What is a thesis for "How to Tell a True War Story"?

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The following lines are as close to a proper thesis as one can find in the text of "How to Tell a True War Story":

Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

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The following lines are as close to a proper thesis as one can find in the text of "How to Tell a True War Story":

Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

In brief, the core thesis of "How to Tell a True War Story" is that to emphasize the truth of a true story, one might have to embellish or fictionalize it a bit. This sounds contradictory, but Tim O'Brien explains that sometimes a one-hundred percent factual account of the story misses the experience of what it is like to be involved in combat.

A true war story also does not impart lessons to the reader. O'Brien claims that if a war story has a "moral," then its truth is questionable since virtue has nothing to do with war. He goes as far as to say that the idea that people behave themselves in a proper, virtuous way during war is "an old and terrible lie." In these cases, the story has been embellished too much, taking away credibility.

So, O'Brien is essentially claiming that a "true" war story has to walk a fine line between truth and fiction. One cannot expect to "get" the full experience of what war is like from a straightforward account of what happens on the battlefield, but one misses all of it if the story is prettied up with moral lessons. One must glean the experience from what happened, but not necessarily need to share what exactly happened.

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Tim O'Brien's story is largely concerned with the relationship between truth and fiction. An effective thesis that addresses this relationship might treat the overall concept of this relationship or emphasize some specific content from the story.

In general terms, O'Brien (the narrator) claims that fiction can be more true than nonfiction because an invented story may capture some important essence(s) that would not emerge clearly from a totally factual account. A writer could develop a thesis statement that agrees with or challenges O'Brien's assertion.

Looking at the specific ways he develops this idea, one could formulate a thesis about the main points in the story. For example, O'Brien claims that all the characters are fabrications so the reader should also question the events he records. A writer might argue that the author is not consistent in his stated aim, as he is asking us to believe selective components and reject others. This contradiction emerges clearly in the segment about the woman's reaction to the water buffalo tale.

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“How to Tell a True War Story” is a section from Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

It begins with the narrator’s recounting the story of a buddy from in Vietnam named Rat Kiley who wrote a letter to the sister of Rat’s best friend in the war who had just been killed in action. Despite pouring his heart and soul into the letter, he never receives a reply. This introduces both the central character, Rat Kiley, in this section and the idea that “true” war stories are often anticlimactic.

In order to narrow down O’Brien’s thesis, as your question asks, one can examine the beginning and end to see what that is.

In the second paragraph, O’Brien states:

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie.

This excerpt is thought provoking because it asserts that in order for a war story to be true, it can never have a happy ending. In addition, a true war story isn’t concerned will people behaving nobly and courageously in the face of mortal danger. In fact, O’Brien provides several examples in this story that portray the opposite of courage, such as Rat Kiley’s slow killing of the baby water buffalo.

O’Brien expands on his thesis near the end of the excerpt saying that,

a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Happeningness is irrelevant. A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.

O’Brien suggests in this quote that a true war story isn’t actually concerned with the truth at all. He redefined what truth actually is, suggesting that a single snapshot of war is never adequate in describing the truth of the experience of war.

If one combines these two elements of a true war story, then O’Brien’s thesis becomes clear. There is no such thing as a true war story as long as one clings to the belief that it must have actually happened exactly as it is told.

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