Saturday, June 9, 2007

What exactly is courage?

I just finished "On the Rainy River" from The Things They Carried, and I just thought it was so interesting, because it wasn't a story from the war itself, but a story about before he went to war. What especially intrigues me is that he starts off by saying basically that there is a story he never told because he was ashamed by his lack of courage. Of course, I was expecting something about a cowardly act during wartime, not saving someone, saving your own skin, something like that. But it's not.

The story is about how he tries to feebly run away to Canada after his draft. He struggles with this decision, whether or not he should go to war or run:

During that long summer I'd been over and over the various arguments, all the pros and cons, and it was no longer a question that could be decided by an act of pure reason. Intellect had come up against emotion. My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame. Hot, stupid shame. I did not want people to think badly of me. Not my parents, not my brother and sister, not even the folks down at the Gobbler Cafe. I was ashamed to be there at the Tip Top Lodge. I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing.
--[pg. 51-52, The Things They Carried]

So interesting, because we normally think of "running" as the cowardly thing to do, but here, he identifies that to his conscience, he knows that running would be the brave thing. To force yourself into exile, leave behind your loved ones, your country for good, because you do not believe in the war, cannot kill. And yet he can't do it. This turns the whole notion on its head in a way - we all know that going to war isn't a fun thing, that many would run "cowardly" away from it. But why is it cowardly? Is it just because of fear of death? Many of us are also just wired to feel that killing is wrong. So does that make a person cowardly, or brave for standing up for what his conscience tells him?

In the end, he can't take the plunge. He can't make it over the border to Canada. And why? Because he's embarrassed. "I couldn't make myself be brave," he says (pg.59), "It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was."

We think of soldiers as heroes, and yes, they are, I'm not denying that. They're doing their patriotic duty, and they are brave in a way I could never be. But for some people, who don't believe in killing, who can't justify killing for a cause they don't believe in, that's not heroism, is it? I love that O'Brien gives us this side of the argument, against what we generally think of.

I love how he ends this:

The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prarie, and then to Vietnam, where I was a soldier, and then home again. I survived, but it's not a happy ending. I was a coward. I went to the war.
--[pg. 61, The Things They Carried]

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