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Can a person enter a war as an act of cowardice? 
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Post Can a person enter a war as an act of cowardice?
Can a person enter a war as an act of cowardice?

This discussion question was found at http://www.randomhouse.com/catalog/disp ... 92&view=rg

In "On The Rainy River," we learn the 21-year-old O'Brien's theory of courage: "Courage, I seemed to think, comes to us in finite quantities, like an inheritance, and by being frugal and stashing it away and letting it earn interest, we steadily increase our moral capital in preparation for that day when the account must be drawn down. It was a comforting theory." What might the 43-year-old O'Brien's theory of courage be? Were you surprised when he described his entry into the Vietnam War as an act of cowardice? Do you agree that a person could enter a war as an act of cowardice?



Wed Oct 08, 2008 11:47 am
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Post Re: Can a person enter a war as an act of cowardice?
Chris OConnor wrote:
Can a person enter a war as an act of cowardice?
Were you surprised when he described his entry into the Vietnam War as an act of cowardice? Do you agree that a person could enter a war as an act of cowardice?[/i][/color]


Absolutely! O'Brien (the character, not the author) was too afraid of what his parents and others would think of him if he acted on his true beliefs about the war by going to Canada to avoid the draft. Personally, I think it takes a great deal of courage to defy your country and to go against what most of your neighbors, friends and family believe to be right.


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It actually wasn't just O'Brien the character who allowed fear of what others though to force him to go against his personal convictions and enter a war he didn't agree with, it was O'Brien the author as well.

I think what he's trying to say is he was justifying his lack of courage. I also think this quote reveals, perhaps, that when confronted "with the day when the account must be drawn down" he still found fear, that there really hadn't been enough left in the account.

I think it's rather a strong statement to call entering the war because of societal pressures an act of cowardice. By that rule of measure we are all cowards in some degree or another because we all allow society to influence the way we act and the things we choose to do or not do.

But yes, I do agree that a person could enter a war as an act of cowardice, because they fail to find the courage to stand up for what they believe in.



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imnosalinger wrote:

Quote:
But yes, I do agree that a person could enter a war as an act of cowardice, because they fail to find the courage to stand up for what they believe in.


To put it simply, while the draft still existed this is how all countries got people to fight for them, by making the stakes very high if you followed your conscience or your good sense and didn't turn up. Add to that that people didn't know how long they were going to be at war for...
If things had been different how many men would have turned up for four years' fighting in World War I?
So calling it (going to war when you were called) "an act of cowardice" is:
- strong wording from someone who may feel very bitter about the whole situation.
- ironical usage, reversing the usual meaning of the word coward, since officially it was the people who dodged the draft who were "cowards", and who were punished for their choice.

During World war I some young men in France mutilated themselves in order not to go to war, and the penalties were very harsh, including for some who had met with a genuine accident, but were thought to have hurt themselves on purpose.


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The Things They Carried deals with this. It talks about soldiers who shot off their own toes to be able to go home, and their fighting that desire, how it would be easier to put a bullet into their own body than continue their daily lives in Vietnam.

Easier to suffer the one time shame of blowing off your own body parts to avoid war than the day to day shame of fear and reactions to what's going on around them.

These were some of the things they had to carry.

Very interesting, really.



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What seems to make it possible even to consider that bravery would consist in refusing to go to war, is that we have a tradition of individualism and the primacy of the individual conscience. I'm not saying
most Americans believe that the individual should decide for himself what is right, but it is at least there somewhere in our history. The Amercian Revolution is to some extent a case in point. Without this tradition, it would sound loony to say that refusing to fight the country's fight could be the braver choice.

Contrast this situation with that of the Bagavadgita, in which Arjuna has refused to fight out of problems with his conscience. There is no recognition of a tradition that might legitimize his decision to abjure war. Krishna shows him that the higher wisdom is actually not to listen to one's inner voice, but to entrust one's actions to the call of tradition.
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Mon Oct 13, 2008 7:53 pm
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imnosalinger wrote:

I think it's rather a strong statement to call entering the war because of societal pressures an act of cowardice. By that rule of measure we are all cowards in some degree or another because we all allow society to influence the way we act and the things we choose to do or not do.


I do think that we are all, at one point of another cowards in this way. I feel sure that each of has had a moment when we did or did not act or speak our true belief due to fear of what another would think or learn about us.


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Here is a link to the biographical information page on Tim O'Brien's web page. I thought it would be especially useful in light of O'Brien's blending of biographical information and fiction in The Things They Carried.

Biographical Info

I clipped this from WWW.PREFACE.CALPOLY.EDU profile of O'Brien.

[i]....O'Brien was drafted into the army. Already involved in anti-war demonstrations, he remembers the time prior to induction as "a horrid,
confused, traumatic period


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I believe what O'Brien is saying about how his decision feels to him when he goes back over it in story.

His description of being near the Canadian side of the Rainy River with Elroy Berdahl and not being able to do the border crossing, even though it felt like the moral thing to do, to him, personally, because of his human connectedness to people who disagreed with him and would not understand, really clearly describes something true to my experience.

He seems unflinchingly to try to tell the truth about his inner experiences as he does about the world that can be quantified, weighed and carried; he cares not only what, but how he sees. He tells like a true storyteller, that is, a person whose life depends on getting the telling right, who believes the lives of others may depend on it. He admits to telling stories over and over, differently each time to try to tell the truth right.

I choose to believe, if he tells me that he was motivated by a kind of moral cowardice, that this is true. I believe it and don't think less of him for it, because I think I know something like what he means myself. The courage is in his telling us (and himself!) this truth which would be so easy for some people to lie by keeping silent about it and not even noticing it. This "cowardice" is why the war story is also a love story.

He gives us Elroy as the figure of an ideal reader who understands:

Quote:
The man understood that words were insufficient. The matter had gone beyond discussion.... It was no longer a question that could be decided by an act of pure reason. Intellect had come up against emotion."


The ideal listener of a true war story listens and says only, "Oh."

O'Brien seems to admit in several places in the book that what he does comes to him, is enacted through him before he can decide (like what Burton says we do in our last non-fiction book!) I have made decisions like that myself that other people think mistakenly were motivated otherwise. Sometimes there's no explaining it. I admire how well and how honestly O'Brien tells us of this involuntary quality of his life.

It's a good, honest representation of a not-so-awful kind of cowardice; should we really be brave enough to think our unilateral moral decision is so much better than everyone else's that we can lose the world to gain our isolated, righteous souls? It's not a bad cowardice to have. Maybe even a relative of humility and loving surrender, but who wants to wreck his soldierly tone by accusing him of that?


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O'Brien the fictional narrator feels that his decision not to go to Canada was cowardly. That is the way he felt about himself, he says, and we probably must accept that. But his feeling that way is different from what an evaluation of his action might determine, for whatever that is worth. I would never say that cowardice fits him in this instance. Cowardice is essentially selfish and at the expense of someone else. O'Brien the narrator was simply pulled by very basic and powerful influences, none of them shameful. He had conscience weighing on both sides, and chose the side whose pull was the more powerful.
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DWill wrote:
I would never say that cowardice fits him in this instance. Cowardice is essentially selfish and at the expense of someone else.
DWill


But didn't someone get hurt in the war?


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Saffron wrote:
But didn't someone get hurt in the war?

They did. When it could just as well be you that gets killed as the other guy, I can't see where cowardice enters in. (Nice! Something we disagree about.)
Will



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DWill wrote:
Saffron wrote:
But didn't someone get hurt in the war?

They did. When it could just as well be you that gets killed as the other guy, I can't see where cowardice enters in. (Nice! Something we disagree about.)
Will


:laugh:


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On Oct. 13th, D. Will said:

Quote:
What seems to make it possible even to consider that bravery would consist in refusing to go to war, is that we have a tradition of individualism and the primacy of the individual conscience. I'm not saying
most Americans believe that the individual should decide for himself what is right, but it is at least there somewhere in our history....
Contrast this situation with that of the Bagavadgita, in which Arjuna has refused to fight out of problems with his conscience. There is no recognition of a tradition that might legitimize his decision to abjure war. Krishna shows him that the higher wisdom is actually not to listen to one's inner voice, but to entrust one's actions to the call of tradition.


DWill,

Thanks for bringing this up, because it really bears on the cultural context (and it's something I like to think about). :D

The tradition of civil disobedience in our culture has roots in texts like the Illiad (Achilles doesn't want to fight because his time (tee MAY) or (personal honor due to be expressed in material form by giving him Briseus as spoils) has not been properly recognized by King Agamemnon. He gets convinced into fighting, finally. (Read the book, everyone who doesn't know how and why he finally fights.)

There's a nice little item tucked into the text in the form of his shield which we might label "what Achilles carried." The shield has pictures of everything in the Greek world, all in place, all over it. When Achilles stays in his place (the position of the warrior, behind his sheild, fighting) he is protected and the world "feels right" to Greeks. When he puts it down, he is outside the world, on his own with his spear or individual will. The Greeks understood the basis of Achilles' wrath at his king's lack of personal recognition. Greeks recognized the unfairness of Achilles's going to war to get back Helen and not being able to have Briseus for it, but having the king keep her, too. (I will leave out the women as property resentment for now because I know this is long and I hope someone will read it).

Another Greek text in which this tradition has early roots actually has a female protagonist. In Antigone the title character defies her uncle by burying her brother. She takes the penalty of death, on purpose to make her point about how bad King What's-his-name is and how good she is, a "feminine" politics of turning weakness to strength, perhaps. In this case, the issue is not personal warrior's honor, but a woman's right to fulfill her spiritual duty. It is both conservative (it is her traditional, spiritual role to bury her brother and the king has no right to forbid it) and radical.

In both of these Greek texts, there is an acknowledgement that an individual has a personal right to his or her traditional cultural identity which a tyrant may sometimes trample upon in a way that is not fair, not spiritually right. The two stories resolve differently, but the ethical problem is posed and the absolute right of a king is rendered forever morally conditional. There is a higher law which needs to be obeyed, even by the king, a distant forerunner of Rousseau's social contract, perhaps.

This idea goes through all kinds of permutations in the writings of Christian dissenters, but by the time it gets to Thoreau, he has taken to reading the Bhagavad-Gita alongside Antigone, (in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers) from the perspective of a 19th-century American who can basically live with very little material help from society; yet he is bound to a political state which has subjugated and continues to try to subjugate the natural world, Native Americans, African slaves, and Mexico. The government wants him to pay for that. What comes out is a "strong misreading" of the Bhagavadgita in which Thoreau declares, "Arjoon is right!" and Krishna wrong. He checks Antigone and finds that as long as he is willing to go to jail, he is respecting the law as much as he has to to be a moral citizen. He does not have to pay war taxes or taxes to a state that returns slaves to the South or does anything with his money that Higher Law (which he knows in his, basically Protestant, conscience) says is wrong.

By the Twentieth Century, these ideas have become so familiar to the Western mind that not only the idea of Conscientious Objection to war, but the idea of War Crimes, crimes of conscience, has been created. In Nuremberg it is argued that "just following orders" can be a crime committed by a soldier. Has the soldier no individual higher moral sense? Apparently, yes. In Tim O'Brien's war, Vietnam, there is another case, the case of Callie and the MyLai Massacre, where it comes up again: what should an individual soldier know is wrong? Who is responsible? There is a very strong Western tradition which now says, not only are you not morally bound to follow orders; you are morally responsible when you choose to follow an immoral order. (There's a book that traces all this named Crimes of Obedience which I read about a dozen years ago and I've forgotten the author's name, :oops: but it articulates especially this last part and I want to give him credit and let people find the book by the title if they want to).

This is the philosophical context in which Tim O'Brien is placed in a double-bind. He is going to feel like a coward no matter what he does. His society has gotten to the place where we all have to take responsibility and either become sane as a whole political body, or admit we are reproducing insanity by the systematic exploitation of young men for profit. I'm hoping that this issue will be what is under discussion in The Limits of Power as well, but I've just started that.

I'm sorry I'm so long-winded. I hope there's enough content here to warrant it.


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Individuals may enter a war for many different reasons: some of which may be in deep contradiction and inconsistent with each other. What may be cowardice on one level is courage on another. What was courageous at one time, is cowardly at another...and vice versa. What may be courageous could also be sheer lunacy...and what is cowardly might reflect real wisdom. As I see it, most wars, perhaps all, are not decided by the mass of soldiers who kill and die in them: they are not democratic affairs where participants have a voice and right to dissent and the ability to persuade a change of direction or altenative course of action. Of course, as the saying goes: there would be no wars anywhere if soldiers everywhere laid down their weapons and refused to fight.



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