon settled in a field along the river, a group of Vietnamese women ran out to discourage them, but Lieutenant Jimmy Cross shooed them away. When they set up camp, they noticed a sour, fishlike smell. Finally, someone concluded that they had set up camp in a sewage field. Meanwhile, the rain poured down, and the earth bubbled with the heat and the excess moisture. Suddenly, rounds of mortar fell on the camp, and the field seemed to boil and explode. When the third round hit, Kiowa began screaming. Bowker saw Kiowa sink into the muck and grabbed him by the boot to pull him out. Yet Kiowa was lost, so Bowker let him go in order to save himself from sinking deeper into the muck.
Bowker wants to relate this memory to someone, but he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. On his eleventh trip around the lake, he imagines telling his father the story and admitting that he did not act with the courage he hoped he might have. He imagines that his father might console him with the idea of the seven medals he
Kiowa’s death constitutes a climax in the series of stories. Because he is such a prominent character in the company’s narrative, his death fundamentally changes the relationships among the company’s individual members. Kiowa, a soft-spoken, peaceful Native American, serves as a foil for several of O’Brien’s characters, including Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker. His presence is strong but understated, and, by nature, he is a gentle and peaceful man. He discourages soldiers from excessive violence but also supports them through the difficult and inevitable decisions war forces them to make, especially, but not exclusively, when O’Brien kills a man outside My Khe. When Kiowa is killed suddenly and senselessly, all of the men are affected, specifically Norman Bowker, who worries that he has betrayed his friend.
The layers of narration in “Speaking of Courage” can be seen as a technique that the characters use to deal with survivor’s guilt. In the story, Tim O’Brien tells the story of Norman Bowker thinking about how to tell the story of Kiowa’s death. As readers, we are several steps removed from the death, both temporally, since the story of the death is told after the end of the war, and in terms of the narrative, since there are two separate characters between us and Kiowa’s death. As a result, the story is as much about how these characters deal with the story of Kiowa’s death as about Kiowa’s death itself. Norman Bowker, for example, thinks that he was as brave as he thought he could have been, but that even that much bravery was not enough to save his friend. Such commentary provides us insight not only into Kiowa’s death but also into Bowker’s emotions.
“Speaking of Courage” explores the way that telling stories simultaneously recalls the pain of the war experience and allows soldiers to work through that pain after the war has ended. O’Brien and Bowker illustrate how speaking or not speaking about war experience affects characters. O’Brien deals with his memories and his guilt by writing stories about his fellow soldiers. At the same time that these stories make the experience of the war present for O’Brien again, they also distance him from the horrors. He writes in the past tense, differentiating between his present self and the self that fought in the war. Bowker, on the other hand, is unable to use the act of telling to negotiate the trauma of war. He drives around silently, with no one to talk to. Ironically, because he cannot speak about his war experience with anyone, he cannot leave it behind him. While O’Brien uses dialogue and communication to analyze and come to terms with his experience, Bowker’s lack of an audience prevents him from arriving at a similar understanding.
Although we might expect that the atrocities of war would have rendered medals meaningless to Bowker, his return to his hometown reveals that the expectations of family and community members can determine what is meaningful as much as private experience can. As a result Bowker struggles with his father’s feeling that medals are a relevant measure of personal worth and his own understanding that the medals are meaningless in the face of war’s atrocities. O’Brien addresses this topic in “Spin” when he recalls Bowker rolling over in his bunk and wishing that his father would stop bothering him about earning medals. Because Bowker views the medals as meaningless, it is difficult for him to accept his father’s admiration, which is based on the number of medals Bowker has won rather than his unquantifiable experience in the war.
O’Brien uses the images of the sewage field and the lake to illustrate the characters’ inability to escape the effects of the Vietnam War. The sewage field is a vivid metaphor for an unpleasant, meaningless battle that none of the soldiers can escape. The sewage field’s stench heightens the sensation that there is nothing valorous or heroic about this war; rather, it is debased and unclean. Bowker thinks that if it wasn’t for the horrible smell he might have saved Kiowa and won the Silver Star. But just as Kiowa was unable to be saved from sinking into the field, Bowker cannot save himself from his repeated, almost obsessive thoughts about Kiowa and the Song Tra Bong. Likewise, his wading into the lake is a physical manifestation of his desire to return to that day in Vietnam and to change the course of events that ended in Kiowa’s death in the muck.