Summary and Analysis
How to Tell a True War Story
O'Brien offers a story about Rat Kiley that he assures his readers is true: Rat's friend, Curt Lemon, is killed, and Rat writes Lemon's sister a letter. Rat's letter talks about her brother and the crazy stunts he attempted. Rat believes the letter is poignant and personal; however, from Lemon's sister's viewpoint, it is inappropriate and disturbing. The sister never writes back, and Rat is offended and angered, as the reader is left to infer as the sister never returns the letter.
O'Brien suggests that Lemon's sister's failure to return the letter offers a kind of sad and true moral to the story. Lemon's death, an accident resulting from a game of catch with a grenade, is described in detail. O'Brien remembers body parts strewn in the jungle trees and thinks about his own memories of the event. He comments that in true stories it is difficult to distinguish what actually happened from what seemed to happen, again blurring the line between truth and story.
O'Brien offers readers the advice that they should be skeptical, and offers a story told to him by Mitchell Sanders as an example. A patrol goes into the mountains for a weeklong operation to monitor enemy movement. The jungle is spooky, and the men start hearing strange, eerie noises which become an opera, a glee club, chanting, and so on, but the voices they hear are not human. Sanders says that the mountains, trees, and rocks were making the noise, and that the men called in massive firepower. He says a colonel later asked them why, and they do not answer because they know he will not understand their story. Sanders says that the moral is that nobody listens; the next day Sanders admits he made up parts of the story.
Next, O'Brien tells what following Lemon's death: the unit comes across a baby water buffalo. Rat Kiley tries to feed it but it does not eat, so Kiley steps back and shoots the animal in its knee. Though crying, he continues to shoot the buffalo, aiming to hurt rather than kill it. Others dump the near dead buffalo in a well to kill it. O'Brien concludes that a true war story, like the one about the water buffalo, is never about war; these stories are about love, memory, and sorrow.
O'Brien offers abstract commentary on storytelling and blurs the divisions between truth and fiction and author and authorial persona through a series of paradoxical reversals. The primary examples are the paragraphs that begin and end the chapter. O'Brien immediately brands the story as true. In a direct address to readers he claims, "this is true." In the final paragraphs, O'Brien reverses this claim by redefining truth. "None of it happened," he writes, "none of it." Central to understanding the chapter is charting O'Brien's progression of calling the story absolutely true to calling the veracity of the story and the reliability of the "O'Brien" persona narrator into question. O'Brien does not lie — he changes the definition of telling the truth.
In this vignette, O'Brien presents two stories that fail to be "true" to their intended audiences. The first example is the "few stories" Rat Kiley includes in his letter to Curt Lemon's sister. To Rat, these stories about Lemon's extreme and questionable acts are true, and he wants to convey this truth to the sister, who fails to respond because she understands the stories in completely antithetical ways.
Rat Kiley and Lemon's sister belong to different interpretive communities; they have different sets of experiences and expectations that they use to understand stories. The result is a radical difference in how they understand and feel the same "actual" events of a story. O'Brien carries this idea of competing communities of interpretation over to the text, which he demonstrates through his appraisal of the response of the woman who tells him he likes the story of the buffalo. She doesn't get the real truth of the story, which is Rat's fraternal love for Lemon, because she belongs to a different interpretive community.
O'Brien is commenting on readers and hearers of stories. Readers must remember that they are reading a story, by a fictional author, about listening to stories and can, unlike Lemon's sister, feel a personal response to the story's outcome. The story takes on a message of truth because of the context of the unanswered letter. On the one hand, Lemon's sister does respond, but on the other hand, her response is in the act of not answering Rat's letter. It is this action that makes the reader align his or her sympathies with Rat, and that solicitation of feeling from the reader is what makes the story "true." The story, O'Brien writes, "[is] so incredibly sad and true: she never wrote back."
The second story that fails to connect its meaning with its hearer is the fantastic and spooky story that Mitchell Sanders tells about the squad who was assigned to listen for signs of enemy movement. Just as O'Brien does in the chapter's first sentence, Sanders emphasizes that the story is true because it actually happened. Even though Sanders admits that he embellished the story — and that it technically is not "true" because it did not actually happen — this is irrelevant to O'Brien. Given the criteria on which he bases the "truth" of stories, Sanders's story has a kernel of truth in it: It is nearly true. O'Brien writes, "I could tell how desperately Sanders wanted me to believe him, his frustration at not quite getting the details right, not quite pinning down the final and definitive truth."
In this sense, O'Brien's analysis of Sanders's story recalls the title of the chapter, "How to Tell a True War Story." It suggests a second meaning to be applied to the readers and hearers of stories: that readers and hearers can "tell," or discern, stories that hold a truth, regardless of whether the events of the story actually occurred, based on certain criteria. According to O'Brien, the truth of a story depends solely on the audience hearing it told.
The common denominator for O'Brien is finally "gut instinct. A true war story, if truly told, makes the stomach believe." O'Brien demonstrates this idea by employing repetition. A noteworthy example is the four varying accounts of Curt Lemon's death within the chapter. Each retelling is embellished until finally a "true" version emerges that viscerally affects "O'Brien," and by extension, the reader. The details of O'Brien's nightmare flashback — Dave Jensen singing "Lemon Tree" — cinch the story as true. O'Brien assents that "truth" is gauged by the responses stories evoke: ". . . if I could ever get the story right. . . then you would believe the last thing Curt Lemon believed, which for him must've been the final truth." O'Brien revives the trope of meta-narrative commentary as the story has been recreated in this fictional writer's memoir, which is in fact not true, but true enough to move the reader to identify emotionally with O'Brien and to share in his experiences through the use of imagination and sympathy.
cooze A derogatory name for a woman.
yellow mother To be a coward or have failure of nerve.
Quang Ngai City and province near Da Nang.
listening post (LP) An advanced, concealed position near the enemy's lines, for detecting the enemy's movements by listening. Here, a three-man post placed outside the barbed wire surrounding a firebase to detect enemy movement in order to warn and defend the perimeter.
Radio Hanoi Like National Public Radio in the U.S., Radio Hanoi was a national radio broadcast. Jane Fonda spoke on Radio Hanoi during her visit to Vietnam in 1972.
gook Slang term for a person of East Asian descent, here meaning, specifically, a Vietnamese.
air strikes Air attacks on a ground or naval target.
napalm Sodium palmitate or an aluminum soap added to gasoline or oil to form a jellylike substance; used in flame throwers and bombs.
Cobras A type of helicopter used to attack enemy troops.
F-4s Also called the Phantom II, a type of tactical fighter bomber widely used in the Vietnam War.
Willie Peter White phosphorus mortar or artillery rounds.
HE High explosive.
tracer rounds A harmless projectile that lights a path for soldiers to aim projectile weaponry.
illumination rounds Flares dropped from above or fired from the ground used to light up an area during darkness.
Lemon Tree A song popularized in the 1960s by folk music group Peter, Paul and Mary. The song tells of a father warning his son about falling in love too deeply with a seemingly ideal girl, with the cautionary moral being that what appears sweet may actually be sour.
puffery Exaggerated praise.