In short, it takes a little bravery to think about things in a serious manner and this includes our thoughts regarding courage. O'Brien writes, "Proper courage is wise courage (133) and it is also acting "wisely when fear would have a man act otherwise. It is the endurance of the soul in spite of fear -- wisely" (133). Courage is not something that can be conjured up on a whim, in O'Brien's estimation. It comes from coherent thinking and he writes, "Men must know what they do is courageous" (137), adding that they "must know it is right, and that kind of knowledge is wisdom and nothing else" (137). In O'Brien's opinion, bravery is not related to how one acts in the field. Bravery is described powerfully when O'Brien states, "Either they are stupid and do not know what is right . . . Or they know what is right and cannot bring themselves to do it. Or they know what is right and do it, but do not feel and understand the fear that must be overcome" (137). Firing a rifle in a war just because you have a gun does not make one smart, brave or courageous. "Grace under pressure means you can confront things gracefully or squeeze out of them gracefully. But to make those two things equal with the easy word "grace" is wrong. Grace under pressure is not courage" (If I Die 142-143)
The character of William Cowling allows us to see another side of war. Cowling describes some of his thoughts regarding the war. "How do you explain it? Terror mixed with fascination: I craved bloodshed, yet I craved the miracle of a happy ending" (O'Brien The Nuclear Age 10-11). This passage is significant because it represents the duality that emerges from Cowling's experience. He has been transformed by being a soldier. His thoughts do not seem like his own because war has conditioned him to think about things from another perspective. Before Cowling goes to war, Keezer recalls his Vietnam experience to a young William. He tells him, "I lay flat and hugged my riffle. It was all I could do, hug and twitch. Gunfire swept the beach. Thus, I deduced, was how it was and had to be. If you're sane, if you're in command of the present tense, you dispense with scruples" (188). This image is powerful in that it allows us to see the soldier hugging his rifle, twitching, listening to gunfire. This is where the change begins to take place. The soldier's perspective changes as he suddenly sees the world through another lens. In the dark, facing unknown enemy forces soldiers to reconsider life, death, war, and fighting in general. Later in the novel, when Cowling looks at Melinda, who is suspicious of him, he thinks, "We share the knowledge that there is no mercy between fathers and daughters. We will kill for our children. We will kill for us. We will kill for our families. And above all we kill for love, as men have always killed" (308). This scene captures the essence of how war affects individuals in many different ways.
Tim O'Brien decided to face war and that decision changed the rest of his life. From his experiences, he has conveyed the soldier's experience to us from different perspectives. These perspectives are valid because while the books are fiction, they are born from experience. War is many things but it is rarely glorious. Soldiers are heroes but not in the way that we most commonly think of them. They are heroes because they survive one way or another and this alone is commendable. The one thing that all can agree upon is that war change people. In O'Brien's stories, we see how these changes impact mankind -- from the mental anguish to the constant fear of war creeping up unnoticed, war transforms. Life gave O'Brien the experiences he needed to tell the stories and war gave him the reason to do so. Ideas such as bravery, strength, and courage are turned asunder when seen through the prism of war and death.
Myers, Thomas. "Tim O'Brien." Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 152: American
Novelists Since World War II. 1995. GALE Resource Database. Information Retrieved