Summary of “Speaking of Courage”
Norman Bowker has returned home after the war and spends a Sunday, the Fourth of July, driving around and around a neighborhood lake in Wisconsin in his father's car. He remembers being here in his youth with his girlfriend and friends. His friends in the war are mostly dead, and his other friends at home have moved on to jobs, marriage, and school. His old girlfriend Sally is married. His father is watching TV at home. Norman keeps passing the same two boys who are hiking around the lake. He has driven around the lake for three hours. He wants to stop at Sally's house and talk. He imagines talking with her and with his father, who wanted him to win medals in the war. Norman had won seven medals, but they were only for “common valor” and not the Silver Star that he almost won for valor.
He tells in an imaginary conversation with some listener about the Song Tra Bong river. Once it rains, the river flows over and makes the field into muck, like quicksand. That's when he blew the Silver Medal. One night Lt. Cross had them camp by the river. Some local women had tried to tell them not to, but Cross did not listen. The rain started and by midnight they were trapped in the smelly muck. It was the village toilet. They were attacked in this slime, and all they could do was go into it and hide. He heard Kiowa scream as he was hit and tried to get to him. He found one boot and pulled on it, but Kiowa was stuck in the mud. Instead of staying, he let go of Kiowa's boot, and he sank. Bowker says he became a coward because the stink was unbearable, and he could not stand it. At home now there is nowhere for him to go and no one to tell about how he almost won the Silver Medal, how he could have saved his friend Kiowa.
Commentary on “Speaking of Courage”
Norman Bowker is one of the veterans who returns from war and is unable to fit in or resume a normal life. He understands that there is no one to talk to about his war experience and that furthermore, no one is interested. They have all moved on. His father wanted him to win medals, but Bowker feels he failed to get the real medal when he could have saved Kiowa's life. He did not have enough courage to stick it out. He claims it was the horrible smell that made him save his own life rather than risk it for Kiowa. At home, the town and all the people seem dead, because Norman cannot feel anything, one of the symptoms of what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder.