Musings of a Future Librarian: A Lesson In Truth: Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”

Snapshot of O’Brien in Vietnam.

 “One doesn’t lie for the sake of lying; one does not invent merely for the sake of inventing. One does it for a particular purpose and that purpose always is to arrive at some kind of spiritual truth that one can’t discover simply by recording the world as-it-is.” – Tim O’Brien.

            Speaking the truth brings an admiration that cannot be coerced from those around us and thus explains why we revere it with such intensity. We are often told by our parents and society to simply tell the truth. They adhere to this standard  from the moment we can babble — scolding us any time we fix our mouths to lie. We are shown via communication outlets and within our homes, that there is honor in speaking into the world only what we have been told is proven. However, as we have learned throughout our developments the truth is never exactly the same for everyone. There are those versions of the truth we tell for the sake of those like our children, who are too young to comprehend the gritty details of realities such as war; and then there are those truths that we call memories. In Tim O’Brien’s, “How to Tell a True War Story” excerpt, we venture through a world in which actual events are contrasted against psychological truths that leave us questioning what is real and what is fabricated. 

             The story is told via the perspective of Tim O’Brien, and is based on the events he and his fellow soldiers experienced during the Vietnam War.  The story begins with a soldier named Rat Kiley writing a letter to the sister of Curt Lemon, a friend of Rats that has died in an accident. The story proceeds noting the details regarding the event that took Curt Lemon’s life.  It is here where we begin to see the lines between the order of events and the soldiers’ recollections, blur. Our narrator tells us, “”When a guy dies, like Lemon, you look away and then back for a moment and then look away again” (O’Brien 176).  What I find important to note is that after our narrator relays the horrendous details of the event, it is hard to even care about whether or not the story happens as our narrator tells it; rather what is important is what has lingered after the attack — that being the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) the soldiers develop.  After we learn how Lemon died, our narrator takes us on another experience in which soldiers endure eerie traumas within the jungle.

              The value of the debate between what actually happened and what we remember in the end appears to be questioned by O’Brien, as we realize the disillusionment that develops in the minds of young soldiers looking to be good and honest people. The short story seemingly guides the reader towards thought provoking debates regarding what it is we should be focusing on, and why we need to widen the narrow definition we have today regarding what truth is. O’Brien’s short story teaches the reader about the foundations of morality and how these implications affect the individual. I urge you all to dive into this little piece of wonder O’Brien has created, to learn some more about what your definition of truth means and moreover, where it stems from.

Geyh, Paula, et al. Postmodern American Fiction: a Norton Anthology. 1st ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

— Andrea Rodriguez, Blogger.

Andrea Rodriguez’s Bio


Andrea Rodriguez is a senior at Lewis University. Prior to attending Lewis, she completed her associates at the College of DuPage. Rodriguez is studying English Literature in order to pursue a career as an academic librarian. As for her interests, Andrea loves spending time with her family, being in nature, taking care of her plants, writing, cooking, and traveling when she can. Andrea also enjoys exploring unique writing styles. Some of her favorite pieces include The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man by James Weldon Johnson and “Girl” by Jamaica Kincaid.  In addition to being a fiction/poetry editor for Jet Fuel Review, Rodriguez is the editor-in-chief of Lewis Voices, and the administrative director for Sigma Tau Delta, of which she is also a member.

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