Interpretive Essay on “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien
In the short story “How to Tell a True War Story”, novelist Tim O’Brien asserts that it is not feasible to tell a moral story. He scrutinizes the complicated connection between experiencing the war in actuality and telling it in a story. The story is told half in the perspective of the authors personal experience as a soldier in Vietnam (Calloway, “How to Tell a True War Story”). It is expressed as a repetition of predating Vietnam War stories; partly it is conveyed from his part as the narrator in order to give a rhetorical description of the story. The authors narrative demonstrates that a narrator has the capability to influence the listeners perspective or notion of the story. Further, it is similar to a war that twists a soldiers views of good and evil. The story twists our discernment over beauty and unattractiveness. O’Brien describes the experiences in two ways: (1) he recounts the good characteristics of the narrators friend, Curt, by saying he was a good soldier, brave, and caring; (2) the author confronts whether there is truth in every detail that he puts in the letter; whether they conform to the real picture of the war or what has transpired in the war. Obrien, through the narrator, questions “the truthfulness of remembrance in the emphasis the passage places on the stories invoked by Rat for the sake of the argument” (Mihăilescu 108). In a nutshell, because of the traditional inclusion of creativeness in storytelling, views on the real experiences in war become twisted and distorted; hence, accuracy in telling a true war story cannot be achieved unless it is experienced, much less, witnessed by someone in actuality.
A great way to recognize the twist in the way the story is worded is through a moral acceptance that war is always associated with evil, blood, obscenity, etc.; nevertheless, the story uses “inversely significant” array of words that aims to create a positive aura of the story rather than a hostile, despotic, and moral one. This is particularly evident in some lines such as when Rat says that Curt was “A real soldiers soldier” and that “he would always volunteer stuff nobody else would volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff…” (Tim OBrien, “How to Tell a True War Story”) instead of describing Curt’s tragic death. Thus, it is only fair to infer that the letter is not an actual record of what had truly transpired in the war but a product of creative story telling. The author wants to convey that because of individual reasons, one may tell a story according to what the storyteller believes creates a more favourable impact on either both parties – the transmitter and the receiver of the letter – or on a single person. Perhaps, the explanation behind this conventional style of telling a story is “the need of comforting a grieving family” (109).
On the whole, the motive of the author is to differentiate actual experiences and those which have seemed to take place. In other words, any story is real – one creates a story everyday – just like in the narrator’s experience in the war; nonetheless, morality of a story cannot be achieved through storytelling; one has to go through the same encounter in order to realize the moral story. Therefore, stories that are being told do not necessarily complements to the real story that took place in reality.
Calloway, Catherine. “How to Tell a True War Story: Metafiction in ‘The Things They
Carried.’” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 36. (1995): 249. Print.
Mihăilescu, Dana. “On the Performative Lure of the War of Memories: Tim OBriens How to Tell a True War Story.” University of Bucharest Review, 1.2 (2011): 105-113. Print.
O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” Originally Published in Esquire Magazine, 1987. Print.