Instructor Barbara Manuel
3 March 2013
Shell Shock: A Bloodless Battlefield
A storyteller of war, Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried, keeps the reader mesmerized with PTSD stories of the Vietnam War.
This novel represents a compound documentary written on accounts of the Vietnam War. Many of the stories in this book encompass various examples of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. There are graphical depictions of PTSD symptoms with references to recurring nightmares, intrusive thoughts, hypersensitivity, avoidance behavior, memories, and feelings. These signs of stress disorder are evident in the author and his characters in almost all of his short stories.
In the story “Speaking of Courage,” Norman Bowker has dreams and fantasizes about talking to his ex-girlfriend, who is now married to another guy. As he drives around in his neighborhood in his father’s Chevy, he imagines talking to Sally. “How’s being married?” he might ask, and he’d nod at whatever she answered with, and he would not say a word about how he’d almost won a Silver Star for valor” (134). In this statement, Norman Bowker is having intrusive thoughts about Sally Kramer. This is one of the many occurrences that Bowker suffers during this chapter. He has multiple hallucinations about how things would have been like if he had not suffered through the war. He desperately needs someone to talk to. Since Sally is married, and his best friend Max Arnold is gone because of a freak accident, the only person left is his father who pays little attention to him. This comes out when he thinks to himself, “If Sally had not been married, or if his father were not such a baseball fan, it would have been a good time to talk” (134). This is evidence that Norman feels alienated from all of the people he in his life. He tries to justify and compensate the loss by questioning and answering himself. One particular instance is when he pretends to have a conversation with his father about the war and say’s to himself “If you don’t want to say anymore-” (136) to which Norman Immediately answers himself: “I do want to” “All right then. Slow and sweet, take your time” (136). This is a good example of Norman’s inhibited social skills. In several places in the chapter, he keeps recollecting thoughts about Kiowa, his friend during war. He blames himself for not being able to save his friends life after an explosion in a swamp field. He thinks to himself, “There was a knee. There was an arm and a gold watch and part of a boot (142). Then a moment latter, “There were bubbles where Kiowa’s head should’ve been” (143). Then towards the end of the chapter, Bowker thought about Kiowa again and said to himself, “He was folded in with the war; he was part of the waste” (147). At this point the mental anguish is getting to him. Bowker also displays inhibited social skills when he stops for a bit to eat and instead of placing a fast-food order over the drive-through intercom, he honks at the waitress to place his order. Then instead of leaving after he is done, he presses the intercom once again to inform the employee of the restaurant that he has finished his food. Following this incident, Tim Obrien starts the next chapter by saying, “’Speaking of Courage’ was written in 1975 at the suggestion of Norman Bowker, who three years later hanged himself in the locker room of the YMCA in his hometown in Central Iowa” (149). All of the symptoms of PTSD finally pushed Bowker over the edge. According to the National Center for PTSD: “Why is suicide risk higher in trauma survivors? It may be because of the symptoms of PTSD or it may be due to either to other mental health problems. Some studies link suicide risks in those with PTSD to distressing trauma memories, anger, and poor control of impulses. Further, suicide risk is higher for those with PTSD who have certain styles of coping with stress, such...