‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ first appeared in October 1987 in Esquire. It later came to hold a central position in Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried, published in 1990. An interesting combination of recalled events and editorial commentary, the story received critical attention at its first publication. Indeed, nearly every reviewer and critic who treats O’Brien’s work singles out this story for special commentary. The story in many ways provides a map to the rest of The Things They Carried. By trying to characterize what constitutes a true war story, but never really achieving this feat, O’Brien introduces the most important themes of his book, including memory, imagination, epistemology (the study of the nature of knowledge), and truth. In addition, O’Brien uses the very technique he would later use in creating The Things They Carried, interspersing anecdotes and stories with commentary about the roles of fiction and storytelling. As D. J. R. Bruckner stated in the New York Times in an early review of The Things They Carried, ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ is ‘‘at least as much about storytelling as about men at war.’’ Certainly, by having his fictional characters tell stories and then recant the truth of those stories, O’Brien calls into question the possibility of ever telling a true war story. The result of this technique is that the story is both fragmentary and cohesive: the stories within the larger framework are fragments held together by a narrative voice determined to ‘‘get it right.’’ Certainly, any student wishing to begin a study of Tim O’Brien would be well served to pay close attention to ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story.’’
‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ is not a story in the traditional sense. It does not follow a straight, chronological path from start to finish. Rather, it is a collection of small stories interspersed with instructions about ‘‘true’’ war stories.
The story opens with the words, ‘‘This is true.’’ The narrator then goes on to tell the story of his friend Rat Kiley, who writes a letter to the sister of his buddy who had been killed a week earlier. It is a long, heartfelt letter. He waits for two months for a reply to the letter, but the sister never writes back.
The story then shifts to commentary. ‘‘A true war story is never moral,’’ the narrator instructs. The narrator asks the reader to ‘‘listen to Rat’’ as he spews obscenity, as, according to the narrator, a true war story is committed to ‘‘obscenity and evil.’’
In the next section, the narrator reveals that Curt Lemon is the buddy who was killed. Thus, this section actually occurred in time before the opening section. Curt and Rat are playing with smoke grenades when Curt trips a rigged 105 mm. artillery round. The narrator reports ‘‘It’s all exactly true.’’ The narrator provides a stunning visual description of Curt’s ascent into the trees as he is blown up.
Again the narration shifts to commentary. The narrator argues that it is difficult in true war stories to distinguish between what actually happened and what seemed to happen.
The narrator then suggests that ‘‘a true war story cannot be believed’’ and that sometimes it is simply impossible to even tell a true war story. He uses the example of a story told by Mitchell Sanders. Sanders recounts how a patrol of six men goes up into the mountains to establish a listening post. They are supposed to remain in the mountains for a week, absolutely silent. As the men listen, they begin to hear all kinds of weird noises. They hear music and voices. They hear a glee club and opera. Sanders says that the rocks are talking. Finally, the men become so frightened that they call in firepower and burn up the mountains. Throughout this story, Sanders insists that every word is true.
Immediately the narrator shifts to a comment, ‘‘You can tell a true war story by the way it...
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