In The Things They Carried, O'Brien often focuses on how the men in his stories, even if they volunteered to fight, joined the army because of the unspoken pressure to fulfill their obligations as citizens and soldiers. These social obligations range from that of wider society (government, city/town) and narrows to the nuclear (family, friends, personal reflection). After being drafted in "On the Rainy River," Tim O'Brien runs from his hometown and ends up spending six days with a reticent old stranger, Elroy Berdahl, who takes O'Brien fishing so close to the Canadian border that he could have jumped out of the boat and escaped into Canada.
O'Brien returns home, though, because he cannot bear to think of the town grumbling about his cowardice for not fulfilling his duty, nor can he handle the thought of his family believing him to be a coward. He admits that he goes to the war to avoid the embarrassment that would have resulted from thwarting this legal and social obligation. Similarly, Lieutenant Jimmy Cross in "In The Field" never wanted to be a commander, and only joined the reserves because his friends at college were doing it. Ultimately, O'Brien depicts how his characters did what was expected of them as men and as citizens, but how in reality they are all still so young, are still boys—just kids at war.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this theme of social obligation occurs in "Speaking of Courage," which tells the story of Norman Bowker after the war. Like the other soldiers, Bowker joined the war out of feelings of an obligation to society, and then, once in the war, he felt the pressure from popular culture (such as. the heroism on display in movies and TV) to impress his father and his town with medals and honors. And he succeeded, receiving seven medals, nearly every medal other than the highest, the Silver Star for Valor—though the constant emphasis is that he could easily have been awarded that too. When he returns home, though, there is little fanfare, and Bowker becomes haunted by the one medal (the Silver Star) that he failed to receive. In addition, he finds that in accepting the social obligation to fight in the war he has been so changed that he is incapable of meeting the social obligations of being a citizen: holding down a job, maintaining relationships, etc. The war mandated patriotic obligation, an obligation to make one's family proud, but by the time the soldiers returned home, many discovered they could no longer operate within the norms of the society they had been charged to protect.
Social Obligation ThemeTracker
Social Obligation Quotes in The Things They Carried
They marched for the sake of the march. They plodded along slowly, dumbly, leaning forward against the heat, unthinking, all blood and bone, simple grunts, soldiering with their legs, toiling up the hills and down into the paddies and across the river and up again and down, just humping, one step and then the next and then another, but no volition, no will, because it was automatic, it was anatomy, and the war was entirely a matter of posture and carriage, the hump was everything, a kind of inertia, a kind of emptiness, a dullness of desire and intellect and conscience and hope and human sensibility. Their principles were in their feet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He said he'd done his best. He'd tried to be a decent medic. Win some and lose some, he said, but he'd tried hard. Briefly then, rambling a little, he talked about a few of the guys who were gone now, Curt Lemon and Kiowa and Ted Lavender, and how crazy it was that people who were so incredibly alive could get so incredibly dead.