"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...
"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."