Of Cowardice and Courage

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Of Cowardice and Courage
In the subtlest of ways, Tom O’Brien in his short story “Rainy River,” implies that
although, it is often a show of good judgment to pay attention to societal expectations, it is
profoundly gutless to relinquish one’s beliefs for other people’s opinions. The story narrates the
author’s personal experience after he received a draft notice to fight in the Vietnam war; a war
for which he lacked the enthusiasm or moral will to fight. It is in this thrilling dilemma that the
readers are beckoned to empathize with the writers damning plight. O’Brien makes it a case of
courage versus cowardice; the plot is tightly knitted with opposing standpoints that imply
alternate definitions of courage. In the conclusion and throughout the story, the author seems to
portray the idea that courage is defined by embracing one’s own sense of moral judgment free
of societal intrigues.
One of the writer’s core arguments come out clearly in the fourth paragraph: he believes
that every individual in society should be left to their own fate after all, human diversity allows
a place for every personality. O’Brien, for example, was a liberal and an intellectual, a “Phi Beta
Kappa and a summa cum laude” student; why was he to be chosen when clearly he was not the
right person for the job (108). It would have been perhaps more appropriate to choose those who
“supported the war” or at least thought it was “worth the price” (109). The author, however,
admits that part of his resistance was due to fear he was terrified of dying. This assertion could
validate the whole idea that he might have just have been using the idea of his abilities in the
field of academics as a mere excuse. He even states in the preceding paragraphs that if the
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“nation was justified” to go to war he “would have willingly marched off to battle” (110). This
notion, however, does not dispute the aspect of choice but only suggests that, despite the
diversity in skill, everyone can adapt to a given circumstance. Nevertheless, the reasons for this
compromise must always be justified.
The author, therefore, posits that it takes some courage to go against the grain and risk
being called a coward for not conforming to conventional and seemingly unquestionable ideals.
He gives the example of the country’s citizens who did not know “the nature of Vietnamese
nationalism” but still supported the war for fear of being called a “treason pussy” (110). It
appears extremely ironical that one would be called a coward for choosing to stick to their own
opinions amidst such immense coercion. Perhaps the propagators of this idea believed that in the
midst of all the confusion the government of had their citizens best interest and that the
government was equally acting out of an intrinsic sense of patriotism. However, as has been
proven in the Guernica bombing in the Spanish Civil War, for example, the government can at
times have its own interests to serve (Minchom 6). The government of Spain later conceded that
the bombings had been commissioned by Spanish Leader General Franco purely for economic
and political reasons. As O’Brien rightly states “certain blood” can often be shed for “uncertain
reasons” (108).
To further strengthen the idea that one should always stick to their sense of authenticity,
the writer in his plot resolution implies that blind conformity always leads to regret. The author,
after bowing to societal pressure, comes back and concludes that he survived but “it was not a
happy ending” he had been a “coward” (118). This statement sums up the plot quite neatly; the
writer had been right to consider opting out of the war the first time. After having to relinquish
his ideals to please the people around him, he was convinced that that was not the way he had
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intended to live his life. One might argue that he was also oblivious to the life he would expect in
Canada and that his conclusion was not objective. His ideas of Canada were “purely abstract”
and, therefore, he would not have known with complete certainty whether the consequences
would have been equally detrimental (110). This assertion, however, fails to sufficiently
invalidate the claim that one should be left to their own free will. Naturally, it seems more sound
to suffer on one’s own terms than to have to blame someone else for their misadventures.
With everything that has been stated in the discourse, though, a part of the author's
convictions implies that it is important to consider the counsel of the wise in the society at times
and not be too engrossed in one’s personal viewpoint. O’Brien claims that Elroy Berdahl “saved
him” (111). During his time with the eighty-one-year-old man, he was able to rethink all his
convictions and was able to be engaged in his thought processes without feeling an intrusion in
his decision making. It is certainly a vital requirement for every human being to consider that
they might be wrong; after all their introspection there might be elements of the fact that they
might have missed. The writer’s encounter with Elroy elucidates this idea. It is imperative,
nonetheless, as O’Brien later found out to align one’s beliefs to the ones that society tries to
impose upon them. The most delicate element of this whole process is striking a balance.
It is certainly a hard task to opt for authenticity in the face of conformity; however,
O’Brien posits that even in the face of such a dilemma one should strive to keep his individuality
and stick with what they think is right for them. He says this because everyone is blessed with
different abilities and the world has enough opportunities for everyone to thrive in their personal
skillset everyone could be left to do what they excel in without any sector remaining
unexplored. Additionally, he claims that the exemplification of cowardice is subscribing to
unquestionable ideals for fear of being branded an outcast. On the contrary, it takes courage to
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embrace one’s own authenticity without caring whether they would be judged harshly for their
decisions by the society. After considering all these aspects, however, it is imperative for the
individual to strike a balance between their own self-absorption and the objective truth
something they can acquire by seeking the counsel of the better-informed members of the
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Works Cited
Minchom, Martin. Spain's Martyred Cities. London: Sussex Academic Press, 2015. Print.

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