Why does an avid opponent of the Vietnam War, with the opportunity to flee from fighting it, voluntarily succumb to the draft? Why, being so close to the Canadian border, does he lack the courage to jump into the water and swim across? Tim O’Brien’s moral opposition to the Vietnam War is clouded by his desire to be accepted by others in his community, and this demon of adherence to the collective will is his prime antagonist in The Things They Carried, and the source of all his further woes and crises.
Had O’ Brien dodged the draft, this would have been a sign of moral fortitude, rather than the weakness it is commonly portrayed to be. O’Brien clearly recognizes this at the time of his attempt to flee to Canada. He knows that the motives behind the war are questionable, and states his belief that “when a nation goes to war, it must have reasonable confidence in the justice and imperative of its cause” (41).
Moreover, O’Brien recognizes himself to be physically and psychologically unfit for war, referring to himself as one whom “the sight of blood made… queasy, and [who] couldn’t tolerate authority” (41). Enlisting in the U.S. Army is a betrayal of O’Brien’s objective self-interest and his own recognition of the nature of his individual character. Consenting to the draft is O’Brien’s tacit allowance of a great moral evil perpetrated by the United States government, a government that would claim the right to employ him as cannon fodder and subject him to all of his subsequent shocking experiences during the Vietnam War. Thus, such a decision is at the root of all of his further struggles.
O’Brien recognizes that his decision to obey his draft notice is a moral travesty on all counts, and, even twenty years later, describes it as a shameful act, which had tarnished his very belief in man’s capacity for heroic, principled action. Rather than adhere to his own understanding of morality, O’Brien gives in to the prevailing perception in his community of draft dodging as cowardly, unpatriotic, and scandalous. When imagining the entirety of his community staring at him as he tries to swim for Canada, O’Brien’s psyche magnifies the impact of this collective superstition far beyond the ability of the people espousing it. O’Brien is physically distant from the ignoramuses who would wantonly sacrifice his life, and they cannot affect his decisions, if he does not let them. O’Brien, however, is so maniacally afflicted with the desire for acceptance at any cost that his very physiology revolts against him. He recalls, “I did try. It just wasn’t possible” (59).
Despite O’Brien’s professed disgust with the simplistic platitudes of the collective with which he lives, his collectivist psychological malady is pervasive enough to place these platitudes in full control of even this, the most critical decision he would ever face. O’Brien’s desire for acceptance is irrational, suicidal, and perverse. His safety, his intellect, his understanding, and his future all stand in opposition to his society, yet, he selects his society over them. There is neither excuse nor justification for this act of moral weakness. O’Brien’s community, the draft board, the Viet Minh, and the routine physical hardships of war, would never have harmed him at all, if only he had the internal consistency to follow the course dictated by considerations of reason and justice.
Because O’Brien’s perceived exaggeration of the importance of the opinions of others in his community motivates his decision to heed his draft notice, O’Brien’s greatest foe is that part of him which impels him to act against himself.