O'Brien's “On the Rainy River”
Courage. An ambiguous word used to describe the motive behind numerous acts, encompassing a variety of definitions. Courage manifests itself in many different forms, most commonly, acts of physical courage; pushing the body into an act of bravery. Risking death to save a stranger from a burning building. Society perceives such a selfless act as the epitome of bravery and courage…to have done otherwise would be ridiculed as cowardice. And there’s moral courage; hesitating prior to entering the flames, taking into account one’s own desire to live, coming to terms with an unwillingness to sacrifice life for the sake of a stranger, and standing firmly behind that conviction. The two forms of courage are weighed against each other…which is greatest? Is it more admirable to conform to societal pressures for fear of rejection, or to stay true to one’s own instinct? In Tim O’Brien’s non-fictional “On the Rainy River”, he concludes his personal account of being drafted with the admission, “I was a coward. I went to the war”, thus reinforcing the superior strength required behind an act of moral courage, as opposed to one of physical courage.
Prior to being drafted, O’Brien admits to political naïveté. His perspective of the Vietnam War is not a passionate one; however, he is decidedly in opposition of the war, feeling that blood is being shed for unstable reasons. He saw “no unity of purpose, no consensus on matters of philosophy or history or law” and has defined the war simply as “wrong”. Upon receiving his draft notice in June of 1968, his emotions range from rage to self-pity. A promising 21 years of age, he angrily perceives himself as too good for the war.
“I was above it. I had the world dicked – Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude and president of the student body and a full-ride scholarship for grad studies at Harvard. A mistake, maybe – a foul-up in the paperwork. I was no soldier.”
And, at the center of his reaction, existed a strong pulse of fear. O’Brien equated war with slaughter and was terrified of dying, especially in what he viewed as the “wrong war”. He felt that there were instances in which he would have willingly marched off to battle, but lamented the fact that “a draft board did not let you chose your war.” Based on this fear, he searches for a legitimate exit from the draft, but finds himself without options. He was healthy, had no basis upon which to claim CO status, and understood that the government had ended most graduate school deferments. For him, there existed only the conviction that there was “no happy way out.” It is blatantly obvious, through these facts and fears, that O’Brien was unwilling to fight in the Vietnam War.
Society interferes with instinct, however, and O’Brien finds himself in a moral split, weighing fear against fear. There was a strong terror of dying in a war that he didn’t advocate, but also a fear of exile. He’s concerned about being ridiculed in his home town and losing the respect of his parents, growing angry at the “simpleminded patriotism” and “prideful ignorance” that condemned second thoughts about dying as cowardice. In addition, there is hesitation to abandon the familiarity of his life and head out into a obscure and unstable future. Instinct presses against shame and O’Brien is at a decisive stand-still:
“Intellect had come up against emotion. My conscience told me to run, but some irrational and powerful force was resisting, like a weight pushing me toward the war. What it came down to, stupidly, was a sense of shame…I was ashamed of my conscience, ashamed to be doing the right thing.”
Contemplating one option against the other, it would take more courage to obey conscience and accept his impulsive desire to run away from the war. The consequences of which, during that particular time in history, would be uncertain and risky…a dramatic turn from the predetermined monotony of the war that relieved men of the fugitive uncertainty that accompanied exile.
Eventually, O’Brien yields to his shame, prepared to sacrifice his life in order to avoid contempt and disdain. He confesses, “I couldn’t endure the mockery, or the disgrace, or the patriotic ridicule…I couldn’t make myself be brave.” Admitting to cowardice and lamenting a war he did not believe in, O’Brien accepts his drafting notice and becomes a solider in Vietnam.
“I would go to the war – I would kill and maybe die – because I was embarrassed not to.”
His account ends on the thought, “I was a coward. I went to the war.”, a statement which epitomizes O’Brien’s perspective on the value of moral courage vs. physical courage. Every impulse in his body was pointing towards Canada. To consider exile as an alternative to Vietnam was perfectly rational, given O’Brien’s outlook on the war. He was against the fighting and blood shed, believing that legitimate reasons for the slaughter were few and far between. He had no desire to be a soldier, or to kill or die. Yet, rationale proved to be of a lesser priority than the need to adhere to his neighbors’ “simpleminded patriotism”, and avoid shame and ridicule at all cost. O’Brien feared the conviction of his intellect and instead chose to take what was arguably the “easy” way out of coming to terms with a natural desire. Even if it involved denying his individual right to pursue what he believes is just and fair. To go against the human impulse, due to a fear of the consequences, can easily be termed as cowardice. As Martin Luther King stated, in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail”, we have a “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws…One who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty.”