illustration of the backside of a soldier in full military gear

The Things They Carried

by Tim O’Brien

Start Free Trial

In "How to Tell a True War Story", how does war foster a love for brotherhood?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

After a firefight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass .... All around you things are purely living, and you among them, ... your living self—your truest self, the human being you want to be and then become by the force of wanting it. In the midst of evil you want to be a good man. You want decency. You want justice and courtesy and human concord, things you never knew you wanted. ... you're never more alive than when you're almost dead. ... you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, ....

The didactic first-person narrator's speech in the midst of "How to Tell a True War Story," a portion of which is quoted above, explains this paradox in which war can represent love of brotherhood. Tim O'Brien as the narrator ("[when I] come back thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy's life with a story.") explains that the shock of death and one's own near-death reality broaden moral perceptions so that, in "the midst of evil" of war, desire turns toward wanting to be good, to be decent, to be just, and to live in "human accord." The definition of "human accord" is brotherhood: accord, to bring into harmony; brotherhood, to treat all in a brotherly way (American Heritage Dictionary).

O'Brien illustrates this concept of brotherhood and accord in war through the various stories he tells. One example is when Rat (Bob Kiley) writes to Curt Lemon's sister after Curt's death, which ironically came by stepping in a booby trap only seconds after playing catch using a grenade with Rat. Rat's act of writing the letter expresses the love of brotherhood, as do the sentiments he expresses therein, and the narrator's sympathy for Rat and for Lemon expresses the love of brotherhood in war. O'Brien also employs an inverted way of expressing this love of brotherhood when he insists that though all true war stories are beyond belief, beyond expression and beyond comprehension, they must be believed--even when the teller of the story exaggerates to try to make the unbelievable believable.

In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. ... In other cases you can't even tell a true war story. Sometimes it's just beyond telling.
"I got a confession to make," Sanders said. "Last night, man, I had to make up a few things."
"I know that."
"The glee club. There wasn't any glee club."
"No opera."
"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."

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial