The author of this novel, O’Brien recounts his experiences from the Vietnam war. Joining the war was a battle in itself for O’Brien, as after receiving his draft notice in June of 1968, he almost fled because he was so opposed to the war itself. O’Brien describes himself as “ too good for this war, too smart, too compassionate”.
This was an later realized flaw of the Vietnam war, lasting roughly 20 years, that of it’s questionable purpose. One of the main issues raised in this personal perspective novel is the act of peer pressure and embarrassment regarding the war. This is shown best in this quote from O’Brien near the start of the book – They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment. Within this chapter of the book, O’Brien explains the emotional baggage that the soldiers carry, whilst risking their lives for their country. O’Brien suggests that a barely hidden coward is common within the soldiers. He explores the idea that men go to war not to be heroes for their country, but to avoid embarrassment. They are almost forced, due to the cowardly stereotype that accompanies not enlisting.
These ideas are further strengthened early in the novel, within a particularly prominent chapter On The Rainy River, O’Brien has fled his hometown and made it to a lodge just before the Canadian border. Here he resides for 6 days in total, doing odd jobs for the owner of the lodge, Elroy. On the last day Elroy takes O’Brien to the border of Canada on a “ fishing trip” and lets O’Brien silently decide whether he stays or goes. O’Briens inner turmoil is finalized by this quote. In my head I could hear people screaming at me, “ traitor”, “ turncoat” and “ pussy”. He voices that the only thing that stopped him from fleeing the war, was the thought that the people from home would think of him as a coward, ignoring his moral conscience to dodge the patriotic ridicule. Further on in the novel, O’Brien eventually kills a Vietnamese soldier. He seeks the help of his fellow soldiers, especially Kiowa, who helps him rationalize this act by saying no sweat man, what else could you do. By highlighting the normalcy of his action with a casual tone, Kiowa is implying that killing is the right thing to do. O’Brien uses this rationalization to suggest that the soldiers commit acts of murder mostly in a simple reaction to peer pressure, therefore alluding to the fact that their greatest fear is not that of taking a life, but of embarrassment.
I can relate to O’Briens perspective personally, as there are many instanced in life where I have felt pressured into undertaking social norms so to avoid feeling outcast. One major example that I have most recently fallen victim to, is the act of attending college. In my home country of England, work placements and apprenticeships are just as viable and popular options to graduating young adults. However here in America I have felt such a large pressure from society to not only get into college, but a well respected, higher level name such as UCLA or Berkley. Often people use this as a platform for judgement, evoking feelings of shame and embarrassment for those such as myself who in fact could not attend such schools. The shame may pass but the guilt goes deeper, making it a much harder feeling to shake. Many feel that this is the only way to attain respect from employers and colleagues, which is a completely unfair assumption as one may hold great potential but have chosen a different or more financially convenient path in life- therefore being subject to bias and a negative social subconscious.