Historical Context

The Reagan Years: 1981–1988
In 1980 Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency of the United States. Although the country could not yet know it, this was the year that the Gulf War really began, when Iraq invaded Iran. Because Iran held a group of Americans hostage, the United States initially favored Iraq in the conflict and provided arms to both Iraq and to Saudi Arabia. Throughout the decade, military concerns focused on the Middle East.

At this time, registration for the military draft was reinstated. Although there were some protests against registration, the protests did not come close to the scope of protest mounted against the draft and the Vietnam War in the previous two decades.

During the Reagan years, the president cast the Soviet Union as ‘‘The Evil Empire,’’ and urged Congress to pass funding for his Strategic Defense Initiative, commonly called ‘‘Star Wars.’’ Reagan wanted to defend the United States against a nuclear attack from the Soviet Union; however, there is no indication that his plan would have been effective.

In 1982, in a televised address, Ronald Reagan gave his narration of the Vietnam War. Scholars of the war have demonstrated that Reagan’s history was in error on several key points. It is important, however, to note that his address ushered in an era of Vietnam War narratives, narratives that often were ambiguous and contradictory.

By the end of the decade, the Soviet Union was no longer a threat. Indeed, shortly after the Reagan years, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as a country. For all intents and purposes, the Cold War was over, marked by the...

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Literary Style

Point of View and Narration
One of the most interesting, and perhaps troubling, aspects of the construction of ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ is O’Brien’s choice to create a fictional, first-person narrator who also carries the name ‘‘Tim O’Brien.’’ Although the narrator remains unnamed in this particular story, other stories in the collection clearly identify the narrator by the name Tim. Further, the other stories in the collection also identify the narrator as a forty-three-yearold writer who writes about the Vietnam War, ever more closely identifying the narrator with the author.

On the one hand, this connection is very compelling. Readers are drawn into the story believing that they are reading something that has some basis in the truth of the writer Tim O’Brien. Further, the authorial voice that links the story fragments together sounds like it ought to belong to the writer.

On the other hand, however, the device allows O’Brien to play with notions of truth and ambiguity. Does the narrator represent the author? Or do the narrator’s words tell the reader not to trust either the story or the teller? What can be said unequivocally about the Vietnam War? O’Brien’s use of the fictional narrator suggests that there is nothing unequivocal about the war. Rather, it seems that O’Brien, through his narrator Tim, wants the reader to understand that during war, seeming-truth can be as true as happening-truth.

Ought the reader consider the narrator to be unreliable? After all, after pledging the truth of the story from the very first line, he undercuts that claim by telling the reader at the last possible moment that none of the events in the story happened. While this might seem to point to an...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

Baughman, Ronald, ed., ‘‘Tim O’Brien,’’ in Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 9: American Writers of the Vietnam War, Gale Research, 1991, pp. 137–214.

Bonn, Maria, ‘‘Can Stories Save us? Tim O’Brien and the Efficacy of the Text,’’ in Critique, Vol. 36, No. 1, Fall 1994, pp.11–15.

Bruckner, D. J. R., ‘‘Storyteller for a War and Its Victims,’’ Review, in New York Times, April 3, 1990, pp. C15, C17.

Calloway, Catherine, ‘‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’: Metafiction in The Things They Carried,’’ in Critique, Vol. 36, No. 4, Summer 1995, pp. 249–57.

Chen, Tina,...

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Compare and Contrast

1980s–1990s: Iran and Iraq engage in war between 1980 and 1988. After this war ends, Iraq invades Kuwait in 1990. The United States eventually engages in war with Iraq on behalf of Kuwait.

Today: Although the United States defeated Iraq in the Gulf War, Sadam Hussein is still in power. American troops are still stationed in the Middle East and an uneasy peace prevails.

1980s: During this decade, the unthinkable happens: the Soviet Union crumbles and the Eastern European Communist bloc falls apart. Yugoslav President Tito’s death in 1980 sets up the devolution of his country.

Today: The breakup of Yugoslavia leads to a confusing war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Kosovo in the closing years of the 1990s. The United States participates in United Nations peacekeeping missions and continues to station troops in the troubled area in the following decades.

1980s: At the beginning of the decade, Vietnam invades Cambodia, leading to wide-scale bloodshed and a ten-year war.

Today: Vietnam is no longer at war with its neighbors, and has begun to normalize relations with the United States. Many American Vietnam veterans return to Vietnam for visits.

1980s: During the decade, the market for Vietnam War fiction and film expand rapidly. Books such as Paco’s Story by Larry Heinemann, In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason, and...

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Topics for Further Study

Investigate the incident that has come to be known as the My Lai massacre. Summarize the events that occurred in My Lai. Using your summary and research, try to determine why such an incident might happen and what affect it had on popular opinion about the Vietnam War.

Read Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War, a book by a former North Vietnamese soldier. Compare and contrast the story that Bao Ninh tells with the stories in The Things They Carried.

Watch the movies The Green Berets (1968) and Platoon (1986). What are some of the reasons for such different portrayals of the Vietnam War? Using O’Brien’s criteria, are either of these movies a ‘‘true’’ war story?

Read Tim O’Brien’s memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, and the rest of the stories in The Things They Carried. Can you find some of the sources for O’Brien’s fiction in his own experiences? How does reading ‘‘How to Tell a True War Story’’ affect your reading of memoir?

Read All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and do some brief research on the First World War. Does Remarque’s story classify as a ‘‘true’’ war story? Why or why not?

O’Brien distinguishes between happening-truth and story-truth. What do you think he means by this? What role does fiction play in presenting the ‘‘truth’’ of the Vietnam War?


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What Do I Read Next?

The Sorrow of War (1995), by Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier, offers a look at the Vietnam War from the North Vietnamese perspective. This novel uses many of the same literary techniques found in The Things They Carried.

In the Lake of the Woods (1994), by Tim O’Brien, is a deeply troubling novel about the return to the United States of one Vietnam veteran and his inability to adjust to civilian life. The story is told with many metafictional devices. Although challenging to read, it is an important book for students of the Vietnam War.

Song of Napalm (1988), by Bruce Weigl, is a collection of Vietnam War poetry. Weigl, along with Yusef Komunyakaa, John Balaban, and W. D. Earhart, is one of the most studied Vietnam War poets.

Poems from Captured Documents (1994), selected and translated by Thanh T. Nguyen and Bruce Weigl, offers a collection of poems taken from the notebooks, journals, and diaries of soldiers who fought against the U.S. forces in Vietnam. The book offers facing-page originals and translations, making it possible for both Vietnamese and American students to read.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American (1955) remains one of the classic novels of the Vietnam War. Set in Vietnam immediately before the battle of Dien Bien Phu, when the French lost their colonial hold on Vietnam, the novel offers a look at the early days that led inevitably to the conflict...

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