In 2009, 149 US soldiers were killed in Iraq; while 304 committed suicide AFTER their service was completed. This means the emotional effects the war left on these soldiers resulted in more than twice the number of deaths caused directly by the violence of war.
The legal system sends people to jail as a punishment for their crimes, because jail is considered a horrible place. Yet, many prisoners who have served long sentences, commit crimes after their release in an effort to get sent back to jail. For some people prison is easier, they don’t have to worry about the outside world, they fit in at prison, and they don’t have any taxes or jobs. Many don’t know how to return to their old lives; how to face reality again. The change is just too difficult for them to handle.
Prison is a lot like war; you get so used to it, you don’t know how to NOT live in fear. That’s how Norman Bowker felt after the war. Life after the war was too easy and lacked purpose. He was stuck-paralyzed. He couldn’t relate with anyone because he didn’t know how to tell anyone how he felt. Everything he did felt small and meaningless, and everything he said came out wrong. He was unable to process his feelings and communicate them to others. He couldn’t even understand his own feelings and comprehend what he had been through. He no longer had someone giving him orders, and assigning him purposeful missions. That’s why he wrote to Tim. He wanted Tim to tell him what to do, to give him orders. Norman wanted Tim to write a story about him for the sole purpose of reading the ending, to tell him what to do next.
Tim O’Brien used his writing to speak for him, he got all of his emotions out on paper, he moved on. Norman couldn’t do that. He couldn’t form his thoughts into words. So they were all bottled up inside him, eating him from the inside out; killing him.
What do you do when you’ve been to hell, but then came back? Bowker couldn’t move on- he couldn’t recover. In Bowker’s case, the recovery was harder than the war itself. Once he gets O’Brien’s story, it’s not what he wanted. It doesn’t answer his questions; it doesn’t fill that hole. In the first story, the character is not like Bowker, and Kiowa’s death, which was such a huge part of Bowker’s life, isn’t even in it. Once again, Norman couldn’t get his feelings across to anyone, because no one understood and he could not explain.
After Norman Bowker hangs himself, his mother tells Tim O’Brien that Norman “was quiet” and “didn’t want to bother anyone”. But the truth is, he was reaching out, frantically, and desperately grasping for help, for understanding, for recovery. Tim writes another story, this time better, what Bowker would have wanted. He includes all the details and Kiowa’s death to make the story really about Norman Bowker’s life.
When soldiers go to war they become totally different people than who they were. War takes over them, and consumes them. It leaves such a big impact, leaves such a big scar, some soldiers don’t ever really return from war. They can’t seem to find who they were, who they used to be. So much has changed, everything is different and nothing is the same. Sometimes reality is too hard face, so they simply choose not to face it.
Norman Bowker told O’Brien that he felt like he had died in Nam, that he wasn’t really living, and maybe he was right. Maybe Norman Bowker never really did leave the war. Maybe he didn’t want to. Like those prisoners, war became all Bowker knew. He didn’t know how to not be on a mission, to not live in fear. Norman Bowker couldn’t face reality after the war, so he never did.