“How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien is not a story in the traditional sense. It does not follow a straight, chronological path from start to finish. Rather, it is a collection of small stories interspersed with instructions about “true” war stories.
The story opens with the words,’ “This is true.” The narrator then goes on to tell the story of his friend Rat Kiley, who writes a letter to the sister of his buddy who had been killed a week earlier. It is a long, heartfelt letter. He waits for two months for a reply to the letter, but the sister never writes back.
The story then shifts to commentary. “A true war story is never moral,” the narrator instructs. The narrator asks the reader to “listen to Rat” as he spews obscenity, as, according to the narrator, a true war story is committed to “obscenity and evil.”
In the next section, the narrator reveals that Curt Lemon is the buddy who was killed. Thus, this section actually occurred in time before the opening section. Curt and Rat are playing with smoke grenades when Curt trips a rigged 105 mm. artillery round. The narrator reports “It’s all exactly true.” The narrator provides a stunning visual description of Curt’s ascent into the trees as he is blown up.
Again the narration shifts to commentary. The narrator argues that it is difficult in true war stories to distinguish between what actually happened and what seemed to happen.
The narrator then suggests that “a true war story cannot be believed” and that sometimes it is simply impossible to even tell a true war story. He uses the example of a story told by Mitchell Sanders. Sanders recounts how a patrol of six men goes up into the mountains to establish a listening post. They are supposed to remain in the mountains for a week, absolutely silent. As the men listen, they begin to hear all kinds of weird noises. They hear music and voices. They hear a glee club and opera. Sanders says that the rocks are talking. Finally, the men become so frightened that they call in firepower and burn up the mountains. Throughout this story, Sanders insists that every word is true.
Immediately the narrator shifts to a comment, “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end.” Mitchell Sanders returns to the narrator later that night and tries to give the story a moral, as if he is unable to end the story the way he wants it to. The next morning, he once again approaches the narrator to tell him that he “had to make up a few things” while telling his story. Sanders tries yet again to give the story a moral, “That quiet—just listen. There’s your moral.”
Although the narrator earlier told the reader that war stories are never moral, Sanders continues to try to provide one. The narrator even shifts from his earlier position when he suggests that, if there is a moral, it is “like the thread that makes the cloth.” He further argues that a true war story affects the gut, not the brain.
Next, the narrator tells a story of his own: the events that occurred between the death of Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley’s letter writing. After Curl’s death, the squad captured a baby water buffalo. Rat winds up killing it slowly, by shooting off various parts of its anatomy. The narrator connects the killing with Curl’s death, and the rest of the platoon eventually participates by throwing the carcass into the village well.
In the next section, Ihe narrator tells the reader, “The truths are contradictory.” He spends a long lime describing the sensation of being in battle, trying in images and words to create a true war story for Ihe reader. By the end of Ihe section, however, in a quintessentially contradictory statement, the narrator tells the reader,”In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of Irulh itself, and therefore it’s safe to say thai in a true war story, nothing is ever absolutely true.”
The narrator then returns to the death of Curt Lemon in a very short fragment. Here he recalls being ordered to climb up into the tree to collect the remains of the young man. His buddy, also up in Ihe tree, sings “Lemon Tree” the whole time.
By the end of the story, it seems very important to the narrator thai he be able to tell the “true” story of Lemon’s death. But just as it appears he may be able to do so, he inserts a passage that tells the reader that everything in the entire story has been made up. None of it is true. And yet, even here, the narrator squirms away: “None of il happened. None of it. And even if it did happen, it didn’t happen in the mounts, it happened in this little village on the Batangan Peninsula, and it was raining like crazy, and one night a guy named Stink Harris woke up screaming with a leech on his tongue.”
The story concludes by suggesting that a “true war story is never about war.” Thus, even at the very end of the story, the reader is left to ponder how to tell a true war story.
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.