“This is true” (O’Brien 174). The opening sentence of Tim O’Brien’s short story “How to Tell a True War Story” seems straightforward. The reader delves in, trusting the words on the pages to be relaying nothing short of a fine work of non-fiction. As they continue to read, they begin to question the truthfulness of the narrators, wondering why the author is, in fact, exposing the fabrications of his own work. Nearing the end of the piece, the audience whirring in intrigued confusion, O’Brien moves toward the grand finale; ending the second to last segment with these simple yet impactful words: “That’s a true story that never happened” (O’Brien 182). It is an incredibly effective method of writing, a style that deftly makes a point, subtly enough that it takes a second glance to catch it. The story is wrought with irony, and the style begs to be replicated. The process that O’Brien uses highlights irony to make his case; storytelling is an art, and there is a proper way to create it.
“How to Tell a True War Story” begins with the untimely and avoidable death of soldier Curt Lemon outside of the proverbial trenches of war. After he and his comrade, Rat Kiley, begin a game of tossing smoke grenades back and forth, one explodes, and Lemon is killed. O’Brien is a witness to this. After this unfortunate event, Kiley writes a letter to Lemon’s sister expressing his disdain for the situation and his respect for Lemon. She never responds and he, upset by her silence, calls her a foul name. O’Brien explains how the story must be true because of Kiley’s heartfelt anger and his “uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (O’Brien 174).
The story continues then, retelling the unfortunate fate of Curt Lemon from the mouths of diverse narrators, each portraying the attributes of death differently. One, confused as to the surrounding circumstances makes a statement that: “When a guy dies, like Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment…The pictures get jumbled, you tend to miss a lot” (O’Brien 176). This highlights a large part of the underlying purpose of O’Brien’s story; you cannot always believe what you hear. Furthermore, storytelling is unique to the narrator and each may embellish or change details according to what they may remember, or what they want to evoke from their audience. After each storyteller is finished, O’Brien critiques them. In doing this, he is essentially critiquing himself and the story that he is telling, thus further enhancing the ironic developments in this piece.
In writing “How to Tell a True War Story” as well as the rest of the book The Things They Carried, O’Brien utilizes a highly effective writing technique. As one critique of his work written by Catherine Calloway elaborates: “What is particularly significant about the examples is that they are given in segments, a technique that actively engages the readers in the process of textual creation” (Calloway 249). By defining a “true” war story broadly, and then providing numerous examples of stories that are not true, but insisting upon their validity, O’Brien forces readers to question every word and to be aware of unreliable sources. This vigilance is encouraged by O’Brien, and is reflected in his writing: “It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (O’Brien 179). A summarizing statement to better equip readers and listeners alike.
In providing the previous invaluable lesson to his readers, O’Brien scrutinizes the process of writing and storytelling as well. As Calloway eloquently stated in her article: “…O’Brien writes a multidimensional war story even as he examines the process of writing one. His tales become stories within stories” (249). This is a prime example of O’Brien’s poignant and deliberate style of writing. He makes the reader question his truthfulness and that of his narrators, he teaches his audience, and he contradicts and criticizes his own craft. O’Brien leaves little to the imagination but much to be questioned. Yet when all is said and done, the audience is satiated and inspired.
So, what is a “true” war story? Although ambiguous, O’Brien does touch on the necessary criteria for truthfulness: “A true war story is never moral…it does not instruct, nor encourage virtue” (O’Brien 174). There also “often…is not even a point” (181), and “all you can do is tell it one more time” (182). Using irony to illuminate the purpose of his paper, in addition to a technique that contradicts and complements at once, O’Brien’s literary genius shines. Irony is a powerful tool for writers, and it is seldom used throughout an entire story. O’Brien not only weaves it through each page but uses it to illuminate and to inform. His method of using his own critiques in between narratives is innovative and interesting. It keeps the reader guessing and brings forth something that is very human and familiar to all of us. “How to Tell a True War Story” is reminiscent of the childhood game when one person would whisper into someone’s ear and the message would be passed from player to player, until finally, the meaning and words have been changed and distorted, because of individual interpretation. O’Brien warns of this in storytelling but also applauds it: “You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it” (182).
Calloway, Catherine. "'How to Tell a True War Story': Metafiction in 'The Things They Carried'." CRITIQUE: Studies in Contemporary Fiction 36 (1995): 249. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. "How to Tell a True War Story". In Geyh, Paula et. al. Postmodern American fiction: a Norton anthology. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. 174-183. Print.