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Chapter description...things are being described...with the words...no not all the words, but some of the words. Sure...definitely...some but not all of the words.

Trauma in "How to Tell A True War Story"

The chapter illustrates the need to discuss and communalize trauma, especially when the experience has been shared. Cross' isolation after Lavender's death exacerbates his grief. By contrast Bowker and Kiowa have the opportunity to talk. Kiowa's repetition of the same information borders on the reliving described by Shay and van der Kolk and van der Hart. The talking though makes Kiowa feel better. Similarly Bowker does not want to re-confront Lavender's death, but after Kiowa obeys Bowker and goes quiet, Bowker immediately requests Kiowa keep talking -- masking his feelings with the statement, "One thing I hate, it's a silent Indian" (18). Bowker does not want to talk about Lavender's death but the only thing worse than talking about the experience is not talking about it.

"while Kiowa explained how Lavender died, Lieutenant Cross found himself trembling.
He tried not to cry. With his entrenching tool, which weighed 5 pounds, he began digging a hole in the earth.
He felt shame. He hated himself. He had loved Martha more than his men, and as a consequence Lavender was now dead, and this was something he would have to carry like a stone in his stomach for the rest of the war."

Identity and Gender in "The Things They Carried"

“How to Tell a True War Story” demonstrates how one's identity is maintained or corrupted throughout the war. The concept of identity is indicated through the scenario with the six-man patrol going out into the woods on an operation, where their idea of reality and who they succumb to as an individual is challenged. For the soldiers,  the command to become invisible makes them begin to hallucinate to the point of hearing music and an orchestra playing. The men are so out of touch with reality, making them unsure of who they are and what is real versus what is in their imagination. Resulting in a panic because what they believed to be true about themselves was challenged while they were on the operation.

In the chapter How To Tell A True War Story expresses gender roles when Rat Kiley takes action and kills the baby water buffalo. At the time of this act, Kiley was experiencing emotions after colleague Curt Lemon’s death. When experiencing the sorrow and difficult emotions, Kiley wanted something else to feel the same level of pain he was going through. In attempt to hide his emotion and keep his masculine exterior prevalent, Kiley used the killing of the buffalo as a coping experience.

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“Invisible...they lie there for seven straight days and just listen...everything’s all wet and swirly and tangled up and you can’t see jack...Like you don't even have a body. Serious spooky. You just go with the vapors-the fog sort of takes you in...And the sounds, man. The sounds carry forever. You hear stuff nobody should ever hear.” (69)

 

“He shot it in the hindquarters, and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt” (75)
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Loss of Innocence in "How to Tell a True War Story"

When Tim and his fellow soldiers enter the war, they are young and do not recognize the true dangers of their surroundings. For one of the young men, Curt Lemon, his tragic death has a lasting impact on many the other grunts in his group, including Tim. One fateful day, Lemon and Rat Kiley, being boys, decide to play a game in the shade involving “smoke grenades, which were harmless unless you did stupid things” (66). The shade represents how the realities of the war are hidden from the boys, thus demonstrating the innocence they still possess. However, this innocence is lost as Lemon “steps from the shade into bright sunlight,” triggers an explosion, and is killed (67). The transitions from their playful game to the deadly trap, and from Lemon’s position under the canopy and into the sunlight represent how the members of his troop lose their innocence as they are forced to face the harsh realities and gruesome terrors of war. They entered the war blind to the horrific events that it would entail, but with Lemon’s exit, the grim nature of warfare is exposed. Additionally, the chapter conveys that loss of innocence is often caused by sudden, disruptive events that change the way a character progresses with their lives. This can be exemplified as Curt Lemon seems to atomize instantly, and thus, the men lose part of their innocence as they try to cope with the death of their friend.

In “How to Tell a True War Story”, O’Brien elaborates on the theme of loss of innocence with the death of Curt Lemon. The spontaneity and pointlessness of Lemon’s fate reflects the cruelty of war. Rat Kiley, his best friend, is unable to comprehend the brutality of the situation. Right before Lemon was blown up by a landmine, him and Kiley were playing a made up game with a grenade. When Lemon gets blown up into the trees, it now turns from a “game” into what is now there reality. The murders all around these men demonstrates the cruel events they go through in Vietnam. The difference in the exposure that the soldiers endure at home versus the battlefield is insurmountable. The death of Curt Lemon introduces the men to the reality and unpredictability of life and war.

“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 recreate the fatal whiteness of hat 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” (80)
Quote: “They were just goofing. There was a noise, I suppose, which must’ve been the detonator, so I glanced behind me and watched Lemon step from the shade into bright sunlight” (67).

The Nature and Effects of War

The chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” of O’Brien’s novel helps to elaborate to the reader about the nature of war through the qualifications O’Brien sets out for a true war story to be told, most noticeably that the truth of a true war story is not always important. The chapter’s description of true war stories offers insight into the conditions during the war. For example, when O’Brien discusses how with most war stories there is not a specific point to the story, or if there is, it is hidden deep within the story. This relates back to warfare and how during the heat of battle or the simple experiences that are discussed later in time, there is not a clear moral or physical lesson being taught. In war, there is just living, where the men fighting move from one story to the next. In addition to this point, O’Brien discusses how in war stories generalized statements usually mean that the tale is not a true war story. The author discusses how true war stories and the people who tell them understand that in war there are no absolutes and truths differ from one person to the next. One can then infer that war itself destroys the individual’s sense of unified reality, if it ever existed for that person. This connects to the quality of a true war story that O’Brien mentions, the fact that war stories don’t depend on legitimacy. In the sense of morals and quality of the story, true war stories very much do have to be legitimate. However, the factual basis of a true war story does not have to be sound in order for it to qualify as a true war story. This is because of the shattered sense of truth featured in this chapter and in war. The fact that soldiers experience many difficult emotions and experiences during war that are not necessarily believable causes many war stories to not be believable. War in itself is a traumatic phenomenon for many which cannot be completely understood by those who did not participate in it. The fact that nothing must be true in a story that is counted as a true war story reflects that in war many of the feelings and experiences of soldiers cannot be believed, even by the people in the war. The feelings that the story gives to the listeners or the message it will occasionally present, however, is the critical piece to understanding the true facts of chaos and overwhelming tragedy felt during war.

This chapter demonstrates the atomization and effacement of soldiers during the Vietnam War. First, Curt Lemon is first introduced as simply a friend of Rat Kiley’s who had been killed; he initially is not given a name at all. Furthermore, before we learn too much about his character, he is killed by an explosive. In fact, he is quite literally atomized as he is broken down into many parts by the explosion. Additionally, it seems that his purpose in the story has been reduced to simply showing how a soldier reacts when a close comrade dies, as shown by Rat Kiley’s torturing of the water buffalo. Rat Kiley’s actions on the buffalo is also a form of atomization and effacement. O’Brien includes language describing how various parts of the animal’s face and body are blown away by Rat Kiley. It is not being seen as an animal, but rather as punching bag for the grieving soldier. Finally, Mitchell Sanders’ story about the listening post illustrates this theme as well. None of the soldiers are given names, and they are never referred to individually. These individual people with unique lives and stories have been broken down into simple soldiers. Overall, Curt Lemon, the water buffalo, and the soldiers at the listening post are atomized, being used to convey the meaning of a story rather than being seen as unique individuals.

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“In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true” (O’Brien 78).

“He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee… IT went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear…. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the moth away… Rat shot it in the nose” (75).
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Faith, Belief, and Superstition in "How to Tell a True War Story"

The theme of faith and belief is featured in the chapter, How to Tell a True War Story, through the war stories passed on between soldiers and non-soldiers. Tim’s purpose in this chapter is to give the reader some sense of how to tell whether or not a war story is true based off of past experiences. Tim states that, generally, the crazier the account, the truer it is; the normal stuff is not necessary in making the reader absorb the true craziness of the experience.  He tells readers that is easy to consume a war story, taking in the details of morals, without digesting it fully and taking into account the validity of a story. War stories should never be uplifting, but rather make your stomach churn; if your stomach believes the story, it’s true.

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“If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie” (65).
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Love in "How to Tell a True War Story"

In the beginning of O’Brien’s chapter “How to Tell a True War Story”, he tells of how Rat Kiley loses a comrade, whom he admits to loving like a brother, writes a very heartfelt, emotional letter to the man’s sister. She never writes back. This truly stings Rat, and he goes from empathizing with the woman who shared his loss of a loved one, to condemning her, and calling her a “cooze” as a defense mechanism. The theme O’Brien shows us is that the environment of Vietnam is not one in which love and compassion carry any significance beyond the retainment of sanity. Rat makes himself vulnerable, not only to the sister, but the entire squadron when he writes the letter. When he doesn’t receive a letter back, he masks his hurt with anger towards his comrade’s sister to seem strong again to his fellow soldiers.

“He gets all teary telling about the good times they had together, how her brother made the war seem almost fun, always raising hell...He says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the world. They were like soul mates, he says, like twins or something, they had a whole lot in common” (64-65).  

Fracturing of Themis in "How to Tell A True War Story"

The stories that O’Brien tells in “How To Tell A True War Story” represents the fracturing of one’s themis and helps to show the different ways they can communalize it to listeners. For example, when Curt Lemon dies, Rat Kiley writes a very emotional letter to his sister; however, he never gets written back. Because of this, he puts his anger out on a baby buffalo and kills it. For Kiley, he feels so betrayed by her that he kills a buffalo in order to cope with his anger. The fracturing of what is right for him- her at least writing back to him- causes him to kill the baby buffalo as a means of coping since he did not know how else to do it. Additionally, O'Brien exclaims how "a true war story is never moral" (65) and is obscene and evil. So, in this chapter, the betrayal of what's right causes characters pain and fractures soldiers' characters, such as Rat Kiley's.

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“He’s nineteen years old- it’s too much for him-so he looks at you...and says cooze, because his friend is dead and because it’s so incredibly sad and true:she never write back” (O’Brien 66).         

 

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Fellowship and Comrades in "How to Tell a True War Story"

In “How to tell a True War Story”, the importance of Kiley and Lemons’ friendship is shown through his actions and words regarding Lemon’s death. By doing so, it illustrates the theme that fellowship/camaraderie is a necessity through war. When Rat Kiley’s best friend, Curt Lemon died during an accident at war, Kiley decides to write a consoling letter to Lemon’s sister, describing Lemon’s character as he knew it, the experiences of war that they shared, and what this friendship meant to him. This shows the importance of friendship as he describes how Lemon helped make the experience of war less traumatic for all of them. His passion about this friendship is illustrated further through his upset and irritated reaction when Lemon’s sister doesn’t write back. As war is a very unstable climate, fellowship is needed in order to maintain a remotely stable mental state that can be damaged when they lose this friendship.

 

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“He says he loved the guy. He says the guy was his best friend in the whole world” (65)
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Death in "How to Tell a True War Story"

The chapter “How to Tell a True War Story” illustrates the common folk's inability to understand a war story, specifically one about death. It does so through the juxtaposition of two events: the death of Curt Lemon and the baby water buffalo. Both deaths are unjust and result in an atomization of the victim. However, most readers sympathize with the animal over the human which demonstrates their failure to listen to war story and grasp the deeper meaning. In his article “Achilles In Vietnam”, Jonathan Shay advises people to listen without judgment and remove and social bias (Shay 188). By doing this, they can better understand the story and its morals.

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“Now and then, when I tell this story, someone will come up to me afterward and say she liked it...The poor baby buffalo, it made her sad. Sometimes, even, there are little tears” (80).
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Courage in "How to Tell a True War Story"

“How to Tell a True War Story” narrates Rat Kiley’s efforts to contact Curt Lemon’s sister after Curt’s death. He describes Curt’s deeds that he believes to be courageous. Some of the deeds he described were going on patrols that no one else wanted to go on. However he also describes Curt Lemon mercilessly blowing up fish instead of using a fishing pole. He also tells of a Halloween night where Curt Lemon went out stark naked and terrorized a nearby village. Whether all of Curt Lemon’s deeds were courageous is debatable, however Rat Kiley’s risk of becoming emotionally vulnerable through writing this letter and expressing his true emotions, can be seen as an act of bravery.

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“A friend of his gets killed, so about a week later Rat sits down and writes a letter to the guy’s sister… Then he tells her a few stories to make the point, how her brother would always volunteer for the stuff nobody else would volunteer for in a million years, dangerous stuff like doing recon or going out on these really badass night patrols… On Halloween, this really spooky night, the dude paints up his body all different colors and puts on this weird mask and hikes over to a volley and goes trick-or-treating almost stark naked, just boots and balls and an M-16. A tremendous human being, Rat says.” (O’Brien 64 and 65)

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The Soldier and the Civilian in "The Things They Carried"

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Morality in "How to Tell a True War Story"

This chapter explains that in the face of war, morality seems too abstract and generalized. Tim searches for some meaning and reasoning, however, and meaning he can find tends to unravel the entirety of what he is trying to express. He explains that morality itself seems to be false in the face of the entirety of war. Throughout the entirety of the chapter, O’Brien toys with the idea of morality and its inadequate nature for descriptions of war.

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“As a moral declaration the old truism seems perfectly true, and yet because it abstracts, because it generalizes, I can’t believe it with my stomach” (O’Brien 74).
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Atomization in "How to Tell a True War Story"

This chapter demonstrates the atomization and effacement of soldiers during the Vietnam War. First, Curt Lemon is first introduced as simply a friend of Rat Kiley’s who had been killed; he initially is not given a name at all. Furthermore, before we learn too much about his character, he is killed by an explosive. In fact, he is quite literally atomized as he is broken down into many parts by the explosion. Additionally, it seems that his purpose in the story has been reduced to simply showing how a soldier reacts when a close comrade dies, as shown by Rat Kiley’s torturing of the water buffalo. Rat Kiley’s actions on the buffalo is also a form of atomization and effacement. O’Brien includes language describing how various parts of the animal’s face and body are blown away by Rat Kiley. It is not being seen as an animal, but rather as punching bag for the grieving soldier. Finally, Mitchell Sanders’ story about the listening post illustrates this theme as well. None of the soldiers are given names, and they are never referred to individually. These individual people with unique lives and stories have been broken down into simple soldiers. Overall, Curt Lemon, the water buffalo, and the soldiers at the listening post are atomized, being used to convey the meaning of a story rather than being seen as unique individuals.

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He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee… IT went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear…. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the moth away… Rat shot it in the nose (75).
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Key Authorial Choices in this chapter

Choice 1-Word choice: “cooze” (66)

Choice 2- Baby water buffalo story (75)

Choice 3- Paradox in the description of the nature of war (76)

Choice 4- Figurative language used to illustrate the war (77)

Choice 5- Challenging a meta-narrative in saying the value of war stories don't depend on their legitimacy (81)

Choice 6

Choice 7

Choice 8

Choice 9

Choice 10

Key Authorial Choices in this chapter

Choice 1- “The booby-trapped 105 round blew him into a tree. The parts were just hanging there “ (79).

Choice 2- “Someone will always come up to me afterward and sa she liked it. It’s always a woman. Usually it’s an older woman of kindly temperament and humane politics” (80).

Choice 3- O’Brien makes this chapter a story of stories.

Choice 4- He interrupts the stories several times to discuss what a true war story is.

Choice 5- Rat kiley's word choice in describing Curt Lemon, in a letter that is being sent to show that he has died.

Choice 6- using the phrase "the dumb cooze"

Choice 7- the description of the sunlight sucking up Curt Lemon

Choice 8- O'Brien says that a true war story cannot be believed.

Choice 9- The use of language in describing the music and sounds in the mountains

Choice 10- The old woman crying

3 thoughts on “How to Tell a True War Story”

  1. O’Brien demonstrates the disorienting nature of war via the authorial choice to compose the chapter of short unrelated vignettes (Authorial choice 3). While the individual stories within the chapter are straight forward, they lack cohesiveness when put together. This mirrors a soldier’s experience in war, as they often have difficulty processing their trauma in existing schema’s. Just like the individual stories made sense in the chapter, the soldier is able to understand the event on a basic level, but they are often unable to make sense of it in relation to their understanding of their life as a whole.

  2. Authorial choice 2, which was the old woman’s reaction to O’Brien’s war story, highlights the contrast between soldier and civilian. The woman approached O’Brien and told him that she enjoyed the story of Curt Lemon’s death, which he found inconceivable considering the trauma associated with the death of his comrade. The woman’s comments serve as a microcosm to societies perception of veterans’ war stories. Often times, civilians view their military members as different from themselves in a way that would prevent them from experiencing the obvious emotional turmoil associated with war. Given this attitude, civilians such as the woman described by O’Brien fail to see war stories as documentations of the terror experienced by veterans, and instead perceive them as chronicles of adventure or bravery on behalf of the soldiers.

  3. The fracturing of themis is addressed throughout O’Brien’s novel, and very clearly shown in his statement that true war stories cannot be believed (authorial choice 8). The idea of themis is essentially one’s understanding of the world. The war experiences of Vietnam veterans are frequently too brutal, painful, or morally challenging to be processed by the said soldier as a normal memory; it contradicts their understanding of the world and would therefore inconceivable if not for their memory of the event. When veterans share their war stories, their horrifying experiences tend to defy the listener’s perception of feasible reality, which leads them to reject its legitimacy rather than undergo the same rupture of themis experienced by the veteran themselves.

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