illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

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Chapter 7 Summary

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 572

The seventh story of The Things They Carried is “How to Tell a True War Story.” It begins with a brief story about Bob Kiley, nicknamed Rat, and an assurance that “this is true.” Rat Kiley loses his friend, Curt Lemon, while on patrol in the mountains. After the patrol, Rat decides to write to Curt’s sister. He explains how heroic and tough Curt was in the letter, and that the two of them were close. He promises to take care of the sister when the war ends. However, the sister never writes back. The narrator explains that a true war story is never about a moral. There are no generalizations that can be taken from it. When Rat tells his story about the letter he wrote to Curt’s sister, he ends saying that “the dumb cooze never writes back.” 

The narrator explains that the true details of a real war story are difficult to distinguish from what seemed to happen, and he shares a story that he heard from Mitchell Sanders about a patrol of six men that go to a listening-post in the mountains trying to detect enemy movement. Over time, they begin to hear rock music, chamber music, and even a cocktail party. At first they do not believe it, but the music continues until they finally call in air strikes. Afterward, everything is quiet, but they still hear it. When they return to base, a colonel asks them what they heard, but the men do not answer; they just salute and walk away. The narrator recalls that the night after Sanders tells him the listening-post story, the latter walks up to him and explains that he figured out its moral: no one listens. The following morning, Sanders explains that he made up a few things, but that both the story and the moral are still true.

There is nothing to say about true war story, the narrator explains, except “oh.” The true war story has to make the stomach believe. For the narrator, the story of how Rat responded after Curt Lemon’s death makes his stomach believe. After Lemon dies, the patrol continues until they clear an LZ (landing zone). They also discover a baby water buffalo. Rat repeatedly shoots a baby water buffalo to hurt it, but not to kill it. He shoots it many times before he walks away, leaving the wounded water buffalo suffering.

The narrator wonders how people can generalize about war. For example, many of the truths about war are contradictory. The narrator explains that war can be considered grotesque, but admits that there is also beauty in the glow of napalm. War is about death, but being close to war paradoxically makes soldiers feel alive. War causes soldiers to lose their sense of the “definite,” which is why a true war story can never be entirely true.

The narrator explains that there will often be a person—a kind, old woman, usually—that walks up to him to tell him that she loved his story. The woman will tell the narrator that the story about the water buffalo is sad and that she wishes the narrator could find new stories to tell. The narrator often remembers Rat Kiley in these instances and thinks “you dumb cooze.” The story, he explains, is not a war story; it is a love story because “a true war story is never about war.”

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