“Speaking of Courage”
After the war, Norman Bowker
returns to Iowa. On the Fourth of July, as he drives his father’s big
Chevrolet around the lake, he realizes that he has nowhere to go. He reminisces about his high school
girlfiend, Sally Kramer, who is now married. He thinks about his friend Max Arnold, who drowned in
the lake. He thinks also of his father, whose greatest hope, that Norman would bring home medals
from Vietnam, was satisfied. Norman won seven medals in Vietnam, including the Combat
Infantryman’s Badge, the Air Medal, the Army Commendation Medal, the Bronze Star, and the Purple
Heart. He thinks about his father’s pride in those badges and then recalls how he almost won the
Silver Star but blew his chance. He drives around the town again and again, flicks on the radio, orders
a hamburger at the A&W, and imagines telling his father the story of the way he almost won the
Silver Star, when the banks of the Song Tra Bong overflowed.
The night the platoon settled in a field along the river, a group of Vietnamese women ran out to
discourage them, but Lieutenant Jimmy
Cross shooed them away. When they set up camp, they
noticed a sour, fishlike smell. Finally, someone concluded that they had set up camp in a sewage field.
Meanwhile, the rain poured down, and the earth bubbled with the heat and the excess moisture.
Suddenly, rounds of mortar fell on the camp, and the field seemed to boil and explode. When the third
round hit, Kiowa
began screaming. Bowker saw Kiowa sink into the muck and grabbed him by the
boot to pull him out. Yet Kiowa was lost, so Bowker let him go in order to save himself from sinking
deeper into the muck.
Bowker wants to relate this memory to someone, but he doesn’t have anyone to talk to. On his
eleventh trip around the lake, he imagines telling his father the story and admitting that he did not act
with the courage he hoped he might have. He imagines that his father might console him with the idea
of the seven medals he
win. He parks his car and wades into the lake with his clothes on,
submerging himself. He then stands up, folds his arms, and watches the holiday fireworks, remarking
that they are pretty good, for a small town.
Kiowa’s death constitutes a climax in the series of stories. Because he is such a prominent character in
the company’s narrative, his death fundamentally changes the relationships among the company’s
individual members. Kiowa, a soft-spoken, peaceful Native American, serves as a foil for several of
O’Brien’s characters, including Henry Dobbins
and Norman Bowker. His presence is strong but
understated, and, by nature, he is a gentle and peaceful man. He discourages soldiers from excessive
violence but also supports them through the difficult and inevitable decisions war forces them to
make, especially, but not exclusively, when O’Brien kills a man outside My Khe. When Kiowa is
killed suddenly and senselessly, all of the men are effected, specifically Norman Bowker, who worries