The Things They Carried, the collection in which “How to Tell A True War Story” appears, received rave reviews from critics and readers alike when it appeared in 1990. Many of the stories in the collection, including “How To Tell A True War Story,” had previously won awards following publication in periodicals such as Esquire, Ploughshares, and Atlantic Monthly. Indeed, critics such as Robert R. Harris, writing in the New York Times Book Review, called the volume a must-read for anyone interested in the Vietnam War.
The Things They Carried followed O’Brien’s National Book Award for Going After Cacciato, another novel which has as the subject a soldier’s Vietnam War experience. The Things They Carried was also nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critic’s Circle Award. In addition, the book won the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, the Melcher Book Award, and the Prix du Meilleur Livre Stranger (The Best Foreign Book Award), an important French honor. The
Things They Carried met with immediate praise from reviewers, and, in nearly every review, “How to Tell a True War Story” was singled out for comment. Reviewers and critics have returned to the story again and again, seeing in it the essence of O’Brien’s prose. In particular, the story seems to offer a blueprint for the larger book.
Early reviewers such as D. J. R. Bruckner were particularly taken by O’Brien’s attention to storytelling. Bruckner writes in his New York Times review, “In his new work the magic is in the storytellers’ prestidigitation as the stories pass from character to character and voice to voice, and the realism seems Homeric.” He further notes the way that “characters snatch stories from one another’s mouths and tell them in a different way, with different incidents.”
In another early review for the Times Literary Supplement, Julian Loose observes that O’Brien’s talent is in convincing the reader that “incredible stories are faithful to the reality of Vietnam.” This comment is particularly apropos to “How to Tell a True War Story.” In this story, O’Brien not only includes incredible tales, he offers comments on why these are “true” tales, even if they never really happened.
Harris, in a review of The Things They Carried, praises the book as “essential fiction” about the Vietnam War. He closes the review with direct reference to “How to Tell a True War Story,” arguing that it “cuts to the heart of writing about war.”
The story continued to draw favorable commentary from critics in the years following its publication. Because the story is so complicated, it is rich ground for scholars examining the Vietnam War and the literature it inspired. Steven Kaplan, for an instance, notes in a 1993 essay in Critique that, just as O’Brien invented his stories, the United States government had to invent Vietnam: “The Vietnam War was in many ways a wild and terrible work of fiction written by some dangerous and frightening storytellers.”
Likewise, in a widely circulated and important critical study in Critique, Catherine Galloway focuses on the use of metafiction in the text. She is particularly interested in the way that O’Brien writes about the writing of fiction in his stories, especially in “How to Tell a True War Story. “She argues that “O’Brien draws the reader into the text calling the reader’s attention to the process of invention and challenging him to determine which, if any, of the stories are true.”
In an innovative article for Contemporary Literature appearing in 1998, Tina Chen tackles the connection between fiction and the body. She suggests that in “How to Tell a True War Story” “the stories, like the bodies, become metonyms for Vietnam.” In other words, the bodies and the stories, although only a part of the entire picture, come to stand for the entire picture in much the way that “hands” stand in for the entire body in the statement, “All hands on deck.”
Finally, in an article published in 2000 in Twentieth Century Literature, John Timmerman writes about the “gap*’ between the “the imaginary casting of an event (the fictive event) and the factual details of that event (the historical chronicle).” In so doing, Timmerman arrives at the heart of this story and the issue that O’Brien apparently wants to resolve: how do people mediate between what “really” happened and what “seemed” to happen? That is, how do people internalize and integrate a traumatic experience into the texture of their lives? Timmerman argues that it is through the act of fiction-making that the dialectic between history and imagination can be integrated into a unified whole.
As ideas about the Vietnam war continue to change, it is likely that literary and historical scholars will return to “How to Tell a True War Story” for additional insight into both the war and a master storyteller. O’Brien’s ideas and techniques provide rich ground for both interpretation and appreciation.
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.