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How to Tell a True War Story - the Irony of Truth in Tim O'Brien's "how to Tell a True War Story"

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How to Tell a True War Story - The Irony of Truth in Tim O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story"

"This is true." (O'Brien, 420) - with this simple statement which also represents a first, three-word introductory paragraph to Tim O'Brien's short story, "How to Tell a True War Story", the author reveals the main problem of what will follow. "Truth" - when looked up in a dictionary, we would probably find definitions similar to sincerity and honesty on the one hand, and correctness, accuracy or reality on the other hand. When looking at these definitions, one can make out two groups of meaning: While sincerity and honesty are very subjective, correctness or accuracy are supposed to be objective by nature. One can be sincere and still not report the truth, due to the simple fact that one does not know any better. Accuracy, however, is supposed to represent facts, bits and pieces of information that paint a picture of an event, untouched by opinion or attitude.

In his short story, O'Brien unravels step by step the irony in the double meaning of truth, implied in this first statement, "This is true", to the reader which is then woven through the entire story. By trying to characterize what constitutes a true war story, but never really achieving this goal, the true irony of his short story is revealed. Even though in some instances giving away his opinion explicitly, the sheer contradiction of honesty and reality becomes even more visible in an implicit way by following O'Brien's explanations throughout the story while he deconstructs his first statement. The incongruity between his first statement and what is actually shown in his examples does not need any explicit statements to drive home his message.

An interesting combination of recalled events and editorial commentary, the story is not set up like a traditional short story. One of the most interesting, and perhaps troubling, aspects of the construction of "How to Tell a True War Story" is O'Brien's choice to create a fictional, first-person narrator who might just as well be the author himself. Because "How to Tell a True War Story" is told from a first-person perspective and O'Brien is an actual Vietnam veteran, a certain authenticity to this story is added. He, as the "expert" of war leads the reader through the story. Since O'Brien has experienced the actual war from a soldier's point of view, he should be able to present the truth about war in a more accurate way than a civilian.

The story is set up almost in a didactic manner: O'Brien seemingly gives the reader the components of a "true war story" and explains, using short narratives of his own recollections of the Vietnam War as well as stories told to him by his fellow soldiers, to provide examples that would support his point. Almost like in a manual for story writing, O'Brien starts out every part of this short story by giving away a supposedly important feature of a "true war story" and then giving a matching example to help the reader visualize his lesson.

The reader is presented three different events. Two are told by the narrator himself. It describes his friend's death. Curt Lemon steps on a booby trap and is torn to pieces by the detonation. Even though this event is told three times in three different manners, it is always the same event with a different perspective. The second story is told by his friend Mitch Sanders. He tells the story of six soldiers on a listening post. They are supposed to detect enemy movement in the jungle and report on that. Instead of encountering Vietnamese soldiers in the wilderness of the jungle, they seem to hear voices of a classical concert out in the distance. A third story again is told by the narrator himself. He tells the story of four soldiers on a mission when attacked.

However, as the reader is to realize soon, by having his fictional characters tell stories and then recant the truth of those stories, O'Brien certainly calls into question the possibility of ever telling a true war story. The result of this technique is that the story is both fragmentary and cohesive: the stories within the larger framework are fragments held together by a narrative voice determined to "get the facts right" and give a complete and comprehensible description of a "true war story".

The narrator's instructions deal with several problems about the "truth" that make his first statement seem so ironic. How does the narrator's limited perspective define the truth? Do we always see all there is or do we as spectators to an event just put together pieces of information ourselves? And how does the narrator's intention influence the content of a story? And finally, how does the audience's expectation direct the way a story is received and understood? Seemingly answering these questions, O'Brien plays with our own limitations in the perception of what is going on around us. Considering all these factors, it sounds ironic to claim that something is the absolute truth. At the end of the story, however, the author presents a kind of resolution to the reader to help him or her to answer all those questions. O'Brien calls into question whether it really matters that a story is told with all its details because not the details but the message of the story might be important.

The narrator explains that what seems to be true is often the realest truth there is. After an event has occurred, we often can reconstruct it only through the stories told by others. Therefore the truth becomes the story because we canno have an objective view on it. A "surreal seemingness" represents "in fact the hard and exact truth as it seemed" (O'Brien, 422). From his point of view, in a true war story it is difficult to separate the truth from what just seemed to happen. When Curt Lemon dies, Tim sees it all happen in a big confused jumble, and that is the truth of what happened. As the narrator tells us:

When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. When a guy dies, like Lemon, you look away and then look back for a moment and then look away again. The pictures get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot (O'Brien, 422).

There are no details to sort through; it is the confusion that is true.

Mitchell Sanders makes up details of his story to make Tim feel as if he were there; that is a kind of truth-telling. Yet, is it the real truth? The narrator claims it, to him, "It's all exactly true" (O'Brien, 422). Truth is what seems. This is one of the pieces of advice he gives the



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