How to Tell a True War Story

Ava Stewart is a student at CCSF from Santa Cruz, CA. While spending a year in a half in Tucson at the University of Arizona, she studied the works of war author Tim O’Brien during in an English class over the course of a year. Shared below is a review of one of her favorite literary pieces, “How To Tell a True War Story,” a reflective piece O’Brien wrote to illustrate the rogue beauty of the  trauma and devastation he experienced during the Vietnam War.


O’Brien paints a stunning visual in “How to Tell a True War Story” that seeks to investigate the truth in war stories being told by Vietnam veterans. Whether exaggerations or fact, the narrator seeks to guide views as best as he can through his experiences in Vietnam when he was serving during the war. The narrator bases a majority of the story around the death of a close friend of his who was killed suddenly by a small land mine as he was walking in the forest of Vietnam. He follows this with other stories that occurred (or did they?) because of his passing.

War is a traumatic, dark experience that humans are not meant to take part in. It is not in our nature to participate in or witness such disturbing events, as O’Brien so accurately illustrates through his thoughtful and vivid descriptions of the scenery and events in Vietnam. In many instances throughout the story, the narrator makes a point to note the beauty of the nature and scenery around him despite all of the anarchy that surrounded him. Observing the color of the sky, motion of the trees, and placement of the sun—the narrator almost takes comfort in nature’s beauty as he attempts to survive in such a threatening environment.

The narrator also creates a common theme of credibility to the stories he, and other soldiers, tell after war. “It’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen . What seems to happen becomes it’s own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed … in other cases you can’t even tell a true war story. Sometimes it’s just beyond telling” (486). Despite the constant reminders to readers that these stories may or may not be what they seem, the narrator proceeds with dark stories of hurt and war, loss and trauma. Whether or not O’Brien’s character is telling us the whole truth almost becomes unimportant as we see how much these stories mean to the main character–and we are shown the greater importance to the main character of the people he experienced the war with, the importance of the comfort Vietnam’s nature provided, and most importantly, the prominence of Curt Lemon, the soldier they lost to a land mine. At one point in O’Brien’s story, the narrator describes a gruesome scene of the removal of Lemon’s body from a tree that stopped his fall after the blow from the land mine. After reading such a vivid description, any reader, regardless of their political stance, must agree that war is an experience so horrifying and life shattering, no human should ever be placed in the position to experience such an event.

O’Brien ends the story in such a manner that forces readers to ask themselves whether or not they believe these graphic, yet touching stories from Vietnam. Beyond that, while nothing is clearly true or false, despite the validity of these events there is some truth to the way the events in Vietnam affected every soldier that participated in war. The author is essentially trying to let readers know that it is impossible to understand what actually went on in Vietnam, and while readers may hear stories (whether true or false), you cannot fully wrap your head around the trauma they experienced unless you were a soldier in war.

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