What is the symbolism of "How to Tell a True War Story"?
One of the narrator's friends in the army, Mitchell Sanders, has a yo-yo, and there are several mentions of the toy throughout the story, and generally speaking, repetitive mentions of material objects often signal some kind of symbolism.
First, the narrator describes how Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley would play catch with smoke grenades, while "Mitchell Sanders sat flipping his yo-yo." Suddenly, Sanders rolled up the yo-yo and went away. Just after this, Lemon got blown up by the landmine.
Second, Sanders is the soldier who tells the narrator the story about the six-man patrol going up into the mountains and hearing the strange music and voices, as if they were near a cocktail party. As Sanders tells the story, he is "working the yo-yo," as if it seems to keep him calm, or grounded somehow. The narrator says that he could tell that Sanders really wanted him to believe the story, even though it was quite true, and he says, "Even now I remember that yo-yo."
Third, the narrator describes the torture of the baby water buffalo, saying, ultimately, that Sanders helped to dump it in the village well. Then, he "took out his yo-yo."
A yo-yo is a child's toy, and so perhaps its symbolism has to do with a child's innocence: maybe it reminds Mitchell Sanders of a simpler, more innocent, time in his life, and so he plays with it in order to be reminded. Or, perhaps Sanders plays with it in order to help him forget what's going on around him in Vietnam: in this case, we might consider the hypnotic effect that a yo-yo's up-and-down motion has, and how it does require some skill and practice to do tricks with the yo-yo. Maybe the yo-yo symbolizes the impossibility of actually dealing with what one sees and does in war, how any distraction is a good one. Or, perhaps it symbolizes the certainty and hope a soldier might crave. After all, a yo-yo always comes back; it's predictable, and maybe that's comforting when nothing else around us is predictable. There are many possibilities for interpretation here.
I would want to argue that probably the major piece of symbolism in this excellent war-time account of Tim O'Brien that attempts to define a "true" war story is the description of the death of Lenon and how it happened from Tim O'Brien's perspective. Note how the speaker describes how he died from stepping on a landmine:
His was face suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid, really. Sharp grey eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms.
Clearly, from the speaker's perspective, Lenon met his death in a very different way from what "actually" happened. It is clear that Lenon stood on a detonator and was blown up by a landmine, but from the author's point of view, the sun itself took him away, "sucking" him into a nearby tree. Note what the author says straight afterwards:
In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way.
Thus, interestingly, the simple act of Lenon standing on a detonator is an important symbol that is used to answer the question that the title points towards, as it reinforces the difficulty of conveying "truthfully" what happened in a war story due to the wide range of perspectives concering what really happened. The truth is shown to be remarkably elusive.
The story is a symbol of ambiguity. Each soldier is unique in how he approaches the aftermath of war. Even the retelling of a battle is skewed by one's perspective and emotions. O'Brien's phrase "Almost everything is true. Almost nothing is true" symbolizes the ambiguity inherent in any retelling of the war experience.
O'Brien maintains that there is no clarity in war. The old traditions and ethical considerations are consumed by the immediacy of gore, pain, and terror. In war, "Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery." One's humanity is severely tested during battle, and ironically, the only way to maintain sanity is to admit that there are contradictions to war.
In the story, O'Brien argues that war is both grotesque and beautiful. He admits that blood and gore are realities; yet, he also cites the coordinated movements of soldiers, the symmetrical arc of bullets, and the flashing brilliance of gunfire as representative of the "aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference." The war machine is indifferent to the human experience; it is focused solely on results. Yet, the truth is that war affects the human psyche in ways that are divorced from its material considerations. So, the story is a symbol of the ambiguity of war and the war experience.