According to Merriam-Webster, brutality is the act of savage physical violence resulting in great cruelty. The definition of brutality parallels strongly with the definition of war. In the novel, The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien, the narrator’s reflection of the Vietnam war is examined through the lens of Tim O’Brien and various soldiers he encounters during his journey. The author explores the psychological effects war has on people through hardships experienced by these soldiers, and ultimately himself.
When soldiers go to war, there is no doubt they will be forced into witnessing horrific and tragic events, for one of the aims of Tim O’Brien’s novel is to illustrate the profound changes guerrilla warfare has upon the human spirit. Women and men who go to war often face difficult challenges that test their belief system and morality. In this passage of the novel, the narrator speaks about the emotional baggage soldiers carry with them throughout the war. To show this struggle the author writes, “They 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.”( O’Brian 20). O’Brien explains the motivation behind soldiers going to war, it is not heroism but rather the idea that if these men refuse to go, they will be seen as cowards. War has a profound effect on the emotional state of a soldier because as these men see death on a daily basis, they slowly become immune to its savagery.
The soldiers in the war would rather die in Vietnam than stay in their homeland and have to face the judgment of others for being a coward. War slowly destroys the human spirit by forcing soldiers to choose between death in combat or death of embarrassment, no in between. Bob Kiley, better known as Rat, is specifically mentioned in this part of the novel as a character who bleeds his emotions in writing letters. Tim O’Brien admires the vulnerability and expressioate in which Bob Kiley is able to project. To demonstrate the ferocious, complex, and barbaric truth about the war in Vietnam, O’brien writes “And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed”(O’Brian 64).
The calamities each soldier witnessed during their time in Vietnam reached a point of utter devastation that the men quite literally could not put what they had seen into words. When these men and women return from war, it is extremely difficult for them to comprehend what they witnessed in war because society is so drastically different than war. When soldiers return home they no longer see reality the same, and society chooses to shun or ignore the pain these soldiers endure each day back from war. In this passage, O’Brien is in the jungle of Vietnam when he spots a young fellow who is passing by, but this young man does not see O’Brian and does not have any weapons with him. Tim O’Brien examines the mindset the soldiers faced in combat by saying “I was terrified. There were no thoughts about killing. The grenade was to make him go away—just evaporate—and I leaned back and felt my mind go empty and then felt it fill up again.”(O’Brian 121).
The person O’Brien encounters is an innocent and harmless young man, but O’Brian’s anxiety leads him to believe the young man could cause harm to him. Clearly, the war has had a tremendous impact on the psychological state of the soldier, O’Brian, since he is willing to kill a young man who is no credible threat to O’Brian. O’Brien is unable to confront his fear and lets paranoia cloud his decision making. PTSD is an everlasting effect war has on the human mind and leads people to make incredibly irrational decisions, strictly out of fear. It is very common for post war soldiers to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from their time in battle. PTSD is an everlasting psychological condition that is onset most often through war and has an everlasting impact on the human spirit. A way of coping with post war trauma is seen through “I did not look on my work as therapy, and still don’t. Yet when I received Norman Bowker’s letter, it occurred to me that the act of writing had led me through a swirl of memories that might otherwise have ended in paralysis or worse.” (Notes 158).
O’Brien’s aversion to therapy is unique and very individualized. The most effective way of coping with O’Brien’s time in Vietnam is through a paper and pencil. O’Brien’s ability to communicate war experiences through literature has helped him avoid severe PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) and other issues that he might have gotten when returning home. The truth behind Bowker’s story brings him a lot of pain and sorrow in which he cannot just talk about it to anybody. ‘The truth,’ Norman Bowker would’ve said, ‘is I let the guy go.’ (O’Brian 154) reveals his guilt in which he has great difficulty communicating to others. Norman symbolizes cowardice in the novel, for not being brave enough to try to save his friend signifying that he chose his life over his friend’s. Even though he has seven war medals, it doesn’t make him feel proud or heroic due to the great deal of remorse he holds onto. The war specifically had an everlasting impact on Norman because during his time in Vietnam he lost part of his soul in which he will never be able to fully recover. 6).
War can be brutal, gruesome, and even bring out the worst in people, however, war can also teach immature men about life and the value of it. I used this quote, ‘You did a good thing today,’ [Kiowa] said. ‘That shaking hands crap, it isn’t decent. The guys’ll hassle you for a while—especially Jensen—but just keep saying no. Should’ve done it myself. Takes guts, I know that.’ to show the other aspect war brought to these men. (O’Brien 215). Previously I have talked about how war has had a negative effect on the human spirit but in this chapter, the narrator reflects on the time in Vietnam. Kiowa admits it takes courage and guts to admit you are not tough. War allowed these men to become brave, strong, and respectable when they returned home. Although war can have intense negative consequences, there are some life lessons that these men learned only through their time in Vietnam.
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