The question of why any given person survives the war—before, during, and after—preoccupies author Tim O’Brien, the narrator, and all the characters. The randomness of survival is inescapable, day or night, but the human mind inevitably seeks an explanation.
In the early days, before he becomes a soldier, the narrator doubts the reasons he hears that account for the war being fought at all. He does not intend to participate, but decides that he will serve alongside other men. His reason for two related, important movements—into the army and then to Vietnam—are motivated, he says, by his need to avoid “patriotic ridicule” and the “loss of love” of his family and others about whom he cares. He went
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.
During the war, one example that includes multiple perspectives on survival is seen through the relationships among Lee Strunk, Ted Lavender, and Jimmy Cross. The paradoxes of physical survival and emotional and psychological injury are well-contrasted. Strunk has the unenviable, risky task of entering a tunnel to see if it was clear. When he emerges unscathed, the others congratulated him on surviving, with “jokes about rising from the dead.” In the next few minutes, the situation turns around. Ted has struggled to overcome his anxiety but is not killed in combat; rather, he is shot as he steps back from the bushes he was using to urinate. There is no particular reason that one of them should live and the other should die that day. However, Jimmy Cross, as the supervising lieutenant when Lavender died, can not stop trying to determine the reason. He blames himself and the ongoing burden of guilt threatens his survival.