Shame is a reoccuring theme throughout The Things They Carried. Shame makes people do things they don’t want to do just so they can get rid of the fear of shame. It drove soldiers to do acts they would’ve never done. Many of the characters have shame as a primary motivator. It leads them to war and it keeps them there. It is the one thing that keeps them from shooting themselves in the foot so that they would be discharged from the army or some similar such act. But some characters, like Curt Lemon, think that shame impels them to heroism, not stupidity. The feelings of shame and guilt consume the soldiers, and make them do irrational and crazy things. Shame motivated men to go to Vietnam. A factor that contributes to their shame is being shamed in front of their peers. Also coming back from war perfectly fine and intact was a contributing factor because it lead some soldiers to shoot themselves in the leg or something so they at least had something to show they fought hard in battle. They felt that there were people dying around them and getting injured, and that if they came back home with nothing done to them they would be looked at as a coward. People would think that they didn’t fight their hardest to protect their country and instead ran away or stayed hidden.The social acceptance among all the men in Vietnam was a factor to their shame. They didn’t want to seem like a coward in front of the men they were they were fighting along with either. The soldiers fear and loathe weakness, so in order to keep their friendships intact, they need to protect their reputations. In O’Brien’s story in “On the Rainy River” it tells how he didn’t want to fight in a war he thought to be unjust, but the fear of being thought of as a coward led him to go anyway. He had the chance to flee to Canada and what stopped him wasn’t patriotism, it was his concern for what his family and friends would think of him if he didn’t go to Vietnam to fight. O’Brien has also said that shame brought him into the war. It was out of love that he didn’t flee to Canada. Because of his love for his parents and family, O’Brien did not want to shame them by not going to the draft. If he didn’t go to war he would’ve had to deal with being looked down upon by everyone around him. He would’ve had to live with his decision to not fight.
“On the Rainy River” is an exploration of the role of shame in war. The story develops the theme of embarrassment as a motivating factor. O’Brien pretended to look forward to doing his patriotic duty in front of his father and uncles, but at night he prayed with his mother that the war might end soon. He was afraid of disgracing himself and his family and village. In “In the Field,” it’s revealed that O’Brien is shaken by a similar shame and guilt over Kiowa, believing that he’s the one that was actually responsible for Kiowa’s death. Curt Lemon fainted during a dentist visit in the chapter “The Dentist”. He didn’t want to get made fun of by the other men for being afraid. To prove to the men in his Company, and also to himself, that he’s man enough and brave enough to see the dentist he goes to the dentist’s tent in the middle of the night, claims to have a really bad toothache, and demands that he pull out some of his perfectly good teeth. Jimmy Cross only went to war because his friends did. He becomes a confused and uncertain leader who endangers the lives of his soldiers. He wants to be looked at as a leader instead of making himself look like a coward and is willing to do so even if he is putting other peoples lives at risk. He neglected to step up and lead his men in many situations when they needed him the most. The cause of his neglect came from his obsession with a girl back home. Later, he realizes that he has been a fool. He focused so much on Martha that he has neglected to be a leader to his group. Once Lavender dies, Cross realizes that he must focus his attention on his troops. He is ashamed of himself that he has wasted so much time thinking about Martha. Norman Bowker can’t shake the shame of not winning The Silver Star of Valor because he thinks that he would have won it if he had not failed to save Kiowa in “Speaking of Courage.” Shame takes over Bowker so much that he eventually hangs himself. The story “The Things They Carried” itself explains how men feel shame on many levels. Some feel shame for the things they do, such as burning a village after Ted Lavender is shot or how they react to enemy fire by falling to the ground crying and hiding or how Lt. Jimmy Cross feels over his obsession with Martha and how it lead to Lavender’s death. The items of loved ones are used as a shield. Instead of the soldiers admitting they are afraid, which would be shameful, they cling to objects for strength.
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