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Duty and Conscience Relations Review

The problem of tension between duty and conscience has always been the center of the discussions. This problem is more painful in the war times when these two notions have frequently appeared in situations when a person had to kill his/her friend only because of the feeling of duty before the country, and vice versa, when a person refused to kill because of his/her passionate love to the enemy. The question is what feeling is stronger, what characteristic feature is going to win, the duty before the country, or the conscious and warm relations to the person. There are a lot of literary works that discuss this problem from different sides and expose the problem of people’s remorse after killing a friend due to the feeling of duty.

Focusing the attention on “Guests of the Nation” by Frank O’Connor, it should be mentioned that the feeling of duty before the country was higher and stronger in the story than the friendship and personal attitude to the people. To be more specific, a summary of the story is going to be provided. The time frames in the story are the middle of a war between England and Ireland. Belcher and Hawkins, two Englishmen, were taken as hostages by the Irish. The two soldiers were made to guard them, Bonaparte and Noble, who did not understand why they were sitting with those people, as no information could be taken from them. The narrator of the story, Bonaparte, tells the story of past events. The relations between the guard and prisoners were so close, that there was even the assurance that the prisoners are even incapable to escape. Bonaparte and Noble once questioned themselves why these people were taken under the guard as there was nothing they could be useful at. The reply was shocking, “I thought you knew we were keeping them as hostages” (O’Connor 2000-415). This means different than just prisoners, the understanding came that once, they will have to kill their new friends. The scene where the Englishmen are killed is very impressive and horrifying. Belcher and Hawkins, guarded by Bonaparte and Noble, were delivered on the place of capital punishment. Neither Belcher nor Hawkins could do anything to save their friend. They could not believe that they had to kill their friends “No one can ever say of me that I let down a pal” (O’Connor 2000-417). But pushed by duty and fear (You would because you’d know you’d be shot for not doing it (O’Connor 2000-417)) they had to let their friends be killed, as they did not have the inner power to kill them themselves. Belcher and Hawkins even at the gates of their death and understanding who had to kill them turned to the soldiers as “chum”, expressing their feelings and understanding that the duty before the country should be on the first place, “We knew that was no way out” (O’Connor 2000-417). Even the last Bonaparte’s impression showed his attitude to Belcher and Hawkins, “I saw Hawkins stagger at the knees and lie out flat at Noble’s feet, slowly and as quiet as a kid falling asleep” (O’Connor 2000-417). Both prisoners and guards understood that there was no other way, that the duty before the country should be higher, as you are only one person, and the country comprises millions.

The other story, which expresses the same tension between duty and conscience but from the other perspective, is “The Things they Carried” by Tim O’Brien. The story is the collection of different narrations, or even situations, where the same people appear with the description of the duty and conscience struggle. People are walking and everybody cares about different things, material and mental. Everybody walks with their thoughts about their usual peaceful life, and everybody dreams. Lieutenant Jimmy Cross thinks that it was his fault in Ted Lavender’s death, his conscience is worried. When Ted Lavender was killed Lieutenant Jimmy Cross thought about Martha, his love. “Lieutenant Cross gazed at the tunnel. But he was not there. He was buried with Martha under the white sand at the Jersey shore” (O’Brien 1998-12), and at this moment Lavender was shot. This feeling of guilt that Lavender was killed remained with Lieutenant Jimmy Cross even after the war, as he was sure that it was his fault, that he did not follow his duty to protect the soldier-friend. All the stories in the collection show that people have been killed because of the absence of sufficient care for them when the duty was to protect them. People suffer remounts as it was their duty, but that feeling is the only reason to be upset. Nobody would care if there was no obligation on them and the feeling of duty is the only reason people suffered. Curt Lemon, Lee Strunk, Kiowa are people who were killed and the feeling of duty was only for pity. All these stories are written from the perspective of a lot of years passed, and understanding this it comes to mind that the aim of these stories is to justify other people behavior, to release from the feeling of guilt, giving some arguments which support the innocence of those who had to follow but failed.

“Guests of the Nation” and “The Things they Carried” are two literary works that represent the reader with almost the same idea, the tension between duty and conscience. These two pieces of works dwell upon the war times when people had to make very difficult decisions. The feelings of friendship had to contest with the feeling of duty before the country, and the decisions, which were provided, were very difficult and emotional. The situation in “The Things they Carried” is a little bit different. His feeling of guilt was caused by the feeling of duty, and people could not release from this feeling even after a lot of years after the war.

War is killing, not only people but also souls. Those, who took part in the war, know how difficult it is to choose between the feeling of guilt and friendship, they know what it means to suffer remorse only because you did not follow the situation which was your duty. War is insidious and cruel, and people are put in situations that have no way out, but the problem is that they have to decide what to do, and whether to live with this feeling till the end of life or to try to find some explanations and to avoid conscience tortures and be happy that you managed to survive and can continue to lead a normal life in the cycle of family and friends, who will never appear before the choice whether to kill or to be killed.


  1. O’Brien, Tim. The things they carried. Broadway Books, 1998
  2. O’Connor, Frank. “Guests of the Nation” in Irish writing in the twentieth century by David Pierce. Cork University Press, 2000

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