When a war ends its expected that there is a winner and a loser. Regardless of what side a war veteran was on they all can experience the same effects of war: post-traumatic stress disorder, life-lasting injuries, stress, death, and much more. This topic is brought to light in All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. Both authors explore the theme that war forces people to make life changing choices based on social obligation and morals leaving one at odds with themselves; they convey this through their characters in different ways.
Doer uses a German orphan named Werner Pfennig, and his struggle to get a job in Berlin as a scientist in Nazi Germany during World War II, while O’Brien uses Norman Bowker, a veteran who struggles with life after the Vietnam war.
In All the Light We Cannot See, Werner is given an opportunity to enroll in a Nazi school.
He accepts the offer wanting to become a scientist and with no intention of following Nazism. In school he was taught to obey Hitler over everything and follow all instructions given. However, during his time at this school his ability to follow his morals is tested and his determination to be a scientist gets in the way. “Werner is succeeding. He is loyal. He is being what everybody agrees is good. And yet every time he wakes and buttons his tunic, he feels he is betraying something” (Doerr 250).
This illuminates Werner’s inner struggle with conforming to what the Nazi’s want even though he doesn’t believe it is right. He contemplated leaving but ultimately stayed solidifying the idea that he no longer listens to his moral compass. Another example of this is when the cadets are given the task to throw water at a prisoner and Werner is uncomfortable with it but still complies, “Werner tries to float images in front of his eyes, bit the only ones that come are wretched…everyone trapped in their roles: orphans, cadets, Frederick, Volkheimer, and the old Jewess who lives upstairs. Even Jutta. When his turn arrives, Werner throws the water like all the others…” (Doerr 290). He sets his morals aside and replaces them with the drive to go to Berlin. The rise of Nazism during World War II clearly forced Werner to choose between his dream of becoming a scientist in Berlin and following his morals and possibly ending up in the coal mine. Werner doesn’t always follow this path as towards the end of the novel he chose to keep the location of a broadcasting system the Nazi’s were looking for a secret. He even chose to visit the location in secret, ‘A full day passes before Werner can find an hour to return…He entertains pipe dreams: the Frenchman will invite him in. They’ll drink coffee, discuss his long-ago broadcasts” (Doerr 441). Werner not only went against the order to apprehend the broadcasting site but had intentions to make friends with the same person his leaders saw as a terrorist. His love for his childhood and sister facilitated him to disobey orders from the Nazis he worked so hard to impress. He even saved the other protagonist, Marie-Laure Leblanc, from the Nazi’s and she eventually went on to live a long life. World War II compelled Werner to choose between his dream job and his morals. While Werner chose the job at first his love for his sister and childhood changed his decision and as a result, he was able to save a piece of his childhood.
Part of The Things They Carried followed Norman Bowker, who was based on a real Vietnam Veteran. Bowker had no desire to fight in the Vietnam War and even contemplated fleeing to Canada; but changed his mind when he considered the opinions of others and possible outcomes of escaping. He recalled, “It was a kind of schizophrenia. A moral split. I couldn’t make up my mind. I feared the war, yes, but I also feared exile” (O’Brien 42). He didn’t want to lose the life and respect he had leading him to fight in the war. When he went to war, he experienced traumatic events like watching his friend die right in front of him, “He would’ve talked about this, and how he grabbed Kiowa by the boot and tried to pull him out. He pulled hard but Kiowa was gone… He released Kiowa’s boot and watched it slide away. Slowly, working his way up…” (O’Brien 143). Bowker couldn’t help but blame himself for Kiowa’s death, he convinced himself if he saved him, he would’ve gotten a Silver Star as well. While Bowker came home with seven metals, he could no longer keep a job, relationship, or adapt to the society that he fought to protect. The author, Tim O’Brien who personally knew Bowker, said this about him, “…I received a long, disjointed letter in which Bowker described the problem of finding a meaningful use for his life after the war….” (O’Brien 149-150). In addition, Bowker said himself, “…there’s no place to go. Not just in this lousy little town. In general. My life, I mean. It’s almost like I got killed over in Nam…” (O’Brien 150). These statements emphasize how Bowker felt lost after the war he felt obligated to fight. His decision to fight in the Vietnam War left him broken and feeling like he had no purpose which eventually led to his death as well.
Werner and Bowker are two prime examples of people who had to make choices to adapt to what was happening because of a war changing their lives. Werner’s choice to fight for the Nazis gave him a chance to follow his dream, but made him lose sight of himself in the process. While Bowker’s choice to fight in the army left him feeling depressed. They both however saved their social standings as Werner could have been sent to work in the coal mines if he refused with no chance of being a scientist and Bowker would’ve been looked down upon by the people around him for fleeing instead of fulfilling his duty. Tim O’Brien and Anthony Doerr were able two use two different wars, two different characters, and two different environments to convey one message: war can cause an individual to use social obligation and morals to make life changing decisions that leave them at odds.