Memory and Reminiscence
Because “How to Tell a True War Story” is written by a Vietnam War veteran, and because Tim O’Brien has chosen to create a narrator with the same name as his own, mosl readers want to believe that the stories O’Brien tells are true and actually happened to him. There are several reasons for this. In the first place, O’Brien’s so-called memoir, If I Die In a Combat Zone, contains many stories thai find Iheir way into his later novels and short fiction. Thus, it is difficult for the reader to sort through what is memory and what is fiction.
There are those, however, who would suggest thai this is one of O’Brien’s points in writing his stories. Although most readers would believe thai their own memories are ‘ ‘true,” this particular story sets out to demonstrate the way that memories are at once true and made up.
Further, as O’Brien tells the reader in “How to Tell a True War Story,” “You’d feel cheated if it never happened.” This is certainly one response lo O’Brien’s story. Readers want the stories to be true in the sense that they grow out of O’Brien’s memory. O’Brien, however, will not let the reader take this easy way out. Instead, he questions the entire notion of memoir, reminiscence, and the ability of memory to convey the truth.
Truth and Falsehood
Certainly, the most insistent theme in this story is that of truth and falsehood. O’Brien, however, would be unlikely to sel up such a dichotomy. That is, according to “How to Tell a True War Story,” truth is not something that can find its opposition in untruth. Rather, according to O’Brien, because war is so ambiguous, truth takes on many guises. Even seemingly contradictory events can both be considered true.
O’Brien uses the event of Curt Lemon’s death to make this point. O’Brien knows, for example, that Curt is killed by a rigged 105mm round. However, as the scene replays in his mind, O’Brien sees the event very differently. It seems to him that Curt is killed by the sunlight, and that it is the sunlight that lifts him high into the tree where O’Brien will later have to retrieve Curt’s body parts. Thus O’Brien distinguishes between the truth that happens and the truth that seems to happen.
Moreover, O’Brien likes to play with words and to undermine the logical connection between words. In Western philosophy, it is considered impossible for a word to mean itself and its opposite at the same time. O’Brien demonstrates it may indeed be possible. For example, when he writes, ‘ ‘it is safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true,” he is creating a paradox. If nothing is ever absolutely true, then even that statement cannot be absolutely true. The paradox suggests that while it might be possible to approximate truth, it must be told, as Emily Dickinson once wrote, “aslant.”
Perhaps the most disconcerting moment in this tale occurs when O’Brien tells the story of the woman who approaches him after he tells this tale. Most readers assume that O’Brien the author is speaking, and that perhaps he is telling a story of what happened to him after a reading of his fiction. When the woman says she likes the story about the water buffalo, O’Brien is annoyed. Although he does not tell her, he tells the reader that the entire episode did not happen, that it was all made up, and that even the characters are not real. Readers may be shocked. How could O’Brien have fabricated all of this? Then the reader may realize that O’Brien is playing with the truth again, for if everything in the story is fabricated, then so is the woman who approached him. This play with truth and falsehood provides both delight and despair for the reader who will never be able to determine either truth or falsehood in O’Brien’s stories in the traditional sense. As Stephen Kaplan suggests in Understanding Tim O’Brien, “[O’Brien] completely destroys the fine line dividing fact from fiction and tries to show … that fiction (or the imagined world) can often be truer, especially in the case of Vietnam, than fact.”
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Tim O’Brien, Published by Gale, 2002.