How to Tell a True War Story Topics for Further Study
by Tim O’Brien

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Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

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?

Michael Herr’s 1977 book Dispatches is another work that blurs the distinction between fiction and nonfiction. Originally written as a work of journalism, Herr later described the book as fiction. What do you think qualifies the book as what has come to be known as the ‘‘new’’ journalism? Why do you think it can also be called a work of fiction? What other recent memoirs or biographies have continued to blur the line between fiction and non-fiction?