“Speaking of Courage”
Norman Bowker returns home after the war is over. On July Fourth, he kills time by driving his father’s Chevy around the local lake. He muses about his high school sweetheart, Sally, who is married. Bowker saw her recently, when she was out mowing the lawn, and decided against stopping to talk to her. But he still has the urge to show off for her: he wants to show her his seven medals and his newfound ability to tell time perfectly by the sun without looking at a clock. But she is married now, he thinks, and she has no reason to listen to him. The person Bowker misses most is his best friend, Max Arnold, with whom he used to discuss the existence of God. With Max dead and Sally married, Bowker only has his father to talk to. Bowker imagines how he would tell his father the story.
He would begin with Cross’s orders to set up on the banks of a river. A local woman warned against that place, but the soldiers set up there anyway. The place had a funny smell, and the soldiers soon realized it was the village shit field. Aside from the smell, it was low-lying enough to be hard to protect. When the enemy began to shoot at the platoon that night, it was all but indefensible. The mortar made the surface of the shit field move and bubble and released even more of the fishlike smell. Kiowa was shot and killed that night, and his body sunk slowly into the shit field.
At this point in the story, Bowker breaks off to think about how he would describe to his father the fact that his courage had failed him. Bowker saw Kiowa get shot. He saw him go down in the shit field, face first. Bowker hung onto his boot, but started to sink in himself, weighed down by Kiowa’s body. Bowker remembers that he panicked and let go of Kiowa’s boot. If it hadn’t been for the smell, he thinks, he could have saved Kiowa and won the Silver Star.
The scene shifts back to his hometown, and Bowker takes a break from driving around the lake. He pulls up to a takeaway burger joint called Eat Mama Burgers. He fumbles during his order and doesn’t understand the new slang for root beer. After eating his meal, he considers telling his war story to the person working in the burger joint. They have a momentary connection, but Bowker decides to leave instead. He drives around the lake again, for the tenth time, and decides never to tell the story to anyone. He thinks his father would tell him to focus on the seven medals he already has. He imagines that his father would be proud of him anyways. On the twelfth time around the lake, Bowker pulls over to enjoy the sunset. He gets out of the car and wades into the lake. He admires the Fourth of July fireworks, saying they “aren’t bad for a small town.”
This story contrasts with the other chapters in the collection because of its almost utter lack of dialogue. The story is technically in third person, but is told almost entirely from Bowker’s perspective. Bowker, broken, alone with his thoughts, is a symbol of the many veterans who could not adjust after returning home to the US. Vietnam was a deeply unpopular war, and many of the veterans felt dishonored for having fought in it. Kiowa’s death is the climax, the organizing tragedy that comes up over and over again throughout the book.
This intensive look at Bowker sets him up as a foil for the narrator, O’Brien. There are many doubles in this book: the Vietnamese girl and Kathleen, Jensen and Strunk, Rat Kiley and Jorgenson. In most cases they are each others’ opposites, but are still linked by some sort of commonality. The young Bowker and young O’Brien were on parallel tracks that completely diverged after the war. Only then did the two become opposites: the successful young man and the aimless, damaged vet. O’Brien suggests a remaining similarity, though, by writing about how shaken he was by hearing about Bowker’s experience. O’Brien recognizes that their paths could just as easily have remained the same. This is one of the only stories in the book where O’Brien indicates that he is lucky.
The shit field is one of the powerful, recurrent symbols in the book. It represents the war in Vietnam, an unpleasant struggle that is difficult to get out of. The war was often called a “quagmire,” and O’Brien’s shit field is a vivid visceral symbol of that very stickiness. Even though the story is filtered through Bowker’s memory, and retold by O’Brien, the smell and visual details of the shit field seem very grotesque, very immediate. The lake in Bowker’s hometown is, in a sense, a parallel symbol: Bowker’s immersion in the lake at the end of the story represents his immersion in memories of the original quagmire -- that is, of Vietnam.
In “Notes,” O’Brien describes how he came to write the story “Speaking of Courage.” O’Brien received a letter from Bowker telling the story of “Speaking of Courage” in 1975. Bowker said he had gone through a few jobs but couldn’t quite find anything to do with himself. He said he didn’t want to sound like “some jerkoff vet crying in his beer,” but life had been hard. He said he read O’Brien’s memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, and liked it except for the “bleeding heart political parts.” (156). The letter touched O’Brien, but also shook him up. The vet had congratulated himself on adjusting so well. He had transitioned straight from Vietnam to Harvard. But receiving the letter was in fact part of the process of O’Brien figuring out just how deep his own trauma cut.
O’Brien resolved to tell the story of Bowker’s perspective on Kiowa’s death. The writer tried to incorporate the story of the shit field into the novel he was working on, but to make it fit he took out the lake and most of Kiowa’s story. Bowker was disappointed with the result. O’Brien says that he was frustrated, too.
Three years later O’Brien heard from Bowker’s mother. Bowker had hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA, using a jump rope. His mother said she thought he did it that way because he was a quiet boy and “didn’t want to bother anyone” (158). O’Brien was shocked.
Later, O’Brien published Bowker’s story on its own in a magazine before including it in [The Things They Carried]. The writer addresses the reader directly to emphasize that he made up the part about Bowker failing to save Kiowa and worrying about medals. The rest was true, O’Brien writes.
In “Notes,” the narrator speaks very candidly about his own narrative tricks. Again he calls attention to the fact that the book is fiction. O’Brien points out that it is a constructed narrative, a piece of artwork rather than a piece of “truth.” O’Brien was emotionally involved with the person, Bowker, but emotional truth does not always indicate factual truth. Moreover, in this chapter, O’Brien writes as a cold observer, as a writer, about what “works” and what “doesn’t work” in fiction. He worries that by moving a literary element like a lake he cannot properly mirror the shit field. He does not worry about why Kiowa is dead, as the character of O’Brien does. This literary doubling of character (narrator) and author is kept up throughout the book. One possible influence for this is Argentinian writer Jorge Borges, who also famously wrote about himself in ever-increasing mise-en-abime patterns.
But even the writer O’Brien does have certain emotions: he is anxious that the reader understand he is not trying to dishonor his fellow soldier. Because it is taken out of the context of “Speaking of Courage” and placed in a purportedly non-fictional chapter (complete with accurate dates of publication of the author’s other works), Bowker’s suicide has the ring of authenticity. This gives the event an even deeper impact, perhaps, than had it been included at the end of “Speaking of Courage.” In O’Brien’s dichotomy, it is a “happening-truth” rather than a “story-truth” (see “Good Form”).
After the war, Norman Bowker returns to Iowa. On the Fourth of July, as he drives his father’s big Chevrolet around the lake, he realizes that he has nowhere to go. He reminisces about his high school girlfiend, Sally Kramer, who is now married. He thinks about his friend Max Arnold, who drowned in the lake. He thinks also of his father, whose greatest hope, that Norman would bring home medals from Vietnam, was satisfied. Norman won seven medals in Vietnam, including the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart. He thinks about his father’s pride in those badges and then recalls how he almost won the Silver Star but blew his chance. He drives around the town again and again, flicks on the radio, orders a hamburger at the A&W, and imagines telling his father the story of the way he almost won the Silver Star, when the banks of the Song Tra Bong overflowed.
The night the platoon settled in a field along the river, a group of Vietnamese women ran out to discourage them, but Lieutenant Jimmy Cross shooed them away. When they set up camp, they noticed a sour, fishlike smell. Finally, someone concluded that they had set up camp in a sewage field. Meanwhile, the rain poured down, and the earth bubbled with the heat and the excess moisture. Suddenly, rounds of mortar fell on the camp, and the field seemed to boil and explode. When the third round hit, Kiowa began screaming. Bowker saw Kiowa sink into the muck and grabbed him by the boot to pull him out. Yet Kiowa was lost, so Bowker let him go in order to save himself from sinking deeper into the muck.
Bowker wants to relate this memory to someone, but he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. On his eleventh trip around the lake, he imagines telling his father the story and admitting that he did not act with the courage he hoped he might have. He imagines that his father might console him with the idea of the seven medals he did win. He parks his car and wades into the lake with his clothes on, submerging himself. He then stands up, folds his arms, and watches the holiday fireworks, remarking that they are pretty good, for a small town.
Kiowa’s death constitutes a climax in the series of stories. Because he is such a prominent character in the company’s narrative, his death fundamentally changes the relationships among the company’s individual members. Kiowa, a soft-spoken, peaceful Native American, serves as a foil for several of O’Brien’s characters, including Henry Dobbins and Norman Bowker. His presence is strong but understated, and, by nature, he is a gentle and peaceful man. He discourages soldiers from excessive violence but also supports them through the difficult and inevitable decisions war forces them to make, especially, but not exclusively, when O’Brien kills a man outside My Khe. When Kiowa is killed suddenly and senselessly, all of the men are affected, specifically Norman Bowker, who worries that he has betrayed his friend.
The layers of narration in “Speaking of Courage” can be seen as a technique that the characters use to deal with survivor’s guilt. In the story, Tim O’Brien tells the story of Norman Bowker thinking about how to tell the story of Kiowa’s death. As readers, we are several steps removed from the death, both temporally, since the story of the death is told after the end of the war, and in terms of the narrative, since there are two separate characters between us and Kiowa’s death. As a result, the story is as much about how these characters deal with the story of Kiowa’s death as about Kiowa’s death itself. Norman Bowker, for example, thinks that he was as brave as he thought he could have been, but that even that much bravery was not enough to save his friend. Such commentary provides us insight not only into Kiowa’s death but also into Bowker’s emotions.
“Speaking of Courage” explores the way that telling stories simultaneously recalls the pain of the war experience and allows soldiers to work through that pain after the war has ended. O’Brien and Bowker illustrate how speaking or not speaking about war experience affects characters. O’Brien deals with his memories and his guilt by writing stories about his fellow soldiers. At the same time that these stories make the experience of the war present for O’Brien again, they also distance him from the horrors. He writes in the past tense, differentiating between his present self and the self that fought in the war. Bowker, on the other hand, is unable to use the act of telling to negotiate the trauma of war. He drives around silently, with no one to talk to. Ironically, because he cannot speak about his war experience with anyone, he cannot leave it behind him. While O’Brien uses dialogue and communication to analyze and come to terms with his experience, Bowker’s lack of an audience prevents him from arriving at a similar understanding.