Shame and guilt are constant and often inextricable themes in The Things They Carried. Soldiers felt obligated to go to war for fear of embarrassing themselves, their families, and their towns if they fled. This embarrassment is bolstered by the guilt of not being "masculine" enough—not being brave, heroic, and patriotic enough. O'Brien reflects on how he thought he had a secret reserve of bravery and heroism stored away, waiting for the moment when he would be called to war—if that day ever came—in the story "On The Rainy River," and how in reality no such reserve existed.
The feelings of shame and guilt follow the soldiers into the war as well, and make them do irrational and crazy things. In "The Dentist," Curt Lemon faints when an army dentist treats him, much to his own shame. To prove to the men in his Company, as well as to himself, that he's man enough and brave enough to see the dentist (and, by extension, fight in the war) he goes to the dentist's tent in the middle of the night and demands that he pull out some of Lemon's perfectly healthy teeth. Survivor's guilt haunts many of O'Brien's friends, as well as O'Brien himself. Norman Bowker can't shake the shame of not winning The Silver Star of Valor because he thinks that he would have won it if he had not failed to save Kiowa's in "Speaking of Courage." Shame and guilt follow Bowker with such intensity that he eventually hangs himself.
In "In the Field," it's revealed that O'Brien is shaken by a similar shame and guilt over Kiowa, believing that he's the one that was actually responsible for Kiowa's death. Meanwhile, the other soldiers in the company blame Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in "In the Field" for stationing them in such a vulnerable position. Even Cross wavers between blaming himself (he first wants to write a letter to Kiowa's father commending how great of a soldier his son was) and blaming the cruelty of war (resolving not to write the letter). The war created impossible situations where death was inevitable, but that didn't stop those who survived from blaming themselves for the deaths of their friends—maybe if they'd just been a little braver, a little faster, a little smarter, they could have done something to save their comrade, and so they can't ever escape the guilt.
The solders even feel guilt about the deaths of the enemy. In "The Man I Killed" O'Brien throws a grenade into the path of an anonymous young man, killing him, and then tries to "un-kill" him by creating a history and future for the man—O'Brien, after seeing his own friends die, can't help but understand that the man he killed is just that, a man, just like O'Brien himself. Every story in The Things They Carried is riddled with feelings of shame and guilt. It is a feeling that no soldier in the collection, and as O'Brien insinuates, no soldier in Vietnam, was able to escape.
Shame and Guilt ThemeTracker
Shame and Guilt Quotes in The Things They Carried
For the most part they carried themselves with poise, a kind of dignity. Now and then, however, there were times of panic, when they squealed or wanted to squeal but couldn't, when they twitched and made moaning sounds and covered their heads and said Dear Jesus and flopped around on the earth and fired their weapons blindly and cringed and sobbed and begged for the noise to stop and went wild and made stupid promises to themselves and to God and to their mothers and fathers, hoping not to die. In different ways, it happened to all of them.
Lavender was dead. You couldn't burn the blame.
For a few moments he considered asking her to his room, but instead he laughed and told her how back in college he'd almost done something very brave. It was after seeing Bonnie and Clyde, he said, and on this same spot he'd almost picked her up and carried her to his room and tied her to the bed and put his hand on her knee and just held it there all night long. It came close, he told her—he'd almost done it. Martha shut her eyes. She crossed her arms at her chest, as if suddenly cold, rocking slightly, then after a time she looked at him and said she was glad he hadn't tried it. She didn't understand how men could do those things. What things? he asked, and Martha said, The things men do. Then he nodded. It began to form. Oh, he said, those things.
The bad stuff never stops happening: it lives in its own dimension, replaying itself over and over.
That's what stories are for. Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can't remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.
I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. I couldn't endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule. Even in my imagination, the shore just twenty yards away, I couldn't make myself be brave. It had nothing to do with morality. Embarrassment, that's all it was. And right then I submitted. I would go to the war—I would kill and maybe die—because I was embarrassed not to.
The day was cloudy. I passed through towns with familiar names, through the pine forests and down to the prairie, 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.
In the presence of his father and uncles, he pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty, which was also a privilege, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. Beyond anything else, he was afraid of disgracing himself, and therefore his family and village. But all he could do, he thought, was wait and pray and try not to grow up too fast.
I did not hate the young man; I did not see him as the enemy; I did not ponder issues of morality or politics or military duty. I crouched and kept my head low. I tried to swallow whatever was rising from my stomach, which tasted like lemonade, something fruity and sour. I was terrified. There were not thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my head go empty and then felt it fill up again. I had already thrown the grenade before telling myself to throw it.
Courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave. In certain situations you could do incredible things, you could advance toward enemy fire, but in other situations, which were not nearly so bad, you had trouble keeping your eyes open. Sometimes, like that night in the shit field, the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid.
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.
Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night. He did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.