Line: “I was a coward. I went to war.”
From: “On the Rainy River” from The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
These two simple, declarative sentences conclude O’Brien’s complex short story “On the Rainy River” which details the emotional anguish O’Brien wrestled with while considering the following… to accept his Vietnam draft notice or abandon his family, trash his patriotic duty and flee to Canada.
The power of this excerpt lies in its brevity–like someone telling a shameful story or a confession of sorts. You feel that each sentence is a story in itself. And the speaker is being vulnerable yet you get the sense he’s holding back a great deal.
Additionally, each sentence consists of four words which creates a symmetrical and emotional bond between the sentences–packing an emotional and complicated punch.
Notice the verbs– “was” and “went”. Our soldier survived but there was nothing heroic about his experience. Even surviving doesn’t bring pride. In fact, survival may only compound the shame.In just eight words it’s clear that O’Brien holds personal ideologies over democratic, majority rule– which is foundation all Greek tragedy.
Finally, the sentences challenge our romantic Hollywood axioms– that soldiers march unafraid into the jaws of war and if they return, they strode unashamed down Broadway, under confetti rain and into the waiting arms of America.