How to Tell a True War Story Themes

Themes

Memory and Reminiscence
Because ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ is written by a Vietnam War veteran, and because Tim O’Brien has chosen to create a narrator with the same name as his own, most readers want to believe that the stories O’Brien tells are true and actually happened to him. There are several reasons for this. In the first place, O’Brien’s so-called memoir, If I Die In a Combat Zone, contains many stories that find their way into his later novels and short fiction. Thus, it is difficult for the reader to sort through what is memory and what is fiction.

There are those, however, who would suggest that this is one of O’Brien’s points in writing his stories. Although most readers would believe that their own memories are ‘‘true,’’ this particular story sets out to demonstrate the way that memories are at once true and made up.

Further, as O’Brien tells the reader in ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story,’’ ‘‘You’d feel cheated if it never happened.’’ This is certainly one response to O’Brien’s story. Readers want the stories to be true in the sense that they grow out of O’Brien’s memory. O’Brien, however, will not let the reader take this easy way out. Instead, he questions the entire notion of memoir, reminiscence, and the ability of memory to convey the truth.

Truth and Falsehood
Certainly, the most insistent theme in this story is that of truth and falsehood. O’Brien, however, would be unlikely to set up such a dichotomy. That is, according to ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story,’’ truth is not something that can find its opposition in untruth. Rather, according to O’Brien, because war is so ambiguous, truth takes on many guises. Even seemingly contradictory...

(The entire section is 736 words.)