illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 15 Summary

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The fifteenth story in The Things They Carried is “Speaking of Courage.” Norman Bowker is in a small and prosperous American town on the prairie, driving around a lake in his father’s Chevy. It is early evening, the Fourth of July, and as Bowker drives clockwise, repeatedly, around the lake, he thinks of how he almost won the Silver Star for bravery. Bowker is driving alone, but he thinks about the people that he might like to talk to. He used to carry a photograph of Sally Kramer in his wallet, but she is now married, named Sally Gustafson, and lives in a nice house near the lake. It would have been a good time to talk, and Bowker wonders about what he might say to his father.

In the war, Bowker was given seven medals, but they were not medals for uncommon valor. At one point, there was a chance for him to earn the Silver Star. It had been near the Song Tra Bong, a river that overflowed during the October rainy season. The overflow turned the ground into muck, and the soldiers would wake up at night discovering that they were sinking in it. One night, they bivouacked in a swampy field next to a village. The locals had come out to yell at the soldiers, but the soldiers had scared the old women away. The rain continued and by midnight, the field turned to mud. Bowker remembers that the worst part was the smell, and it was not long after they noticed the smell that one of the soldiers realized that the field was actually the village toilet. All of the village’s waste is in the field, and the soldiers are camped in it, sinking as the rains continue through the night. The platoon takes mortar fire, which fills the air with color. At one point, Bowker realizes that he can see Kiowa sinking into the muck. Bowker tries to wade into it to rescue Kiowa, but all he is able to grab is Kiowa’s boot before the bubbles and the smell repulse him. 

Bowker continues to drive around the lake as he imagines the ways that his father or Sally might respond to his story. He drives into the clean, sanitary town, and stops at an A&W. At first, he does not realize that he can order food through an intercom next to his parking space. The voice on the other side takes his order and afterward asks Bowker is there is anything he wants to share. Bowker declines to share his story and drives away. He drives around the lake until the sun begins to set and pulls up to the lake. As he exits his car, he thinks of how he was braver than he would have ever expected, but not as brave as he had hoped to be. Bowker wades into the water wearing all of his clothing, opens his mouth to taste the water, and looks up as the fireworks begin to explode above him.

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Chapter 14 Summary


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