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An Analysis of Tim O'Brien's How to Tell a True War Story of The Things They Carried

Updated on March 28, 2013

Orange Sunshine

In “How to To Tell a True War Story,” of The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien superbly conveys how, in war, boundaries become blurred until “Order blends into chaos, love into hate, ugliness into beauty, law into anarchy, civility into savagery” (561). Concepts like beauty and justice lose their definition. Horror exhilarates. Disgust fascinates. Life is catapulted to the “nth” degree, and at that level of consciousness, the fences that have been erected to contain reality are obliterated.

O'Brien asserts convincingly that the closer one gets to death, the more acute the awareness of life and the deeper the appreciation for it. I know from personal experience (though mine could not compare to his) that imminent death brings with it a whole new perspective on life. It stands to reason that the extreme conditions of war amplify every faculty, mental as well as physical, up to full, blaring volume. When every sound may signal your death, you listen very carefully, and when every sight may be your last, you open wide your eyes.

His recollection of that single moment he experienced twenty years earlier, when his buddy, Curt Lemmon, was killed, bears testament to this. The episode is tattooed to his brain. He remembers every minute detail with crystalline clarity: the sound of dripping water, the smell of moss, the tiny white blossoms. This hypersensitive state of mind is like and acid trip in which every incident is pregnant with symbolism. Every sight reveals a secret; every sound declares a truth, and every passing thought is a revelation. Profound meaning is evident in everything. Limits are transcended. At this level of awareness, truths become undone, fallacy is validated and “Right spills over into wrong” (561).

The following is a perfect example.

After their buddy is killed, O'Brien and his troop find a baby water buffalo and torture it to death; they charge it with the burden of their pain and fear and outrage and confusion. Once the sacrificial lamb is slain, they pollute the village well with its remains--just for spite. The incident is related quite dispassionately. No apologies are offered. Certainly, everyone involved knows that this is an irrational and unspeakable atrocity, yet they do not feel “a great deal of pity” (560), because they have reached a point where “The old rules are no longer binding, the old truths no longer true” (561). Life for them assumes a surrealistic quality where rocks talk and lavish cocktail parties are conducted in the middle of a jungle war zone. They find themselves in a world where the awe-inspiring beauty of nature is coupled with ceaseless dread.

The pivotal moment of the story is recounted four times, each time a little differently, each version just as true. Curt Lemmon steps on a booby-trap just as he is striding out of the shade into the sunlight, giving the impression that it's the sunlight and not the force of a deadly explosion that lifts him off the ground. If O'Brien chooses to exclude that booby-trap from any of his versions and holds that, indeed, it's the sun that draws Lemmon up into the tree, then, according to his stated position, that version would be just as true as any of the others, because “what seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way” (556). What does the cause matter, when the effect remains? Whether by the sun, or by a booby-trap, private Lemmon is blown to just as many pieces. O'Brien later recounted, “I was writing 'How to To Tell a True War Story,' which is the heart of the book—about telling stories, about repetition, and that blur between memory and imagination, how it doesn't matter” (Caldwell).

It makes perfect sense that to O'Brien and his troop “Truths are contradictory” (556), because they are living on the very edge, where the lines between reality and fantasy have been erased by the intensity of the experience. The very thing that makes them see, and hear, and think with such magnified clarity distorts their perspective (at least as the rest of us see things). To them, everything is undiluted and served in a shot glass. They don't have the luxury of sipping life out of a goblet. Their lives are not spread out over a generation, or over years or even over days. They live every tick of the clock to its fullest. Their emotions demand and are given full reign. There can be no holding back.

O'Brien admits that a true war story can be difficult to believe and, with wonderful irony, points out that often, in a genuine war story, it may well be the grotesque and bizarre that is true and the run-of-the-mill that is fabricated. He suggests that the normal stuff is thrown in by necessity, “to make you believe the truly incredible craziness” (556). He's telling us that if it wasn't for a few mundane details sprinkled here and there into the story, the horror of the reality he endured would be beyond our belief. “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth” (179).

I do not doubt him.

If Mr. O'Brien tells me that he heard the colors and savored the sounds as he watched a river turn a psychedelic pink in Vietnam, who am I to question him? I believe him when the tells me that, once upon a time, on an exotic island far away, one of his good comrades sang “The Lemon Song” as they picked intestines from a tree, because, in war, there are no fences to contain reality.

Works Cited

Caldwell, Gail. "Staying True to Vietnam." The Boston Globe 29 Mar 1990: 69+. Mercury Center/America Online


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