Tim O’Brien conveys various messages concerning the experiences of soldiers in the Vietnam War through storytelling. He brings out the aspect of emotional burdens that the soldiers draw from the war. Soldiers who survive the war bear confusion, grief, and guilt.
Confusion and grief engulf Norman Bowker that he drives pointlessly around his hometown lake to write a letter to O’Brien explicating how the war took away his life (150). Bowker hangs himself in a YMCA. Bowker grapples with the emotional burdens on his own that he ends up committing suicide. O’Brien feels that sharing his stories through writing keeps him from suffering emotional torture (151).
O’Brien also conveys the message of social obligation. The author shows that the men went to war majorly because of social obligation. This obligation arose from assumed pressures from the broader society and nuclear relations. Norman, for example, states in a letter to O’Brien that he, like other soldiers, went to fight because of his obligation to society.
Although he won seven medals, Norman felt guilty after the war that he did not receive the Silver Star (147). He perceives the failure to receive the Silver Star as a disappointment to his hometown and his father.
The motifs in the story include loneliness and isolation, vague morality, and storytelling. The author repeatedly stresses the effect of isolation and loneliness on the soldiers by showing that insecurity and worries can be more precarious than the real war. Loneliness continues to engulf in the lives of the soldiers long after the end of the war.
O’Brien regrets his earlier decision to join what he now refers to as the “ wrong war” (152). Norman Bowker is totally isolated because there is no one to console him (147). O’Brien observes that he would have had a similar ending to that of Norman if he had not been writing to keep busy (191).
The author demonstrates that war marginalizes moral boundaries. War makes it impossible to explain the harsh killing of innocent souls on both sides. The men fail to apprehend the basis for these brutal encounters. Thus, they point out the irony as a way of confronting their emotional pain. Mitchell Saunders and O’Brien use irony to stress the real immorality of the killings. The exposure of the soldiers to these horrors affects their perceptions of right and wrong.
Jimmy Cross blames himself for the death of Kiowa and writes to Kiowa’s father to apologize (161). O’Brien is also utterly affected by the war that he substitutes his peace-loving character with a hard and callous willingness to cause harm to others (191).
Azar tries to confront the emotional pain that Kiowa’s death causes him by joking that the dead man is only eating shit (158). The paradoxical lesson that the soldiers draw from their encounters is that war is immoral. O’Brien feels Warfare is capricious and vague because it drives human beings into severe challenges without clear solutions.
The author also views stories as the best way for listeners and tellers to grapple with the past collectively and share otherwise incomprehensible encounters. He demonstrates that storytelling is not only a survival tool for soldiers experiencing confusing emotions as a result of the war but also a communication mechanism throughout life. The different storytellers in the book, such as Norman Bowker, in addition to O’Brien, use stories to bring out the profound horrible truths of war.