fear, the unknown, fear of the unknown, community, race, nationalism, desertion, patriotism, the Other


In this paper I discuss the nature of the fear that worked upon many of the soldiers of the Vietnam War, concentrating on a fear of the unknown. Drawing upon Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried as its central focus text, my analysis suggests that the fear of the unknown is a product of communities’ efforts to distance themselves from a cultural Other. As such, I posit that those in positions of societal influence employ fear to reinforce racial stereotypes and maintain domestic unity. Perceiving ethnic and linguistic misunderstandings as forces that cultural leaders often evoke deliberately, I claim that in The Things They Carried, traditional views of loyalty to community ideals become destabilized and even invalidated. For O’Brien, transgression against cultural norms ought not be stigmatized if the founding principles holding up those standards prove unsound; even disloyalty to one’s country, manifest in “unpatriotic” expressions of disagreement with national narratives, may in fact be justified when those narratives merely reinforce uninformed prejudice. I conclude with the assertion that patriotism betrays inherent fears of a number of unknowns, which are maintained unknown by the very cultural institutions to which patriots profess loyalty.

Issue and Volume

Vol. 9, Iss. 2 (Winter 2017)