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The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Student Question

What does "Speaking of Courage" in The Things They Carried reveal about veterans' lives post-war?

Quick answer:

Norman Bowker becomes a symbol of the effects of war in The Things They Carried. Like many soldiers in the war, once he returns he must try and deal with the death and violence he witnessed; however, it is difficult for him to talk about and hard for him to express his feelings. Like many veterans, Bowker cannot open up to his family about his feelings, and so he must find ways to deal with them.

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In "Speaking of Courage," O'Brien focuses on the lives of soldiers once they return home after the war by focusing on Norman Bowker. Bowker returns from war with seven medals and is considered to be a war hero by his family, but this does not reflect how he feels about his time in Vietnam. As Bowker drives around the lake, he thinks about courage and how his father wanted him to come home a war hero with lots of medals, but like many people, his father doesn't understand what Bowker went through or witnessed to get them. Unable to talk with his father about his feelings, Bowker carries on an imaginary conversation with him about the night his friend Kiowa died.

Bowker remembers the sounds and smells of the village on the bank of the Song Tra Bong. In the conversation, he reminiscences about how the rain caused the river to overflow and the sewage field to fill with water. As mortar fire began, he saw Kiowa sinking into the field, but explains he was unable to save both himself and his friend, so he had to let go of Kiowa in order to save himself. This memory and the guilt associate with it haunt Bowker.

Like many veterans when they return from the war, Bowker has no one to talk to about his feelings. He knows his dad would only care that he missed out on getting the Silver Star instead of focusing on the fact that he lost a friend. Bowker must also face the guilt of saving his own life instead of his own. As he imagines the conversation with his father, he imagines that his father would understand and express pride in the medals he did achieve and the courageous actions he did take, but inside Bowker does not feel as though he was courageous and does not feel like a hero.

He would've talked about this, and how he grabbed Kiowa by the boot and tried to pull him out. He pulled hard but Kiowa was gone, and then suddenly he felt himself going, too. He could taste it. The shit was in his nose and eyes. There were flares and mortar rounds, and the stink was everywhere—it was inside him, in his lungs—and he could no longer tolerate it. Not here, he thought. Not like this. He released Kiowa's boot and watched it slide away. Slowly, working his way up, he hoisted himself out of the deep mud, and then he lay still and tasted the shit in his mouth and closed his eyes and listened to the rain and explosions and bubbling sounds.

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