Trace the narrator’s comments about what constitutes a true war story in "How to Tell a True War Story."

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

It is interesting how the obvious theme of this story, what constitutes a "true" war story, is deliberately played with throughout the tale, as we are offered a series of pieces of advice which contradict each other. The author seems to be intentionally confusing us, saying one thing, and then saying another, yet all of his advice only serves to point towards the difficulties of capturing the essence of a war story that is true to facts. Note the following advice that is given:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behaviour, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it.

However, having said this and having pointed towards the way that there is never any lesson to be learnt from a war story, a couple of pages later, the author states:

In a true war story, if there's a moral at all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out.

Simultaneously therefore, the author seems to suggest that there isn't a moral, but if there is, it is impossible to extract. Such comments point towards the innate challenges of writing a story about the confusing experience of war. Perhaps the most important comment, however, is the final paragraph, which seems to identify that telling a "true war story" is actually a self-defeating object, because there seems to be no such thing, as a war story is part of many different separate experiences that each are "true" in their own sense:

And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It's about love and memory. It's about sorrow. It's about sisters who never write back and people who never listen.

A true war story, the author seems to suggest, is thus not actually about war at all.

Read the study guide:
How to Tell a True War Story

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