‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ first appeared in October 1987 in Esquire. It later came to hold a central position in Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, published in 1990. An interesting combination of recalled events and editorial commentary, the story received critical attention at its first publication. Indeed, nearly every reviewer and critic who treats O’Brien’s work singles out this story for special commentary. The story in many ways provides a map to the rest of The Things They Carried. By trying to characterize what constitutes a true war story, but never really achieving this feat, O’Brien introduces the most important themes of his book, including memory, imagination, epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge), and truth. In addition, O’Brien uses the very technique he would later use in creating The Things They Carried, interspersing anecdotes and stories with commentary about the roles of fiction and storytelling. As D. J. R. Bruckner stated in the New York Times in an early review of The Things They Carried, ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ is ‘‘at least as much about storytelling as about men at war.’’ Certainly, by having his fictional characters tell stories and then recant the truth of those stories, O’Brien calls into question the possibility of ever telling a true war story. The result of this technique is that the story is both fragmentary and cohesive: the stories within the larger framework are fragments held together by a narrative voice determined to ‘‘get it right.’’ Certainly, any student wishing to begin a study of Tim O’Brien would be well served to pay close attention to ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story.’’
Did this raise a question for you?