If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home

by Tim O’Brien

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Last Updated on December 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 999

Duty Versus Conviction

Throughout his memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone: Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, Tim O’Brien is torn between two convictions. On one hand, he believes that the war in Vietnam is unjust. On the other, he feels obliged to serve his country according the expectations of his community and society at large. In fact, O’Brien asserts that the majority of the soldiers serving in Vietnam hold similar ideas about the war’s lack of direction or purpose. Many were conscripted just as O’Brien had been, and some of the higher ranking officers concede that the goal of the war is at best unclear. Despite this general consensus, O’Brien’s fellow soldiers nonetheless lend their efforts to a morally ambiguous military operation. Indirectly, these men supported with their blood, sweat, and tears a war that they could not support ideologically.

In chapter 3, O’Brien describes the summer of 1968 in his Minnesota hometown, where he debates whether to comply with his draft summons. However, O’Brien sense all along that he will comply. The unquestioningly patriotic culture of O’Brien’s hometown creates an assumption that each of its citizens will fulfill his duty for God and country without fail. This expectation looms over O’Brien’s conscience, and he contemplates how his friends and neighbors will perceive him if he fails to meet it. Thus, his fear of disappointing those around him supersedes his moral objections to the war, leading to his decision to report for basic training as directed.

O’Brien’s compliance does not eliminate his inner struggle to reconcile his convictions with his actions. Throughout his time in Vietnam, O’Brien’s doubt about whether he made the right decision creeps in. He realizes that one cannot simply discard one’s convictions in order to appease societal pressures. Rather, one who chooses duty over conviction is forced to accept his decision as self-serving, perhaps even cowardly. Despite this, O’Brien also asserts that the individual must do what he has to in order to survive—both in combat and at home under the guise of public scrutiny. While choosing duty over moral courage is a selfish act, it is arguably a necessary evil.

The Contradictory Nature of War

During his descriptions of an average day during the war, O’Brien highlights both the omnipresent danger and the numbing monotony that coexist in combat zones. He juxtaposes scenes of horror and violence with those of dull routine. He describes righteous men of character and mindless agents of the state. The destruction that rends the landscape is juxtaposed with unbridled natural beauty. As the memoir comes to a close, O’Brien’s depiction of war is untidy and riddled with contradictions. This complexity is at the core of O’Brien’s war writing—in this memoir and in subsequent works as well.

The first chapter of the book contrasts O’Brien’s nonchalance about the heavy gunfire of a particular day with the alarm of his fellow soldier, Barney. When Barney expresses incredulity at the noticeable increase of gunfire from the previous day, O’Brien responds by saying, “And the day before that, and the day before that.” This exchange of dialogue illustrates the divergent experiences of fellow soldiers, who can perceive the same events differently. The scene also illustrates the paradox that the war can at once intensify and remain predictable.

In chapter eighteen, this theme recurs when O’Brien describes a lagoon. O’Brien depicts an idyllic, peaceful coalition between his company and the village surrounding the body of water. The company and the village serve one another in a symbiotic exchange of resources and security. The edenic beauty of the lagoon and the lush foliage encircling it stand in sharp contrast to the expectation that war is a hellish nightmare, rife with constant danger. Another contradiction appears in the village itself, which is not a paragon of pastoral beauty but rather a “refugee camp” that is “not romantic,” as O’Brien puts it. This contrast between unspoiled nature and ruined civilization is yet another contradictory fact of war.

The Nuances of Courage

O’Brien challenges common definitions of what courage looks like in a combat zone. While many soldiers and civilians believe that true heroes exhibit unwavering confidence in the face of overwhelming fear, O’Brien posits that true courage requires a rare set of attributes.

In chapter sixteen, titled “Wise Endurance,” O’Brien considers various perceptions of bravery in war. This meditation is prompted by a remark of Captain Johansen, who says that he wishes to be brave above all else. O’Brien says that the soldiers who “charge” at the enemy like a “light brigade with only one man” are immortalized as heroes whether their actions lead to the death of the enemy or their own. He explains that while such a charge may appear courageous, it is actually the product of brutish pride. He suggests that true courage requires three conditions: wisdom to know that one’s actions are morally right, a willingness to face consequences good or bad, and the ability to acknowledge one’s fears. O’Brien suggests that most men are either too stupid or too worried about what others think to exhibit true courage. The only courageous man O’Brien meets during his time in Vietnam is Johansen, whose desire to be brave leads him to approach his goal with wisdom and care.

At the end of the chapter, O’Brien capitulates somewhat, saying that men can also exhibit a kind of half-courage in the simplest of ways. O’Brien cites the often silent promise men pledge to themselves that they will try to be more courageous the next time they are placed in a life-threatening situation. Thus O’Brien suggests that courage is a spectrum, and that while wise endurance is its exemplary form, anyone might demonstrate at least one fleeting moment of bravery in his lifetime.

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