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“How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien Essay

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Updated: Nov 8th, 2021

In life, everyone has memories or events that they hold dear to their hearts. These memories normally build and define who a person is and define their inner selves. People also tend to use these memories to have a purpose and goals in life. “How to tell a true war story” by Tim O’Brien is a story told about the encounters and experiences of war veterans during the Vietnam War. In the essay, we try and look at some self-defining moments for these soldiers and how they use their experiences to define themselves. We also look at some important events that the soldiers find definitive.

In the story, the writer brings out the value attached to memories; memories that define people and give them sound emotions. Some memories are so unforgettable that they can almost be re-lived. This is demonstrated when Rat Kiley describes his friendship with Curt Lemon. He describes Curt as a great buddy, a daredevil, and ‘crazy’.Emphasis must however be put on how he describes the craziest things he thinks Curt ever did. He tells of how Curt went fishing with a crate of hand grenades and goes on to say it’s one of the funniest things in the world. Rat also describes vividly how they used to play a game they had invented in the shed of quadruple canopy trees. He even remembers the smell of moss. They used to call each other names ascertaining how good their friendship must have been. He stresses on by saying “it’s all true”. The aspect of memory here entails a cognitive process, reflective thinking, and processes of reasoning focused on making a decision on what memories to hold dear and how to speak our truths as we reminisce. It is a tool of inquiry used for interpretation, analysis, evaluation, and making inferences on past occurrences. Through the selection and the interpretation of certain memories, people can give a story and express feelings. In the scientific perspective, the process of thinking critically and reminiscing includes acquiring the information and evaluating it to arrive at well-justified conclusions. Rat remembers most of these details because they must have been really special to him.

The ability to define who we are has to embrace skills for critical thinking and perfecting the art of suspending a judgment. If for example one is reading a story like the one being told by O’Brien, they are bound to adopt a perception and suspend a judgment. Acquiring the skills also requires that one accepts that everybody can have subconscious bias. It is therefore normal to doubt and question any tale that might be told. From the story, it is clear and is submitted by O’Brien that it’s hard to tell a war story (O’Brien 517). Sometimes the tales may look too awesome to be true. Take Curts’ death, for example, one minute he is alive and well playing and goofing, the next he is dead.

In the story told by Mitchell, many things are brought out regarding being a soldier. Mitchell exposes the hardships soldiers have to endure while at war. Mitchell describes how the soldiers stayed for a few days without saying a word, chatting, or making jokes. Later they started hearing imaginary sounds that culminated into sounds of choirs and partying. Of course, these turned out to be imaginary sounds. This story is dear to Mitchell because he started the story by stating that it is” God’s truth”. As he tells the story, he also kept reminding O’Brien that he might not believe the story. He told it anyway, not caring whether O’Brien believed it or not. Mitchells’ story is an indication that soldiers want their stories heard and believed. The memories they bring from wars are close to their hearts and they will do anything to have you listen to the whole story. Mitchell made up things as he told the story so that O’Brien could believe. O’Brien also expressed that he could see it in Mitchells’ eyes that he was desperate for him to believe the story. Mitchell confessed to making up the glee club but insisted that the story was still true. He understood that a true war story was hard to believe. This shows how important the events at the war are to soldiers. They offer great memories both good and bad but also give them some form of pride, belonging, and identity. They choose to be part of the group that lived the story. They pride themselves in identifying with this group. This clearly brings out the fact that identity is a product of choice.

As stated by O’Brien, a war story cannot be told and looked at plainly. It has to be looked into with a deeper perception. The experiences of soldiers during war sometimes get to them but the difference in their stories is how they choose to vent out their frustrations. Many stories have been told of soldiers who have committed suicide while on the battlefield or even long after returning from war (Chamberlain, Long, Vincent 141). In the story, Rat Kiley is greatly disturbed by the death of his colleague and close friend, Curt Lemon. Rat chose to let out his pain by torturing a baby buffalo. He tried to feed the baby buffalo beans and pork. When the buffalo seemed disinterested, Rat finally let out his anger by shooting and torturing it to death. Behavioral changes are fueled by one’s values and morality. It is good to build your values since they determine your behavior. Your actions lean towards achieving your immediate needs and less on long-term goals. Personal values illustrate what people are individual, while morals define their society. Different societies have different morals at any given time. Ethics and morals through the incorporation of memory can be portrayed as fundamental for self-improvement or destruction. It is essential to adopt reasonable ethics in whatever environment and Rat portrayed the soldier fraternity as lacking in compassion when he butchered the baby buffalo. Events like that are bound to have some effect on the soldiers in terms of building their character, values, and hearts.

The war experience also has moments that totally change the soldiers’ perception of life. Mitchell expresses that after a gunfight is when you truly appreciate being alive. You appreciate every piece of life including trees and grass. These experiences can change the person in the soldier and help them appreciate life more. The story also illustrates how much commitment it takes to be a soldier and how many situations can define who you are. The soldiers leave for the battlefield even though at the back of their minds they know that they could be hurt, they could die or lose a colleague but still have to go on. It is therefore imperative that the soldiers have a clear sense of meaning as they anticipate the near future that is war.

In conclusion, it is clear that in life, everyone has memories or events that they hold dear to their hearts. These memories normally build and define who a person is and mold them into what their inner selves are. People also tend to use these memories to have a purpose, a goal in life, and a form of identity. The occurrences in war are awesome and even obscene sometimes, making them very difficult to narrate. Soldiers have quite an experience and this definitely shapes them into different people in terms of character, values, and emotions. The memories brought from the wars are many and remain in the minds of the veterans for the rest of their lives. They love to tell their story and be believed because wars are truly life-changing.

Works Cited

Chamberlain Kerry, Long Nigel, Vincent Carol. “Effect of the Gulf war on reactivation of adverse combat-related memories in Vietnam veterans.”Journal of Clinical Psychology 50 (1994): 138-144

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. New York: Houghton Mifflin Press. 1990.

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