Like so many of his generation whose parents had fought in World War II, the narrator does not understand why war has been declared upon Vietnam. As a political science major, who is knowledgeable of such things, he sees
... no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law. The very facts were shrouded in uncertainty,..What really happened to the USS Maddox on that dark night in the Gulf of Tonkini?....Was it a civil war?....
Unlike the war of the generation before him, there is no clear enemy in Vietnam, and what is going on there is of no threat to the United States, so the narrator wonders why he should have to risk his life. He concludes that the only certainty is "moral confusion." For on one hand, he is a liberal and not bellicose; and he observes,
Stupidly, with a kind of smug removal that I can't begin to fathom, I assumed that the problems of killing and dying did not fall within my special province.
Yet, on the other hand, he is somewhat patriotic. So, when the narrator receives his draft notice, he is enraged; later, his rage turns to "smoldering self-pity," and then to numbness. His feelings "smolder"; they smolder into self-pity,and, then, to numbness which grows into fear.This fear makes him consider dodging the draft by fleeing to Canada. However, when within feet of Canada with old Earl, the lodge keeper who lets the young narrator stay with him, the narrator considers what his family will think of him, as well as how others in his community will view him, and he cannot will himself overboard to be exiled from them.
I would go to the war - I would kill and maybe die - because I was embarrassed not to go.
And so, he returns home declaring, "I was a coward. I went to war."