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The Truth in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried”

Interpretation and understanding of truth is a very ambiguous thing. Everyone has their own unique opinion regarding what is true and what is false. The reason is that language is not a perfect instrument for communication. The language is limited because we can only hear the words. When people listen to something, they try to imagine or visualize, or even feel the event being told. But the problem is that a person can never truly understand or feel something unless he tries it. One can read about astronauts landing on Moon but will never know what it feels like to be on Moon. The same principle can be applied to war. It is almost impossible to truly describe how it feels to be a soldier in a real war. In his book The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien described the events during his times in Vietnam during the war. The author tries to reveal the truth about the war by creating a mixture of fictional stories and real facts.

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Confusion regarding the real and fictional origins of the story shows the reader that it is impossible to fully understand and feel the war’s reality. The author intentionally contradicts himself about the reality of the stories being told. When describing the death of Curt Lemon, the author highlights the story’s reality by saying that “it’s all exactly true” (O’Brien 77). However, when narrating the same story, the author mentions that he already told the story “many times, many versions” (O’Brien 85). Also, some characters confess that they invented minor parts of their stories. Sanders says, “I had to make up a few things,” “The glee club. There wasn’t any glee club” (O’Brien 84). Such controversy makes the reader lose trust in the real origins of the stories by characters in the book. The difficulty in distinguishing the truth is the attempt of the author to show another truth about the war. The truth lies in “the impossibility of knowing the reality of the war in absolute terms” (Calloway 249). This way, the book opens for a reader one of the truths about the war.

How to Tell a True War Story is a hint for a reader saying that the stories in the book are true, even though not a fact. The chapter is an analysis of the relationship between the storytelling and the experience of the war. “In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen” (O’Brien 69). It gives readers a hint that some parts of the stories might not be true, but it changes the book’s truth. Also, the importance of the stories is “that they are given in segments” (Calloway 253). The stories of the chapter are interconnected with other chapters, showing that the message of How to Tell a True War Story ­is applied to other chapters as well. Hence, the author states that even though not all the stories are real throughout the book, it does not mean that the stories are not true.

The story is a better way of telling the truth about the war than the facts themselves. O’Brien suggests that the proper treatment of the truth is storytelling (Wesley 7). In Speaking of Courage, Norman Bowker, telling the story about the smell of their camping place, realizes that “this was not a story for Sally Kramer” (Timmerman 109). It clearly shows that not everyone wants to listen to everything about war, and some things are better not to be told. Also, Norman Bowker thought that “it was not a war for war stories… nobody in town wanted to know about the terrible stink” (O’Brien 145). These Bowker’s thoughts indicate that not every story is the story to be told. Thus, facts about the war are not something that people want to listen to. The world is “deaf” to the real experience of Norman Bowker, while “the stories are … art of telling a true war story” (Timmerman 110). Hence, the story delivers much more of the truth about war, translating the war language, which is difficult to understand for a reader, into the peaceful language of a story.

The stories reveal the truth regarding the meaning of Vietnam by showing what Vietnam is not. Even though it is clear that “Vietnam” in American view is a war, no one knows what kind of war it was. According to Middleton, for O’Brien, “fiction is the means of conveying the truth about Vietnam” (12). The stories show readers that the reality of the war is not as simple as just stating the facts about it. They also make the reader think about the difference between real Vietnam and its representation. Also, in Field Trip, O’Brien writes, “I wanted to show her Vietnam that kept me awake at night…” (175). The author, thus, shows the reader that it is better to go and see Vietnam on your own. Also, a reader understands that Vietnam described in books about the war is not a real Vietnam. By demonstrating how the stories are constructed, the author reveals the fictional origins of the book’s reality. It allows readers to question and challenge the picture of Vietnam portrayed in the book, thus, narrowing the gap between a reader and a real Vietnam.

The storytellers’ experience of the war is much more important in shaping the “true war” than the factual events that happened. The narrator says that “a true war story if truly told, makes the stomach believe,” and the “gut instinct” is important in war storytelling (O’Brien, 77). It indicates that simple facts or just pure descriptions of war events cannot deliver the true experience, emotions, and feelings that soldiers experienced. The true story should be very impressive so that the readers can feel the situation being described by their own “guts.” Also, O’Brien stated that in a true war story, “more important than the historical artifact of what occurred is the significance, or truth, of the experience” (King 183). It shows that the real events and the stories based on the events are different. Unlike the factual event, the stories represent the real world full of a wide spectrum of emotions and experiences that a person has been through. Hence, the author’s experience regarding the war, which can be better delivered via fictional stories, is much more important and worth writing than the real events.

The interconnection of some facts in the story with facts from real-life convinces readers that the stories are real. The reader can notice that the protagonist and narrator are named Tim O’Brien as the book’s author. Moreover, both fictional and real Tim O’Brien are around forty and from Minnesota. Also, an epigraph that states: “This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company…” (O’Brien). It makes “supposedly fictional characters of the book sound real” (Calloway 250). Throughout the book, a reader is confused and questioning if the characters and events are happening in the past. Even if the stories are not exactly from the author’s past, the reader can sense some connection with the real world. The fact that the background of the protagonist and the author are perfectly identical makes the reader assume that the stories in the book are coming from the author’s experience, which is very important for a reader to be aware of. Thus, similarities between the real world and the book make it easier for a reader to be convinced that the stories describe the war as it was in reality.

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To sum up, Tim O’Brien could successfully deliver the atmosphere of war. The author’s manipulation of facts and fictional features of the stories allows a reader to sense the war truly. Contradiction about the reality of the stories that occur throughout the book gives a reader a thought that the truth about the war is impossible to understand. Also, the story with its fictional origin is a better way to deliver true war events rather than pure facts. Moreover, the perception of “Vietnam” from the American perspective is also questioned, giving a reader thinking about what real Vietnam is. In addition, it is more significant for the reader to try to understand the author’s experience than just reading the factual events that occurred in his life. Finally, the connection of the book’s fictional word with a real-world makes readers understand that the stories are accurate in terms of the feeling and emotions, even if some of the parts of it are fictional. Hence, the mixture of fiction and facts makes the book The Things They Carried a true war story.


Calloway, Catherine. “”How to Tell a True War Story”: Metafiction in The Things They Carried.” Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction, 1995, pp. 249-257.

King, Rosemary. “O’Brien’s How to Tell a True War Story.” The Explicator, 1999, pp. 182-184.

Middleton, Alexis Turley. A True War Story: Reality and Simulation in the American Literature and Film of the Vietnam War, 2008, Brigham Young U, MA dissertation.

O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009.

Timmerman, John H. “Tim O’Brien and the Art of the True War Story:” Night March” and” Speaking of Courage”.” Twentieth Century Literature, 2000, pp. 100-114.

Wesley, Marilyn. “Truth and Fiction in Tim O’Brien’s” If I Die in a Combat Zone” and” The Things They Carried”.” College Literature, 2002, pp. 1-18.

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