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One of the central themes of all of the excellent stories that are drawn together in The Things The Carried is the way that it is so hard to explain to somebody who has not experienced war the realities that soldiers faced on a day by day basis. In this short story, Norman Bowker attempts to explain to his father why he was not awarded the Silver Star because of an act of cowardice, and as a result, O'Brien analyses the concept of courage very carefully. Bowker attempts to talk about how he failed to rescue Kiowa from the swamp in which he was sinking but how the smell overwhelmed him and he let him go and sink into the swamp. Note what the text tells us next:
He wished he could've explained some of this. How he had been braver than he ever thought possible, but who he had not been so brave as he wanted to be. The distinction was important.
The reality of war is that it places men in extraordinary situations which often require far more bravery than is humanly possible to overcome. Even though Bowker did show so much bravery, because he did not show enough as the situation necessitated, this bravery was not recognised and he did not receive the medal as a result. The situation therfore severely questions the way in which we think about courage and the value of medals, that seem to recognise the courage of only a few, when the very act of participating in a war requires so much more courage than the majority of people have.
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