Why does Tim O'Brien insist that war stories are not moral?

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emilyknight7 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This idea of war stories not being moral, or having a moral, is centered around O'Brien's theme regarding war throughout the novel. O'Brien tells the readers many times and through many different stories that war is chaotic and random and impossible to understand unless one experiences it. In "Spin," for example, O'Brien describes the boredom:

"The war was nakedly and aggressively boring. But it was a strange boredom. It was boredom with a twist that caused stomach disorders. […] you'd think, this isn't so bad. And right then you'd hear gunfire behind you and your nuts would fly up into your throat and you'd be squealing pig squeals. That kind of boredom."

These experiences cannot be understood secondhand, especially, O'Brien points out, from trite aphorisms like "war is hell." Instead, O'Brien claims, you have to tell story after story, sometimes not even all true, in order to get at the feeling of what it's like to be in a war. This is what O'Brien does in "A True War Story," when he tells tale after tale of these decent, ordinary boys and men doing horrific and cruel things. He says,

"A true war story is never moral […] 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. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue."

In the moments of "A True War Story," O'Brien demonstrates how war leeches the morality from the men and boys of the Alpha Company, from Rat Kiley shooting a baby buffalo into a mangled mess to Dave Jensen singing "Lemon Tree" as he pulls bits of Curt Lemon's body from the tree he exploded into. These men aren't evil; the war has just stripped away their morality, and the morality of the world they inhabit. For that reason, there cannot be morals in a true war story.

jacquelineledoux eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In Tim O'Brien's book, The Things They Carried, there's a chapter called "How to Tell a True War Story." 

In this chapter, the narrator talks about his friend Bob "Rat" Kiley. One of Rat's friends dies, so he sits down to write a letter to the guy's sister. 

Basically, he tells the girl how great her brother had been. He talks about all the funny, dangerous, and stupid things the guy used to do and how he was a wonderful soldier. 

The narrator says that Rat cried really hard when writing the letter and that "her brother made the war seem almost fun, always raising hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way" (O'Brien). 
However, the tone of Rat's letter takes a turn toward the end and he becomes extremely somber and serious. He tells the girl how much he loved her brother and how he was his best friend.
He mails her the letter and waits a few months for a response that never comes. 
It's then that the narrator says, "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 men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it" (O'Brien). 
He claims that you "can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil" but that's it (O'Brien). 
He believes that war stories are never moral because they have no virtue and definitely no rectitude. 

Read the study guide:
The Things They Carried

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