Tim O’Brien’s personal short story, “On the Rainy River,” evokes an inner struggle to serve, or to “run” to Canada. O’Brien shamefully expresses his own horrific tale of compromise of the draft in the summer of ‘68. At 21 years old, “young, yes, and politically naive,” he feels “moral confusion” for the decision he has to make. O’Brien’s use of first person narration in his old age, evokes a sense of embarrassment which he feels for choosing to fight in a meaningless war. O’Brien conjures up one such paradox of courage and fear.
He explains that he was “ashamed to be doing the right thing” in following his conscience and going to Canada. Because this paradox is a complete reverse of commonly held beliefs about courage in war. O’Brien who has never told the story of his flight to the Tip Top Lodge before — needs to “write” a story as a means for constructing a way to understand the paradox and to move on from his embarrassment. His decision to fight in the war forces him to elaborate a story which is, only “to relieve at least some of the pressure. He claims that the “story” may not be true but it contains emotional truth.
A story which makes him “squirm,” bringing a stain to his happiness for the rest of his life. O’Brien very intimately conveys a confession of bitterness and regret he has had to face his entire life because of that life altering decision. The day he opens the envelope which contained the draft notice, his inner turmoil is parallel to the weather, which was very “cloudy. ” He was “feeling the blood go thick behind” his eyes, and a “silent howl” in his head, his tone reflects his scarred memory of the past.
The language O’Brien uses, one can clearly tell that he hasn’t forgotten that day, in fact it is etched into his memory forever. Fresh out of Macalester College, O’Brien is drafted to fight in a war he hated. He is young and had close to little knowledge about politics but he knew that the American war in Vietnam felt wrong. He “saw no unity of purpose,” in this war, and many times he thought of running away to Canada. He kept searching for the reasons because he believes that “you can’t fix mistakes. Once people are dead, you can’t make them undead. ” He as no “jingo” who would choose aggression.
His principles made it harder for him to make his decision, and made it easier to just run away from reality. But how far can one run and for how long? As soon as it came time to decide whether he should go to Canada or not. He felt a “paralysis” that took his heart, “a moral freeze,” he couldn’t decide or act. All he did was cry, he once was “a man of conscience and courage, all that was just a threadbare pipe dream. ” Now he is completely helpless, and had no idea what was right and what was wrong. He’d decided to fight in the war.
All his principles, his thoughts on how the war felt so wrong, were all gone. He compromised his everything for one moment of helplessness. This heart wrenching tale, that O’Brien has confessed about has forced him to confront his past memory. One he wishes badly to forget, however, he’s not able to because of the guilt of killing several people in Vietnam. Most people aren’t able to live through this much guilt and pain, and end up committing suicide, but to continue living through this hell, is the ultimate punishment for someone like O’Brien.
To make this confession, less horrific, he creates a story, where he almost crossed the Canadian border, but he confronted his “own sense of guilt,” and let himself be swept away into a whole life of regret and shame. The metaphor he uses about the “slaughterhouse,” where he works as a “declotter” also extends to the conditions he has to face in Vietnam when the Vietnamese are “decapitated” and all the “carcass” he has to see. Because of his compromise made when he was 21, he now constantly puts himself down.
The person he was before he was drafted,happy and fulfilled, he no longer is that person. He is completely different, more broken and shattered than happy. O’Brien may have survived a war, but he does not find his life fulfilling. He did everything that an American is expected to do, which is to serve and be patriotic. Nevertheless, he didn’t have the courage to choose for himself or his happiness. O’Brien became the “jingo,” he always stayed away from his whole life. He wasn’t able to be “the Lone Ranger,” who would pursue his happiness no, he compromised.