What is the symbolism of "How to Tell a True War Story"?

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accessteacher eNotes educator| Certified Educator

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.

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

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