Yet even if it did happen ... a true war story does not depend upon that kind of truth. Absolute occurrence is irrelevant. A ... thing may not happen and be truer than the truth. For example: Four guys go down a trail. A grenade sails out. One guy jumps on it and takes the blast, but it's a killer grenade and everybody dies anyway. ... That's a true story that never happened.
Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it. It's always a woman. Usually it's an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics. ... she wasn't listening.
It wasn't a war story. It was a love story.
And in the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It's about sunlight. It's about the ... river when you know you must cross ... and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do.
The point O'Brien is making with the statement, "It wasn't a war story. It was a love story," is that the experience of war isn't about the activities of warring but rather about the associations, friendships, lives and deaths--brutal mournful deaths--of people in the war--in O'Brien's case, the men in the war. Sometimes the mourning shows itself in walking away like Sanders did after turning and "not quite nodding" at the narrator as though "he already knew," before "he rolled up his yo-yo and moved away" from where there was a detonator noise and Lemon was swept up by the sunlight after triggering a booby trap bomb.
Other times the mourning shows itself in writing letters that are never answered to sisters who never respond about how amazingly brave and wild their nineteen-year-old brothers named Lemon are. Or the mourning is about some loving soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save other soldiers whom he loves but who never were, yet who represent all the soldiers who were who did this exact thing--but can't tell their own true stories now. Sometimes the friendship is shown in listening to and believing completely impossible true stories that have made-up parts in them to prove that, though impossible, they are nonetheless altogether true.
"I had to make up a few things."
"I know that."
"The glee club. There wasn't any glee club."
"Forget it, I understand."
"Yeah, but listen, it's still true. Those six guys, they heard wicked sound out there. They heard sound you just plain won't believe."