Analysis of Tim O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story

Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story” is an often-anthologized metafictional short story that provides, among many surprises, an important literary representation of the Vietnam War and the trauma it inflicted upon individuals. The story is part commentary on the nature of truth in storytelling and part illumination on the character’s experiences in war. In fact, the narration is divided into 15 sections that range from commenting on how a war story ought to be told to the story itself. In one sense, O’Brien appears to be experimenting with Postmodernism through the deconstruction of his tale, which bears witness to the death of a comrade into so many fragmentary episodes, some that repeat particular details. In another sense, O’Brien is commenting on the traumatic impact war has upon those who survive it. In fact, O’Brien’s narrator explains that “a war story is never moral” (68) but that “you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (69).

Although the criticism of O’Brien’s story ranges from canonization to cautious reverence, many scholars agree that he uses metafiction effectively, and his depiction of trauma is a central theme. Catherine Calloway lauds O’Brien’s use of metafiction in which form “perfectly embodies its theme” (255). This linkage of form and theme is also praised by Daniel Robinson, who declares that O’Brien’s “truths lie as much in the fragmented, impressionistic stories he tells as in the narrative technique he chooses for the telling” (257). Heberele goes one step further in specifying how the theme and form unite as a “brilliant representation of trauma writing,” in which the 14 sections of the story raise awareness of “the validity of fiction and its relationship to trauma” (187).

Tim O’Brien/Wikimedia

O’Brien uses metafiction as a device to fragment the trauma that his narrator experienced during his service in Vietnam. The narrator/protagonist seeks to fragment, hide, and tell his story only in piecemeal fashion. The narrator is traumatized by essentially witnessing the death of Curt Lemon and by being involved in the cleanup of the body parts. This story finds a central metaphor in the blown-up body parts of the deceased soldier, Curt Lemon, hanging from a tree that the narrator has to climb to retrieve it. Like the fragmented body of Lemon, the narrator’s story is broken into parts consisting of story and commentary as representative of his trauma. He tells the story of Lemon’s death four times, and it is this retelling, in various ways, that reflects an attempt by the narrator to reveal, however slyly, his own inexpressible traumatic reaction.

The commentary about the episode seems as important as the episode itself, as if O’Brien’s goal here is to recreate the sense of disbelief that accompanies shocking events. For example, the narrator laments, “When a guy dies, like Curt Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again” (71). The narrator is so traumatized that in his telling of the episode the first time, he seeks to find a description of the episode that will allow him an acceptable way to remember the horror. He describes the death as “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” (70). There are no gory details on this first telling. The next time he tries to tell the story in a journalistic manner by keeping to facts: “Curt Lemon stepped on a booby-trapped 105 round. He was playing catch with Rat Kiley, laughing, and then he was dead. The trees were thick; it took nearly an hour to cut an LZ for the dustoff” (78). Up to that point in the narrative, O’Brien describes the death scene but never with as much vigor and detail as he describes Rat Kiley’s vengeful butchering of a water buffalo. Then, as if the detailing of the water buffalo’s destruction has freed him to render gore more fully, the narrator’s third description of the episode includes more details:

Then he [Lemon] took a peculiar half step, moving from shade into bright sunlight, and the booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there, so Dave Jensen and I were ordered to shinny up and peel him off. I remember the white bone of an arm. I remember pieces of skin and something wet and yellow that must’ve been the intestines. (83)

Yet the narrator claims it is not the gore that wakes him up 20 years later, but instead it is the memory of Jensen singing “ ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts” (83). O’Brien’s telling of the scene will not end on the graphic reality of the episode. His fourth description finally openly merges memory with incident as he begins, “Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face” (84). He attempts once again to make sense of the scene while describing it, curiously aware of his own artifice by saying,

But if I could ever get the story right, how the sun seemed to gather around him and pick him up and lift him high into a tree, if I could somehow re-create the fatal whiteness of that light, the quick glare, the obvious cause and effect, then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must’ve been the final truth. (84)

By ending with this description, O’Brien’s narrator connects the traumatic incident with the mysteries of human thoughts and emotions. O’Brien is healing trauma with story. Is it finally more important to accept the impossibility of knowing a dead man’s thoughts than to accept the memory’s unreliability in rendering specific physical details? By clearly denouncing the mimetic fallacy, O’Brien is offering a revision of Vietnam War stories that pivot on the mechanism of artifice—not reality.

O’Brien’s story foregrounds the structure as metafiction, and yet that same structure is found to replicate the central metaphor and theme of trauma. O’Brien’s story is a powerful reminder of how fiction writing comes down to the choices a writer makes and how those choices shape the reader’s experience.

Calloway, Catherine. “ ‘How to Tell a True War Story’: Metafiction in ‘The Things They Carried.’ ” Critique 36, no. 4 (1995): 249–257.
Heberle, Mark A. A Trauma Artist: Tim O’Brien and the Fiction of Vietnam. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2001.
O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” In The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Miffl in, 1990.
Robinson, Daniel. “Getting It Right: The Short Fiction of Tim O’Brien.” Critique 40, no. 3 (1999): 257–264.
Smith, Lorrie N. “ ‘The Things Men Do’: The Gendered Subtext in Tim O’Brien’s Esquire Stories.” Critique 36, no. 1 (1994): 16–40.
Tal, Kali. “The Mind at War: Images of Women in Vietnam Novels by Combat Veterans.” Contemporary Literature 21, no. 1 (1990): 76–96.

Categories: Literature, Short Story

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