“How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’ Brien discusses what makes a war story “true”, in his opinion, a true war story is one that is used as a coping measure. The story opens talking about a soldier, Rat Kiley, in O’Brien’s platoon who has just lost a dear friend, Curt Lemon. Rat Decides to write a letter to Lemon’s sister, in the letter Rat describes Curt, he tells the sister how much he valued Curt as a friend and all of his favorite memories with him. After mailing it he waited 2 months. He didn’t get a response. Lemon died after stepping on a boobytrap in the deep woods of Vietnam. His body went flying into the surrounding trees. As the platoon tried to clean up the area, a member of the platoon sung Lemon-tree. Later, the group approaches a baby water buffalo that rat Kiley proceeds to shoot multiple times without reason. Both of these stories have a way of coping with the death of a friend. That’s what makes a War Story true. The unnecessary shooting of the water buffalo and the uncomfortable feeling as Mitchell Sanders sang Lemon-tree. This motif is in the entire short story. O’Brien says that these types of stories are reworked to better communicate whichever feeling he has previously experienced. If the reader can experience a similar experience to the soldier, the story has done its job.
The Curt Lemon story best illustrates this idea. The story starts off describing the environment, “We crossed a muddy river and marched into the mountains.” (O’Brien 66) This is done so that the reader or listener can easily picture and relate to what is happening. This is a very effective way of engaging an audience. This is also on purpose. Everything in this story is. O’Brien writes “Often the crazy stuff is true and the normal stuff isn’t. The normal stuff is necessary to make you believe the crazy stuff. (O’Brien 68) This is continued for a bit. Curt and Rat are described as playing their game. This keeps ingraining the audience into the story.
Soon, the tense changes from “them” to “I.” As much as this is about Curt Lemon, it’s very much about the experiences of O’Brien as well. “It happened, to me, nearly 20 years ago“(O’Brien 67). Whatever happens, next stuck with O’Brien all of these years. So much so, he begins to describe small details. “I still remember that trail junction and those giant trees and a soft dripping sound somewhere beyond the trees. I remember the smell of moss. Up in the canopy there were tiny white blossoms, but no sunlight at all.”
The event itself is described fairly quickly. I believe it is presented in this way to convey the randomness that transpired from O’Brien’s point of view. The two lines “It’s hard to tell you what happened next”, “They were just goofing” (O’Brien 67) best conveys the feeling of randomness. Furthermore, all except one line telling the reader that Curt was blown up by stepping on a mine, are descriptive lines. O’Brien describes his friend in his last moment, he describes the sound, he even described his death as “beautiful.” I believe this is a great indicator that O’Brien is coping with the loss of his friend.
The most important part of his remembrance here was the sunlight. In the very next paragraph, O’Brien says “When a guy dies, like Curt 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. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.” I believe O’Brien finds peace believing his friend believed he was killed by sunlight and chooses to accept that instead of the IED.
Throughout the story sunlight is mentioned multiple times, it is first introduced in the moments before Lemon’s death, during his death and he harks back on it towards the end of the story. “Twenty years later, I can still see the sunlight on Lemon’s face.” (O’Brien 80) The sunlight is so prominent in the story because it is the main way O’Brien is coping.
While he says that he can still see the sunlight on Curt’s face 20 years later, later in the story he says that the thing that wakes him up is the singing of Lemon-tree while clearing a landing zone. Interestingly, this is what keeps him up at night and not the actual act of his friend dying. “But what wakes me up twenty years later is Dave Jensen singing “Lemon Tree” as we threw down the parts.” (O’Brien 79)The group had to cope quickly in that situation because that’s war, but it still wakes him up at night. Sometimes the best way to cope was to not dwell on it. This idea reoccurs in another passage, about a mysterious sound in the woods.
O’Brien reworks and revamps his stories to better illustrate his feelings to his audience. Because this was one of his many war experiences that sticks with him. But, amazingly, none of it is true. But did it have to be? O’Brien, like all soldiers, need ways of coping with war. For many, it’s their stories. It can be a love story, a story about rocks, or a story about how sunlight killed his best friend. They are all a true war story. A true war story is determined by its morale at the end nor factual events. The truth can be the breeze on a sunny day or a mysterious sound in the woods. Truth is the experience.