Fact Verses Fiction in O'Brien's The Things They Carried
"The difference between fairy tales and war stories is that fairy tales begin with 'Once upon a time,' while war stories begin with 'Shit, I was there!'" (Lomperis 41). How does one tell a good war story? Is it important to be accurate to the events that took place? Does the reader need to trust the narrator? In The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien examines what it takes to tell a good war story. He uses his own experiences in Vietnam in conjunction with his imagination to weave together a series of short stories into a novel.
First, the reader must understand just what makes a good "war story". The protagonist of the novel, Tim O'Brien, gives us his interpretation of it in the chapter "How to Tell a True War Story".
A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit if rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil (O'Brien 68-69).
With this concept, we can assess and place value on the stories presented in The Things They Carried. Yet, it is still not that simple. The reader is continually challenged to question what is real and what is imagined. The evaluation of each narrator is constant. While the protagonist continues to remind the reader that you cannot believe everything as fact, the other narrators are not as straightforward. The death of Kiowa is one of many questionable stories presented in The Things They Carried. In the chapter "Speaking of Courage" Norman Bowker claims that he is responsible for his friend's death. However, in the chapter "In the Field" O'Brien places the blame on an unnamed young soldier who started the enemy attack by turning on his flashlight. Which story is true? Does it matter what is true? According to Jim Neilson, the story of Kiowa's death "evokes the notion that for the U.S. Vietnam was a quagmire; his drowning functions almost emblematically to suggest America's deepening entanglement in southeast Asia" (193). Whatever the meaning behind Kiowa's story, it certainly fits the requirements for a good war story: there is nothing redeemable in it. Maria Bonn sees the three stories about Kiowa's death ("Speaking of Courage," "Notes," and "In the Field") as exemplifying "O'Brien's relentless investigation of how to tell a true war story" (paragraph 39). When you look at all three of these chapters together you can see the progression from what is imagined to what is true or is it the other way around? With Tim O'Brien,...