Truth, War, & Story

in “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien
Mickey Hunt

Tim O’Brien’s narrative presents itself as a fictional short story about how to tell a story, and not just any kind of story, but one about war. The idea of O’Brien’s story, as the title seems to make clear, is to provide instruction on techniques and methods. The title could even suggest that the story isn’t a story at all, but a non-fiction essay.  Indeed, a reader of the work could derive, or assemble into a sort of manual, a complicated definition of “truth” and a list of factors that make up a true war story, according to the narrator. Those elements are present, including a graphic, vivid, lyrical exploration of the complex, internally contradictory nature of war. But the story goes much further, because it actually puts those principles of true storytelling into practice, which in turn suggests the story’s real purpose: to tell a true war story in a way that will be heard.

The un-named narrator shows the problem of hearing at the very beginning. Bob Riley (Rat) wrote a letter from Viet Nam to the sister of his dead friend Curt Lemon, and the sister didn’t write back. Rat didn’t understand why, but the reader does, as does the narrator, even though his tone suggests he pretends he doesn’t understand. We might guess that the girl didn’t share the same fun perspective as Rat about her brother “always raising hell and lighting up villes and bringing smoke to bear every which way” (287) and the humor of “all that gore, about twenty zillion dead gook fish” (288) nor the good times of when her brother for Halloween “paints up his body all different colors and puts on this weird mask and goes out on ambush almost stark naked, just boots and balls and an M-16” (288). Those perspectives aren’t normal in normal life. She probably didn’t like the bad language in the letter. It’s probably safe to say the sister was shocked and horrified and would never wish to write back, let alone see Rat after the war, as he had suggested.

So, exactly why in summary was the letter about her dead brother unbearable? Because as the narrator says in the very first line, “This is true.” Rat’s stories about Curt Lemon are true war stories, as the story explains:
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things they have always done.

As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth; if you don’t care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty. (288)

Curt Lemon’s sister presumably didn’t care for the truth delivered in this fashion, and who can blame her? But the reader of O’Brien’s story has an advantage the sister never had experienced through Rat’s letter. The narrator supplies an interpretation, an explanation, a wider perspective, and what begins seeming to be a discussion of how to tell, or narrate, or deliver a true war story, is now a didactic of how to detect a true war story. It has become, as shown in the above extract, a description of what makes one.

At this point the story immediately shifts again into a narrative, and it’s about how Curt Lemon died, the events surrounding his death. This fragmented structure of alternating narrative and explanation continues throughout to the very end, which helps the reader abstractly grasp the nature of war. But the jumping around is also disorienting, which compels the reader to experience something of the nature of war. It’s too bad the sister couldn’t read this part about her brother, and picture him “step from the shade into bright sunlight. His face was suddenly brown and shining. A handsome kid, really. Sharp gray eyes, lean and narrowwaisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him up and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” (288). Once again the narrator switches back into didactic and interprets for us, explaining how this fantastical, almost spiritual event was true.  It is because of the reality of “seeming truth” that comes into being when “[w]hat seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed” (289). Truth then, according to the narrator, is more than bare, real facts, but includes perceptions of the observer who unconsciously attaches meaning and value to an event.

Even if Lemon’s sister had read this version of her brother’s death, she might not have believed it, at least not at first, not until some years had passed, because “In many cases a true war story cannot be believed. If you believe it, be skeptical. It’s a question of credibility. Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t, because the normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the truly incredible craziness” (289).

We might wonder why Rat didn’t write to the sister about the seeming truth about the death of his friend.  Maybe because, “Sometimes it’s just beyond telling,” (289) as the narrator explains next, and then proceeds to relay, that is tell, another story by way of illustration, the Listening Post story that he heard from his fellow soldier Mitchell Sanders as their patrol was poised to cross a river and head into the mountains on the following morning. The story is about some guys who heard, or thought they heard, Vietnamese music at a cocktail party, and they also heard everything talking, mountain, monkeys, fog, trees, and even the “goddamn mongooses.” (291) The LP guys called in airstrikes to kill the music and the voices, but even after laying the whole mountainside to waste, they still heard it, the ghostly music and the talking. Upon returning from the patrol, when a colonel asked what they had heard, they didn’t even try to explain. The story was beyond telling, but the narrator had told it to the reader anyway.

In his attempt to help us hear, the narrator explains, “You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever,” (291), and so in the middle of the night as the patrol was waiting to cross the river and head into the mountain in the morning, as the narrator was sitting in his foxhole thinking about life, death, and what he doesn’t understand, Sanders returned to provide the moral of the LP story. It’s that “Nobody listens. Nobody hears nothing. Like that fatass colonel. The politicians, all the civilian types, what they need is to go out on LP. The vapors, man. Trees and rocks—you got to listen to your enemy” (292).

The true war story never ends, and so Sanders yet again returned to the narrator during the platoon’s preparation for the day’s march, for the crossing of the river. And he confessed he invented some details, to make it seem truer, as we can easily speculate. In a final attempt in “pinning down the final and definitive truth” (292), Sanders offered what we might believe is the true moral of the story:
For a long while he was quiet, looking away, and the silence kept stretching out until it was almost embarrassing. Then he shrugged and gave me a stare that lasted all day. “Hear that quiet, man?” he said. “There’s your moral.” (292)

I don’t know what he means, exactly. Is the moral that there is no moral? Or is there a moral in the beauty of silence. I don’t know, but it makes perfect sense, and maybe that’s the point. It makes sense that in these circumstances it doesn’t fully make sense. The narrator clarifies:
In a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes the cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, except maybe “Oh.” (292)

And next, as the pattern is, comes more abstraction, generalization, and analysis about true war stories, in this instance that “[They] do not generalize. They do not indulge in abstraction or analysis... It comes down to gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe” (292). If we needed an example of this precept, we may read the gut wrenching account of the brutal torture of the baby water buffalo, and the defiling of the well, at the hands of Rat right after Lemon died, and the men’s non-responsiveness, or their peculiar response of cavalier amazement expressed in Sander’s striking words referencing the biblical myth* of paradise lost. After taking out his yo-yo Sanders said, “Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin’s real fresh and original.” (294)

Even if it has not yet occurred to the reader of “How to Tell a True War Story,” I would argue that by now he or she has become part of this story. If we have read this far, through Rat’s vengeful killing of the baby water buffalo, we have become listeners. We are voyeurs of violence, and no wonder—it’s part of human nature, as the narrator depicts. The reaction of Rat to the death of his friend, or the reaction of his comrades to his reaction, or the firebombing of a mountainside is…
“not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not. Like a killer forest fire, like cancer under a microscope, any battle or bombing raid or artillery barrage has the aesthetic purity of absolute moral indifference—a powerful, implacable beauty—and a true war story will tell the truth about this, though the truth is ugly.” (294)
To a high degree, when examined fully as “How to Tell a True War Story” attempts to do, war is shown to be unique in the human experience. It possesses extreme polar contradictions of beauty and ugliness, of desensitization and pain, of confusion and clarity, of horror and joy, of meaninglessness and transcendence. There’s no way to summarize or omit the following passage about how war experience may affect someone. It’s why a person should read the whole story.
“…proximity to death brings with it a corresponding proximity to life. After a fire fight, there is always the immense pleasure of aliveness. The trees are alive. The grass, the soil—everything. All around you things are purely living, and you among them, and the aliveness makes you tremble. You feel an intense, out-of-the-skin awareness of 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. There is a kind of largeness to it; a kind of godliness. Though it’s odd, you’re never more alive than when you’re almost dead. You recognize what’s valuable. Freshly, as if for the first time, you love what’s best in yourself and in the world, all that might be lost. At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, 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, but now is not. (294)

After reading and thinking about the above passage we may believe we have an answer, that finally we have clarity on war, that there is something to be gained by listening, and it’s how the nearness to death and evil brings an opposing yearning for goodness. And there’s a sense of order and rightness in patterns of nature that a person will fully know only in the midst of the destructiveness of human beings. However, it’s not to be so, because the narrator dashes the vision with his exposition and summary comment, “the only certainty is absolute ambiguity” (295) and goes on to tell us about plucking pieces of Curt Lemon out of the trees while one of his comrades sang a lost love song written by Will Holt and performed by folk musicians Peter Paul and Mary and others. The refrain runs:
Lemon tree very pretty and the lemon flower is sweet
But the fruit of the poor lemon is impossible to eat.

So, there may be clarity of vision, but vision clouded by the countervailing effect of desensitization and a deadening of the soul.

But here’s another instance of transcendence in the story: “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” (295)  This is an explanation of the fictional, vaguely comical story of the man who jumps on a grenade to save the lives of his fellows only to have them all die anyway.  The man concluded, fatalistically with his last breath, “story of my life, man” (295).  An actual “happening” event may be a lie if it has no meaning, but in the context even of reflection upon a futile life, futility can only exist in contradiction to the reality of meaning, in this instance success and fulfillment.

The nature of truth if it is true, according to the story, is that it’s transcendent—it is above or outside of a rationally explainable sequence of cause and effect. So, a true story of any kind will have meaning beyond the simple events at hand. Toward the end of “How to Tell a True War Story”, the narrator attempts one more time to reach the truth about Lemon’s death, and in the attempt he repeats an attributed spiritual aspect that could not really have happened, as we understand physics:
It was a rigged 105 round. But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him into a tree, if I could somehow recreate the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth. (296)

In wrapping up, the narrator now tells us about a woman who heard him tell this version of the story. She liked it, she said. She then advised the narrator to find new stories to tell, to move on in his life. While he didn’t say it to her, he thought of the same insulting remark Rat used to describe Lemon’s sister when she didn’t write to him. “Because she wasn’t listening,” the narrator tells us. “It wasn’t a war story. It was a love story. It was a ghost story” (296). It is moving on in the only way possible, by continuing to tell the story. “All you can do is tell it one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth” (296). With this we see unambiguously that “How to Tell a True War Story” isn’t so much about detecting true war stories, nor in illustrating how to tell them, but it is about actually telling them.

And then the narrator immediately takes an unpredicted but totally natural tack, because maybe the Curt Lemon story never happened at all. Maybe it was all made up. Or, maybe the narrator was only trying to convey to the woman all of what “How to Tell a True War Story” is trying to tell, such as, that:
No Mitchell Sanders, you tell her. No Lemon, no Rat Kiley. And it didn’t happen in the mountains, 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. You can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it. (296)

What then is a true war story really about? It’s not about French Indo-China or the advance of communism in Asia and Europe; it’s not a political view of the killing fields of Cambodia or the carpet bombing of Hanoi and North Viet Nam by American B-52s.  It’s certainly not about peace marches in the U.S.  It’s not even about war.

This is the last paragraph:

In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war. It’s about the special way that dawn spreads out on a river when you know you must cross the river and march into the mountains and do things you are afraid to do. It’s about love and memory. It’s about sorrow. It’s about sisters who never write back and people who never listen. (296)

And so this passage above is a condensed synopsis of “How to Tell a True War Story.” The story in its entirely is an answer to the title. It is a search for truth, which is a search for meaning and having a place in the universe. The effect then of the story isn’t to provide a treatise on truth, but to compel the reader—the hearer—to listen, to hear the silence that follows destruction and warfare. Because it is as elusive as it is difficult to fathom, truth perhaps can best be told through personal stories, and stories are about the full spectrum of life. People are more than minds capable of abstraction—they are rounded, complex beings.

Tim O’Brien’s story, as much as is possible with words alone, immerses the reader into an indelible experience of war, of life fully lived and perceived, and so, it is a true war story in every way it describes. I believe that much of what is told through the story, that many or most of the happenings in the story actually happened, and the writer, the narrator, did his best to help the reader listen, to hear and absorb.

At the conclusion of a first reading of “How to Tell a True War Story,” a person who lived through the Vietnam War may not have anything much to say except “Oh,” as the narrator explains. But a person who in the summer of 1971 contemplated war on his bed on a screened porch on his uncle’s cattle ranch in southern Oregon, a porch that seemed to face a rising morning sun in the west—this person might have a different response. A person who wondered what he should do if drafted and decided then to escape to Canada not far from his home in Washington State rather than be shipped to Viet Nam. A person like me who later in August of that year received a draft lottery number of 209 when the highest number drafted for my birth year was 85.

Sometimes during a pause in the midst of intense, horrific experiences, I am “filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not.” (294)  And more than forty three years after I killed a huge, black and white striped king snake in southern Oregon, which I regret even now, I wrote a word at the bottom of the page of the story in the anthology. The word was “stunned” and afterwards I sat quietly for a long time on the couch so I could recover.  I was listening, I hope.  The story as written was impossible not to hear, and that’s likely what the writer intended.


*When I say “myth”, I do not mean that it’s not true.

Works Cited

Holt, Will. “Lemon Tree.” Rec. November 10-12, 1960. On the Brink. Perf. Will Holt and Dolly Jonah. Atlantic Records, 1961. Web. 19 February 2015.  

O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” The Compact Bedford
Introduction to Literature. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 287-296. Print.

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