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

The first assignment in my Critical Approaches to Literature class, this short story is actually a chapter in O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. It examines the relationship between the experiences of war and the storytelling that comes after. Half is told from O’Brien’s point of view as a solder; the other half is from years later when he’s become a storyteller. But how do you tell a true war story?

“If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted…then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie…it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen…a true war story cannot be believed. If you can 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.” (pg. 174-176)

Essentially, O’Brien says a storyteller must have the ability to shape their listeners’ experiences and opinions and get people to believe what they have to say. His narrative, much in the same way that the war distorts the soldier’s perceptions of right and wrong, distorts our perceptions of beauty and ugliness.

“…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.” (pg. 181)

Because of this distortion I found this short story to be very thought provoking. For me, “How to Tell a True War Story” had me questioning the truthfulness in every war story (nonfiction and fiction), and I’m hoping this will provide a very meaty discussion in class on Thursday. The Things They Carried is definitely being bumped up in the queue.

Book Mentioned:

  • O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton, 1998. Print. 174-83 pgs. ISBN: 039331698X. Source: Class handout.
Book Cover © W.W. Norton. Retrieved: January 26, 2010.
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