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The soldier’s greatest fear

21 September 2012

They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.

Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried

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7 Comments to “The soldier’s greatest fear”

  1. Wow.

  2. The entire book is a wow.

  3. I’m not a soldier, but about half my friends are ex-military, and I have known a lot of combat veterans. O’Brien’s take strikes me as bollocks. It isn’t to avoid embarrassment that men fight; sometimes they fight to avoid dishonour. A blush is a trivial thing; you’re embarrassed for a moment and it’s gone. Dishonour stains your name forever. I have to wonder at the sort of man who can’t tell the difference between these things.

  4. I read that excerpt to my husband, who still carries scars all over and jagged bits of shrapnel up and down his spine – and he gave me an incredulous look. “What? What is that man on about? I don’t even understand where he’s coming from – is this something to do with your culture, love? What does blushing have to do with fighting?”

    He frowned, and after a few minutes, said “I’d like to know more about the mindset behind this. I mean, I can’t understand the words he’s using – there are obviously codewords here. I can’t make an informed decision about what he means, because he talks about blushing, and that has nothing to do with… I’m just left very puzzled. What he says is completely foreign to me.”

    • To me, it sounds terribly English (and English of a certain era’s ideals, when “dishonor” and “shame” were tightly linked concepts) — I’d look at British works and British-influenced American ones. Modern historicals (and historical AUs, like His Majesty’s Dragon) might also hint at the codewords/assumptions.

      • That’s not the problem. I’m sorry, I didn’t mention that my husband is British, raised by a mum who lived in London through the depression and the Blitz that followed, and his dad who survived the African campaign. They relocated to South Africa after the war, where my husband grew up to fight his own wars, and to live in the bush among tribal warfare from cattle raids to razed villages.

        It’s America that is foreign to him. He’s going to go read the book now, to see if it helps him understand my culture, and the passage above… for him, blushing, much less staining your pants in terror, was just part of life in combat, and completely irrelevant to honour.

        I adore him beyond all telling, but his shopping lists still call for kilograms of mincemeat when he needs pounds of hamburger! Thanks to PG, we’re certain to have nights ahead of explaining and debating the effect of the Vietnam War, and the anti-war protesters, on America.

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