Combat Zone Death: Honoring a Soldier's Wishes or Cowardly Withdrawal?

“Courage is the fear of being thought a coward."l Is Tim O'Brien a coward for going against what he believes in or is he courageous for simply fighting in the Vietnam War? Published in 1973, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, is a novel written by Tim O'Brien that takes place during the Vietnam War during the 1960's.

O'Brien takes readers through his tough journey in combat as a result of being drafted into the war.

He also gives us insight on how he deals with the fact that he is fighting in a war that he believes is unjust. O'Brien is a coward because he did not have the guts to actually try to get out of the war but, the fact that he stayed in the war, a war that dangerous, makes him courageous. His thoughts and opinions followed by his actions and behaviors leads the reader to believe he is a coward because his behaviors directly conflict with his beliefs.

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There are many instances in his novel that O'Brien uses to give light on his opinion on the war and fighting in it. As the process begins, in chapter three, he states, “...I would have cast my ballot to end the Vietnam War” “It was no decision, no chain of ideas or reasons, that steered me into the war. It was an intellectual and physical standoff, and I did not have the energy to see it to an end.”2 Before being fully submerged into the situation, O'Brien already knows he does not want to go and participate.

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He does not see himself as "soldier material” and able to fight in combat. However, he seems to use that definition of himself as more of an excuse to avoid war. Instead of saying he is frightened by what may happen or frightened by death, he says that he is not suitable for the position. Throughout the novel a trend arises of O'Brien giving excuses or alternate explanations to avoid doing something.

Although, O'Brien does not try to get out of being sent to war even though he disagrees with it. During that time period, it was very popular for people to evade the draft because they were against the war. People who had connections in the draft system, wealthy people, and those in college were able to get out of being drafted into war. Other Americans went to extremes to avoid the draft.” O'Brien did not even try to get out of the war. The fact that he did not stand up for what he believed in makes him a coward.

"Without a backward glance at privacy, I gave in to soldiering. I took on a friend, that by itself shows that he was not strong enough or that he did not have enough courage to stand for his beliefs. The reader is able to see that his actions or lack of actions go against what he really believes in.

In chapter six, the reader finally sees O'Brien beginning to take charge of his life.

research it. Satisfied by his findings, he states, “Having done all this, I went back to my O'Brien was creating plans that many other soldiers create in order to desert the war and live a promising life. He was driven by his belief that he was fighting in an unjust war and he spent a considerable amount of time planning his escape. This shows the reader O'Brien's dedication to doing what he believes when he lacked that dedication before.  However, after the built up excitement of O'Brien running away, he buckles under pressure. After seeing him build up the courage to run, the reader is quickly led to disappointment when the author decides to abort the mission. “The AWOL bag was ready to go, but I wasn't...I burned the letters to my family... It was over. I simply couldn't bring myself to flee...I was a coward. I was sick.”6 O'Brien knows he is a coward but why is that so? At this point it seems that his actions are stemming from a fear of being called a coward and not a man for not fighting in the war. Is he a coward for pushing his beliefs to the side or is he a coward for not wanting to fight in combat? In that time period, many people perceived a man as one who is a soldier and O'Brien did not want to be seen as less of a man so he fought. In contradiction to that, O'Brien states, “I believe, therefore, that a man is most a man when he tries to recognize and understand what is good...that a man cannot be fully a man until he acts in the pursuit of goodness.”? It is clear to the reader that because O'Brien is the coward that he is, he would rather carry out society's perception of a man instead of his own.

Even before abandoning his plans to desert the war, despite his beliefs, O'Brien decides to look for motivation to push through the war. He goes to see the Chaplain to discuss his beliefs with him and to see what advice the Chaplain had to offer. “Chaplain, I think the war is wrong. I should not fight in it,” he admits to the officer. Again, instead of just continuing with his plan to leave, he asks more questions. “I'm here to ask if you see any flaw in a philosophy which says...the way to kill the wicked is to obey our reasoned judgments. Is there an alternative?"9 The Chaplain goes on to explain that O'Brien must have faith in the country, have faith in the system, etc. This leads the reader to question whether that conversation with the officer affected O'Brien's choice to stay in the war or was it his fear of being seen as a coward. Did he really begin to have faith or was he just afraid? Let it be known that there is no problem with having a fear of fighting in a deadly war. The problem comes when society tries to define courage in terms of the Vietnam War. “... Courage is a certain kind of preserving...the preserving of the opinion... 910 “You know what courage is... It's not standing around passively hoping for things to happen right; its going out and being tough and sharp-thinkin' and making things happen right."l1 To be courageous in Vietnam means to go on each and everyday not knowing if you will live to see the next day, hour, or even the next minute. "One of the most persistent and appalling thoughts that lumbers through your mind as you walk through Vietnam at night is the fear of getting lost, of becoming detached from the others, of spending the night alone in that frightening and haunted countryside."12 It is having faith in your actions and having faith that your actions are right. On the other hand, to be courageous in life means to carry out your beliefs and O'Brien does not do that. In one aspect O'Brien is courageous because he fought in one of the most deadly wars when he could have deserted it. In another aspect he is not courageous because he fought in a war that he believes was unjust and that makes him a coward. The meaning of courage is subjective and cannot be generalized to every person or situation.

All in all, O'Brien is right in thinking himself a coward for fighting in a war he believes is unjust. He could not bring himself to match his actions with his beliefs and that is seen as a lack of courage. On the other hand, the war in Vietnam was not an easy war to fight in. One cannot blame O'Brien for being afraid to fight in that war and because he did, he is seen as courageous. Again, "Courage is the fear of being thought a coward."13 O'Brien is not seen as a coward because he stays in combat but what does that mean for himself? Who won in his personal, internal battle of fear versus courage? To society he wins, but to himself he lost.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Combat Zone Death: Honoring a Soldier's Wishes or Cowardly Withdrawal?. (2022, Apr 12). Retrieved from

Combat Zone Death: Honoring a Soldier's Wishes or Cowardly Withdrawal? essay
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