The story How to Write a War Story by Tim O’Brien is a definitive initiation story of a young soldier, living out of the traumas of the Vietnam War. In the story, O’Brien relates the criteria of a “true war story.” The story focuses on the features that might make a story a true war tale as the narrator relates “A true war story is never moral” .
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The story is narrated in the first person about two characters Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon, who do not resemble the image of a soldier but are rather depicted as boys in search of fun and adventure. The story, apart from being a metaphysical account of the war, traces the journey of a young soldier in Vietnam, who matures through his traumatic experiences at war and attains maturity.
In presenting the nature of a true war story, the narrator grows from a boy who writes to the sister of Rat Kiley and pours his heart out to describe what he meant to him to the man who realizes that war stories never fetch listeners and only mean unanswered letters. The story is arranged in an unpredictable fashion as that of the nature of war itself: “the only certainty is overwhelming ambiguity” .
The narrator in his way to maturity relates that “The final and definitive truth” in a straightforward manner as the “truths are contradictory” . The road to maturity for the narrator is through his intercourse with the war, and the readers are made aware that the true nature of the narrator in the story beginning when he relates that he wrote an earnest letter to Rat Kiley’s sister.
However, when he received no answer for that heart-wrenching letter, the narrator takes the readers back in time to portray the characters of Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon, who are described as boys. The narrative is arranged in segments that facilitate the readers to be actively engaged with the text. The characters that are described as dead at the beginning of the story are brought back in the story through flashbacks is separate, disjoint, and disconnected parts of the text.
It is in this later recollections of the dead characters that their life and nature of death are discussed in greater detail. Lemon appears on the third page of the story, where the narrator states that the “dead guy’s name was Curt Lemon” . The death of Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley described in the later part of the story, and the nature of their death is described in detail, slowly throughout the whole course of the narrative.
In between, the story presents other tales that of Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders. All the three characters we just talked about were described as “kids.” Lemon and Rat Kiley were said to be the ones who did not understand the situation and the graveness of the war, for the narrator relates, “They were kids.” In describing them, the narrator creates a picture of young boys ready to engage in some fun time, oblivious of the nature of their state in the war.
In describing them, the narrator uses words/phrases like “goofing off,” “giggling,” “calling each other mutherfucker,” and “playing a silly game they’d invented” . A physical description of Curt Lemon signifies his youth and body of a young adult: “a handsome kid. Sharp grey eyes, lean and narrow-waisted, and when he died it was almost beautiful, the way the sunlight came around him and lifted him and sucked him high into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms” .
Then the narrator plunges into the description of the effect of Lemon’s death on other soldiers without mentioning Lemon. The narrator describes the way Rat Kiley, in anger and frustration, avenged Lemon’s accident by mutilating and killing a water buffalo.
The narrator juggles between his memory of the death of his two friends and colleagues at war and also his life with them at war. The story swings back and forth into the memory and present philosophies of the narrator twenty years later. The story is a process of climbing up for the narrator through the description of the death of Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon.
The narrator, along with the two characters, was boys when serving at Vietnam. He too saw life differently as a boy, he expressed his emotions and distress too quickly for others to pay heed, but time taught him that few wanted to listen to the miseries of others. The child in the narrator states that war is fun and adventure while the matured voice cautions readers that war is nothing but misery and hell.
The narrator, through his memory, reconstructing the war that he saw, reconstructs a mature self who in the end laments that “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 much is ever very true.”
The story initiates the narrator into an adulthood that was brought through the deaths and meaningless violence he saw at the Vietnam War. He joined the forces as a boy along with other boys his age, who thought war to a fun game, an adventure. But death embraced them, and through their deaths, the narrator experiences the truths war holds, which transcends him to his maturity, his philosophical self.