(Tim O'Brien 1990) Tim is a young American of 21. He is staying for a week at a friend's; Elroy, in Minnesota to take an important decision. We are in the 60s and like many young men of his age, Tim has been drafted, he must go to Vietnam. But Tim does not know whether he will join the army or cross the border to Canada and be a dodger. After an inner battle, he finally chooses the war. It is not a question of courage or patriotism; it is the easiest way for him. By bringing him near the frontier, Elroy, the silent witness, offered him the opportunity to make up his mind and he did.
1. An inner battle: 1-23
2. A silent witness: 24-33
3. Failure: 34-end
1. An inner battle
Elroy and Tim have gone fishing on the Rainy River, Min., which marks the border between the USA and Canada. Now, Tim is faced to his choice: will he swim to Canada or will he stay in the boat and consequently go to Vietnam? Tim is now at a crossroads. He first attempts to dive and swim away, that to dodge the war, but he can't however hard he tries "to will myself" (3) "I did try" (6) He has to force himself "to grip the edge of the boat" Even though he urges himself to do it "Now" he just can't. Ironically enough, he adds "I couldn't make myself to be brave" (17) His staying in the boat has, in fact, nothing to do with what could seem the real reason: bravery and patriotism. If Tim shrinks from running away, it's not because he is ashamed of doing so (17), but out of "embarrassment"(8-18) He fears people's judgement on him, he dreads abuse and mockery. Tim acts on account of what others might say "those eyes on me.." "I could hear.." "..was an audience" His choice is not influenced either by fear of the war, or by ideology, it's just fear of being insulted, mocked or singled out if he ran away. The term embarrassment is even queer when you have to take such an important decision as going or not going to the war. You are usually more than "embarrasses"
So, finally he chooses to submit. This is not a reasonable decision; he knows it for he cries it louder and louder. But he couldn't do otherwise. His fear of the judgement of others was deeper than that of the war itself.
2. A silent witness
Elroy Berdahl hardly speaks at all "remained quiet" "didn't speak" He does not interfere with Tim's inner battle. He has brought him there, a few yards from Canada, as if to place him at a crossroads, to let him face his responsibilities. He does not speak and keeps on fishing. But being there is enough to remind Tim that he will have to face people's judgements, that nobody is alone on Earth. If you are a believer, then you may fear God's judgement, if not, then you may dread people's outlook on you (audience/ witness) In any case man is alone to take his own decisions. Yet, his choices, as Tim's, always have consequences; always meet with the others' reactions. Elroy's presence, though utterly discreet, is efficient. He understands Tim's inner struggle. He sees him trying to get overboard and finally sitting down, crying. Then, he knows that he can turn the boat back to Minnesota.
Tim's decision is not a victory. It is not an intellectual choice based on opinion or faith. He has decided to go to Vietnam not in terms of loyalty to his country, but as the best opportunity "not to be embarrassed". He lives it as a failure to assert himself. "I was a coward" (46) this is a paradox in so far as society expects the reverse: you are a coward if you run away, not if you do your duty as a soldier! Tim is not at peace with himself now, on the contrary, he leaves Elroy without a word, as if ashamed of his lack of courage. And he appreciates the old man's discreet attitude (40) There is no need for justifications or explanations, which he could not give anyway. The following years appear as a sort of meaningless blank then, from the moment he left Min., to the end of the war. Though he "survived" (45) Vietnam, he sounds lifeless at the end "I went to the war and then home again" (45) What happened there does not seem to matter to him "and...and.." In other circumstances it might have been a happy conclusion, but for him it was not "not a happy ending" (45) Even years after Tim still sees his decision as a failure. Thus the last two sentences sound as the extreme paradox of his dilemma (46) For the "audience" he did his duty, going to the war, for himself he was a "coward" Appearances were safe, but he never overcame his choice.
Tim's choice shows us how bravery and cowardice are sometimes misinterpreted. What for many people seems an act of real courage remained for the narrator the cruelest defeat of his life. Where others would have called him a coward, fleeing from his responsibilities, he only saw an absence of willpower to be true to his real desire. He survived, yet he was and remained defeated.