Rather, they were too frightened to be cowards. (The Things They Carried.77)
This is an interesting twist on the idea of cowardice. If the soldiers do something they otherwise would not do—say, kill someone—because they don't want to be seen as a coward, does that make them a coward anyway? Check out the "Quotes: Weakness" section for more on this.
They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier's greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. (The Things They Carried.77)
Right away we know that reputation carries more weight in the army than it does in your average high school. Who would kill or die for his or her reputation? But according to O'Brien, if you're a soldier, your greatest fear is not being maimed or dying, but blushing.
They sneered at sick call. They spoke bitterly about guys who had found release by shooting off their own toes or fingers […] It was fierce, mocking talk, with only a trace of envy or awe, but even so the image played itself out behind their eyes. (The Things They Carried.78)
Outwardly, they attack each other for showing weakness. This means that even though they're all having these fantasies of taking the easy way out of the war, they can never talk about these fantasies, or give them any weight. They care too much about their reputations.
On the Rainy River
All the eyes on me—the town, the whole universe—and I couldn't risk the embarrassment […] I felt myself blush. I couldn't tolerate it. (On the Rainy River.69)
This whole time, we've thought that the reason O'Brien's been ashamed to tell this story for twenty years is because he nearly ran away from the war. Now we learn that he's ashamed that he didn't run away. He blushed, and he went to war purely out of shame.
Even now, I'll admit, the story makes me squirm. For more than twenty years I've had to live with it, feeling the shame, trying to push it away […]. (On the Rainy River.1)
O'Brien begins the story by admitting that his reputation still matters to him. This is a story so shameful to him that he's been dealing with it on his own for twenty years.
He seemed a little dazed. Now and then we could hear him cussing, bawling himself out. Anyone else would've laughed it off, but for Curt Lemon it was too much. The embarrassment must've turned a screw in his head. (The Dentist.7)
Curt Lemon is the resident daredevil, so it makes sense that he would be embarrassed about fainting in the dentist's tent. And he's so embarrassed that he's yelling at himself out loud, and eventually goes to get a perfectly good tooth pulled, just to prove that he's still a tough guy.
"But I shouldn't b****. One thing I hate—really hate—is all those whiner-vets." (Notes.5)
This is part of Norman Bowker's letter to O'Brien. Because of O'Brien's view on truth, we have to view this as part of the story as much as anything else is. Despite the fact that Bowker is having a really hard time readjusting to American society, he still chides himself for complaining and talks about how much he hates whiners.
The Ghost Soldiers
Getting shot should be an experience from which you can draw some small pride. I don't mean the macho stuff… gut hate, the kind of hate that stays with you even in your dreams. (The Ghost Soldiers.5-7)
Tim's exit from fighting was because of—no joke—a butt wound that nearly killed him. He had gangrene of the butt. The nurses call it diaper rash as a joke. It hurts his butt, obviously, but it hurts his reputation more, and because of it he forms an unhealthy hatred of Bobby Jorgenson, the medic who let the wound fester in the first place.
Another thing. Three times a day […] so naturally there were some jokes. (The Ghost Soldiers.62)
As the story progresses, O'Brien keeps coming back to his butt wound and describing in detail all the ways in which it's humiliating. It makes us realize the depth of his hatred for Jorgenson, and how it might prompt him to enact some kind of revenge.
The Lives of the Dead
"You did a good thing today," [Kiowa] said. "That shaking hands crap, it isn't decent. The guys'll hassle you for a while—especially Jensen—but just keep saying no. Should've done it myself. Takes guts, I know that." (The Lives of the Dead.20)
The casual nature with which the men treat the dead stems from wanting to protect their reputations and show toughness, but they know it's not right. Kiowa recognizes that it takes guts to show that you're not tough.