Summary of “How to Tell a True War Story”
The author tells how Rat Kiley wrote a letter full of complimentary stories about his buddy Curt Lemon who died, to his buddy's sister. Rat explained how brave Curt was and how he pulled funny pranks. Kiley is heartbroken over Curt's death. He puts everything he has into the letter but the sister never writes him back.
O'Brien uses this as a true war story, explaining that a “true war story is never moral” (p. 65). If you feel uplifted at the end of a war story then it is not true. A true war story is about evil. A true war story is obscene and embarrassing.
The dead friend was Curt Lemon. Rat Kiley and Curt were very young and they were goofing around playing catch with smoke grenades, trying to see who would chicken out first. They were laughing and running through the trees, but suddenly Curt stepped on a mine and was blown up, with bits of his body staying up in the trees.
This tale is interrupted by another story told to the author by Mitchell Sanders about a patrol he was on with six other men in the mountains. They were there to listen for the enemy. They were not allowed to make any noise or to talk. After a week of this, they began to hear all kinds of things in the jungle fog, including voices and music. Almost crazy from this, they finally called in air strikesin an effort to kill the sound. Their officer asks later why they spent six trillion dollars on firepower, and the men had no answer.
O'Brien returns to the story about Curt Lemon. After they cut bits of him out of the trees, Rat Kiley finds a baby buffalo tied up and begins shooting it, not to kill it but to hurt it. The other men just watch. Finally Rat begins crying, and the other men keep saying how they have never seen anything like this, but they do not interfere. They understand it is a unique war experience.
Commentary on “How to Tell a True War Story”
O'Brien notes that “it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen” (p. 67). The true war story is surreal, especially if it's true. If it is a true war story, it is hard to believe. One minute Curt Lemon is smiling and laughing, and the next, he is in pieces in the trees. It is too shocking to believe. Sanders also keeps trying to modify his story, to tease out a moral, but he cannot explain why the men started hallucinating in the jungle. He laments that no one can listen to what the soldiers are trying to say about their experience in Vietnam.
A true war story does not have a general moral; it can only make the stomach believe in the truth of it. O'Brien says war stories are contradictory, showing that war is hell, adventure, courage, discovery, and despair. The extremes of death often make the survivors feel “the immense pleasure of aliveness” (p. 77). You can tell a true war story, however, by the fact that it keeps getting told.