In what sense is a "true" war story actually true?
In "How to Tell a True War Story," Tim O'Brien tells of an incident in Vietnam in which his buddy "Rat" Kiley watched a friend blown to bits because he stepped on a booby-trapped 105 round, then takes out his anguish on a baby water buffalo, shooting it in various places, torturing it to death while the rest of the men watched dumbly. In the end, O'Brien tells us that none of it is true: "No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. To trail junction. No baby buffalo. No vines or moss or white blossoms. Beginning to end, you tell her, it's all made up." And yet...he's telling us how to tell a true war story.
His notion of truth isn't about simple events; it's about how it feels to be there, to experience the loneliness, the love, the beauty, the horror, the pain and confusion and boredom and heartbreak. To get at this sort of truth, he has discovered, you can't just tell what happened. Perhaps the historical truth is too cliche to "make your stomach believe" (78). A true war story, in O'Brien's view, makes you "believe by the raw force of feeling" (74). What "seems to happen" is more important than the raw facts (71). Perhaps most importantly, "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" (68-9)--that lie being the same one Wilfred Owen wrote about in "Dulce et Decorum Est"--"it is sweet and meet (fitting) to die for one's country."