In "How to Tell a True War Story," what do you think these competing and contradictory ideas finally add up to?

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In this story, which attempts to distinguish between a "true" war story as one that captures the highly ambiguous experience of war and a "false" war story, Tim O'Brien establishes an interesting relationship between fact and fiction. All of the contradictory advice about what a "true" war story is and what it isn't seems to point towards an innate difficulty in terms of establishing what is true and isn't. Of course, this is a theme that the story explores through the different accounts of the death of Curt Lemon, how factually we are told that he was killed by a 105mm round, whereas the author tells us that it was "sunlight" that killed him as he rose into the air.

However, perhaps the most interesting part of this story comes when O'Brien freely admits that the entire episode was a complete fabrication:

None of it happened. None of it. And even if it did happen, it didn't happen in the mountains, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.

This indicates how through the contradictory statements this story contains, the author is playing with the concept of truth. We get an impression of the difficulty of separating fact from fiction from an author who deliberately plays with such concepts. In trying to understand a war story, it is suggested, fiction can often give a more realistic sense of affairs than fact can.

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

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