Describe the style and thesis in Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"How to Tell a True War Story" is one of Tim O'Brien 's most discussed and praised pieces, mostly due to its contradictory features. Throughout the short story, the author plays with the concepts of truth, memory, and their relation to each other. The general emphasis is on...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

"How to Tell a True War Story" is one of Tim O'Brien's most discussed and praised pieces, mostly due to its contradictory features. Throughout the short story, the author plays with the concepts of truth, memory, and their relation to each other. The general emphasis is on the notion that truth in storytelling is not the same as a fact. It doesn't even apply to autobiographical or semi-autobiographical fiction like The Things They Carried. O'Brien tries to explain to the reader that it's nearly impossible to tell a true war story. The only method, if there is any, is to create some kind of a mishmash of fact, (false) memory and artistic liberty: which is what "How to Tell a True War Story" is.

O'Brien illustrates this with snippets of larger-than-life and also quite mundane tales, showing how neither really works due to the expectations of the reader. There is a story, for example, of a whole troop going to the mountains and hearing a restaurant full of people, with a band playing and everything. In the middle of a jungle. The person telling the story swears it's true. And then says it's not. So where's the truth? Did it happen, in a way? Was it an auditory hallucination? How could that be shared by a number of people? Were there just strange noises, echoing and distorting in mountains, driving men insane? Was it a trick by the enemy?

O'Brien's point is that it doesn't matter. War stories are kind of like fisherman tales. You have to take them with a grain of salt, but it doesn't necessarily make them any less true. Perhaps they happened with someone else. Perhaps, like a children's game, the story has been repeated so many times that the original is completely lost. And it's quite possible that we wouldn't believe the truth even if someone told it.

O'Brien tries to show that it's impossible to tell a true war story because the chasm it needs to cross is too wide. There are too many pitfalls playing off false expectations and often ridiculous reality. So the only way to tell a true war story is not to cling to the "true."

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Tim O'Brien challenges our notions of truthfulness by suggesting that a story doesn't necessarily have to be true in order to contain truth, or to be truthful. He makes a number of statements about "true war stories," first making such a claim and then telling a story or two to demonstrate. A true war story, for example, is "never moral" and it will "embarrass" you. It often "cannot be believed" because, often, the real story is so crazy that it seems like it cannot be true, so the storyteller has to include some "normal stuff" that isn't true just to make you believe the crazy parts that are true. Further, a true war story "never seems to end." If there is a moral, it cannot be "teased out" or else you unravel the whole story, like pulling on a thread in a cloth. A true war story "makes the stomach believe." In other words, you can feel it in your gut. "The truths are contradictory." War seems like a paradox in that it is both "grotesque" and "beautiful," and if your story only includes one or the other, then it isn't truthful even if it is true. A story doesn't even have to have actually happened in order to be true.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story," O'Brien challenges the nature of truth and argues that the truth is often fictionalized to make it acceptable for both the speaker and the listener.  He uses elements of contradiction to suggest to the reader that events during war are often so outlandish that the speaker needs to alter the facts so that others accept them as truth.  O'Brien also suggests that people alter their own truths so that they can live with the horrors of war.  Throughout the text, O'Brien uses anecdotes to share war stories with the reader, and then in the following lines he says that the stories are not true which puts doubt in the reader's mind.  This story appears in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried which is supposed to be O'Brien's memoir of his time spent in the Vietnam War, but just as "How to Tell a True War Story" casts doubt in the mind of the reader, it casts a shadow of doubt over the entire book.  In the end, the reader is left questioning whether the truth of the story or the memory of the experience is the more important factor.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team