Chapters 15 & 16

"Speaking of Courage" 

Important Sections of the Chapter 

1). "The war was over and there was no place in particular to go." (pg. 137)


This quote intiaties the chapter entitled "Speaking of Courage". The fact that the author uses it to begin suggests that for the American soldiers in Vietnam, the time they spent in war was like a second home and the men in their platoon were their family.

The phrase "there was no place in particular to go" signifies that once out of the life they considered their own (the war) the soldiers did not know how to lead their "normal" lives and hence, they did not how to adapt back into society. 

2). "And his father would have nodded, knowing full well that many brave men do not win medals for their bravery, and that others win medals for doing nothing." (pg. 141)


This quote refers directly to Norman Bowker's father. It is a fragment that illustrates the father's ignorance in reference to what the significance of valor/ bravery is. For Norman Bowker's father, the medals are a symbol of heroism, a symbol of bravery. They do not represent effort or fear, but merely strength and courage. He understands them as a representation of these qualities and does not care whether or not they are well deserved by the man who obtains them, alleging that when one does receive them is an automatic recognition of bravery, whether you have done something or not.

However, Norman Bowker appears to not share his father's point of view and in comparison he sees the medals as an object as something that men don't win for their braver but for "doing nothing". 

3). "Courage was not always a matter of yes or no. Sometimes it came in degrees, like the cold; sometimes you were very brave up to a point and then beyond that point you were not so brave. In certain situations you could do incredible things, you could advance toward enemy fire, but in other situations, which were not nearly so bad, you had trouble keeping your eyes open. Sometimes, like that night in the shit field, the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid." (pg. 147)


This paragraph explains the essence of the chapter. Norman Bowker, the protagonist of the vignette, is looking for closure, an explanation that tell hims why he wasn't able to save Kiowa from dying. 
As the quote states, "courage was not always a matter of yes or no", meaning that there are situations where one is brave and when one isn't. The point of the chapter is that Norman Bowker is trying to justify to his father, the symbol of heroism why he wasn't brave the night of the shit field, alleging that there are situations which are "not nearly as bad", where one can't keep "your eyes open" or in other words is afraid. 

The way the fragment is written sets a confessionary tone and it tells us readers that Bowker is about to confess his fear of dying to an audience or, as he calls it, "the difference between courage and cowardice was something small and stupid". 

4). "...' The truth,' Norman Bowker would've said, 'is I let the guy go.' 'Maybe he was already gone' ...' No, I could feel it. He wasn't. Some things you can feel.' His father would have been quiet for a while, watching the headlights against the narrow tar road. 'Well, anyway,' the man would've said, 'there's still the seven medals.' ..." (pg. 154)


This quote belongs to the last section of the chapter. In it, we readers are confronted with the truth of Bowker's story; he feels guilt. The fact that he says "the truth is I let [Kiowa] go" symbolizes his sense of remorse for not being brave enough to try to save his friend and most likely die in his attempt, signifying that he chose his life over his friend's. 

However, the fact that his father, after hearing his confession, praises Norman's seven medals indicates that he has missed the entire truth of the story, which is his son's desperate sense of guilt. He doesn't understand his feelings and hence does not care for them, being blind to the fact that Norman lost a part of his soul at war and during this scene, a part which he cannot recover; his bravery.  


Important Sections of the Chapter 

1). " 'Speaking of Courage' was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Norman Bowker, who three years later hanged himself in the locker room of a YMCA in his hometown in central Iowa." (pg. 155)


This first quote belongs to the key vignette for understanding the form of O'Brien's novel. As the title indicates, this chapter offers "notes" on how the preceding chapter impacted the life of the protagonist. 

The fact that narrator O'Brien states in his fragment that Speaking of Courage "was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Norman Bowker" returns the audience to the novel's ever present theme of the relation between fact and fiction and the "truthfulness" of the stories in it. Hence, this chapter is meant to confuse the readers and force them to believe that the novel is autobiographical when not necessarily the vignettes in it are "actual" or "factual". 

2). "By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the shit field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify what happened." (pg. 158)


This fragment explains the creation of Tim O'Brien's novel "The Things They Carried". In it, narrator "O'Brien" describes how the idea of writing liberated him from the horros of war and how when he wrote he objectified his "own experienced". 

However, this quote also goes back to the recurrent theme of fact vs. fiction, since in it O'Brien talks about how his idea for his war vignettes commenced by pinning down "certain truths" and "by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify what happened", which leaves the readers thinking which parts of the novel and fact and which sections are fiction. 

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