On the Rainy River

The story ‘On the Rainy River’ by Tim O’Brien unfolds the issue of the burden to preserve personal, social and national honor that the soldiers carry with them as they go into battle, and through it. The author narrates a story of his obligation to fight the Vietnam War, and the complications arising from the onus of honor that the soldiers have. A soldier needs to stand as a worthy individual to his family, neighbors and all those who know him. Also, the soldier must bring and preserve dignity to his society and nation, which has sent him to war. It does not matter what combatants stand for, they have certain legal and social obligations, which they must fulfill. The drafting for war is a form of these obligations. In most cases, these commitments eventuate in conflicts with personal morality, principles, and reason, putting the individual at a loss for what is the best course of action. The burden is mostly illuminated through social lenses, as the soldiers behave in a way to meet social expectations and to evade social apprehension. The burden of honor that the soldiers bear, gives rise to complications when the soldier is torn between acting guided by social pressure or acting independently and following moral principles that the individual holds.

Embarrassment is a signal of social commitment, and a complication resulting from the burden of honor. O’Brien decides to go to war since he is too embarrassed to make an escape to Canada. He gets this opportunity once, when Elroy Berdahl, takes him across the river into Canadian waters and halts the boat twenty yards away from the Canadian shore. Elroy confronts O’Brien with a chance to swim away into a new life, life without obligations to the United States to go to war or face the law. However, O’Brien is unable to leave, even despite the attractive opportunity. O’Brien is incapacitated by his commitment to the society, as he knows he would fear the shame that would come with his departure. His reason to not leave to Canada, or to drive back home and head to Vietnam does not result from some reason or rationale, but from his fear of being embarrassed as a deserter. Feinberg et al. argue that individuals who are embarrassed are pro-social and are committed to the societal course. They also ascertain that the feeling of shame stems from the individual’s desire to act differently from what the society demands, but his attachment to it holds him back from exploring the world he strives for. Embarrassment in itself is a compilation, when the individual is forced to choose the course of action or the way against his wishes, aspirations, and principles. The actions resulting from this feeling are not sustained by morality or ethical reasoning, rather the individual fears stigmatization from the society for choosing to stand for his moral principles or ethical reasoning. Ideally, human beings should behave freely according to moral and ethical principles; when a person cannot act so, then a conflict arises which will never be resolved. Going to war did not solve O’Brien’s problems, since although he did not face ridicule and stigmatization from the society, he still lives with guilt.

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On that note, lifelong guilt is another complication arising from the burden of honor. O’Brien expresses guilt for two things, his inability to do what was right and for participating in a war without reasonable causes and killing fellow humans. He decided to go war because he was too afraid of social reproach, abandoning the right path. According to O’Brien, the right thing to do was to flee to Canada, start and new life although leaving his old life would have been painful. It was right to live differently, away from the legal compulsion and obligation to go to war. He reasons that, since his college days he was against the US involvement in the Vietnam War. He had published several articles on the same topic during those days, pointing out the lack of genuine causes for the involvement. He believed that people should only indulge in war if it were for genuine good reasons, such as freeing people from brutal leadership and other evils. However, in the current case, he did not see any of those genuine reasons. Therefore, his moral principles demand him to distance himself from the war through all possible means and his failure to leave when he had the opportunity condemned him to lifelong guilt. Also, O’Brien states that he did not believe in shooting fellow humans. His involvement in the war, as he says made him murder a young man with a grenade. Killing people against his conscience and ethical beliefs condemned him to the eternal feeling guilt.

Guilt and shame, consequentially, according to Baldwin et al., reduce self-efficacy. At the beginning of the story O’Brian says that he has never told anybody the story. He states “To go into it, I've always thought, would only cause embarrassment …Even now, I'll admit, the story makes me squirm”. In this statement, O’Brien expresses shame, in owning up the actions he later details in the story. As Baldwin et al., assert, O’Brien bears the burden of guilt and shame that makes him incapable of realizing self-actualization of fulfillment. O’Brien writes the story after twenty years, through which he has been shouldering guilt, unable to express it to anyone, in fear of shame. At this point, it is notable how shame, embarrassment and guilt intertwine, tying back to the burden of honor and social obligations. The embarrassment not to serve the soldiers honor pushes O’Brien into going to war, acting against his principle, resulting to feel guilty to acknowledge before others that he acted so cheaply. As Gausel and Leach argue, the concern for social image and self-image bring about guilt, shame and embarrassment. Social image lays obligations on individuals to act in certain ways, disregarding the personal needs. Social lens considers an individual through what the society sees as upholding social image. They disregard the self-image need, thus conflicting with the individual and resulting in shame and guilt. Similarly, Bryan et al. underscore that guilt and shame in soldiers make their lives miserable. Although the fighters serve the burden of honor and fulfill their social and legal obligations, they are left with eternal marks of embarrassment, which make their lives intolerable after the war. O’Brien carries with him the memories of war and the shame of failing to follow his moral principle and belief. These emotions make his life miserable, and he can only attempt to ease the weight through writing his story. Shame and guilt result from the actions of loading the honor’s burden upon soldiers remaining as wounds in their lives forever.

The burden of honor modifies other parts of the burdened life. O’Brien had the obligation to earn money and later study further, as it is the normal life of human beings. After graduating, young people must take responsibility for their lives and start earning and attend graduate school. The onus of honor modified O’Brien’s life when he had to go to war. His dreams of studying further and building the career of choice were shattered or delayed by the weight of honor as his life took a new direction. Besides, the burden modified O’Brien’s life also by introducing the guilt and shame burdens mentioned above. O’Brien had now to bear the constant feeling of guilt and shame, which changed his social life completely. As Kim et al. state, these two feelings result into to depression. Since people fear to express what they consider shameful and they feel guilty about, they put their mind under extreme pressure, and it eventually gives in to depression. Depression is evident in O’Brien’s statement “For more than twenty years I've had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away, and so by this act of remembrance, by putting the facts down on paper, I'm hoping to relieve at least some of the pressure on my dreams”. He lived for years battling depression and haunted sleeps as a result of the obsessive obligations introduced by the burden of honor. Therefore, the burden modifies his life to become even worse.  

As evident in the discussion, the overwhelming honor relates with other burdens by first overshadowing them. When O’Brein decides to go to war, the burden of honor overshadows his burden to moral value, and his burning desire to continue his studies and build a career. Later, once the onus of honor is satisfied, it departs, introducing the feelings of guilt and shame as aforementioned. The burden of honor does not alleviate other burdens. It just departs leaving the individual frustrated. Bryan et al. argue that soldiers do not get a sense of accomplishment or victory from war. Instead, they carry with them their wounded spirits, a lifelong pain and regrets. The burden of honor relates with other burdens by facilitating them into O’Brien’s life, but not out of it.

In conclusion, social pressure to act honorably, uphold the social image and meet social expectations, bring about the feeling of embarrassment, guilt, and shame upon the soldiers. O’Brien goes to the war not because it is his moral decision, but to satisfy societal expectations, as he feels embarrassed to be considered a craven and deserter. Consequently, he has to bear the guilt of not acting within his moral principles and endorse ethical judgment. His involvement in the war also starts the feeling of shame, as he admits to himself and to others in the story that he acted cowardly. The burden of soldiers to uphold honor leads to other burdens of bearing guilt and shame, which at the same lead to these complications in the life of soldiers after the war.

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