Irony in Tim O’Brien’s “How to Tell a True War Story”
“This is true.” (O’Brien, 420) – with this simple statement which also represents a first, three-word introductory paragraph to Tim O’Brien’s short story, “How to Tell a True War Story”, the author reveals the main problem of what will follow. “Truth” – when looked up in a dictionary, we would probably find definitions similar to sincerity and honesty on the one hand, and correctness, accuracy or reality on the other hand. When looking at these definitions, one can make out two groups of meaning: While sincerity and honesty are very subjective, correctness or accuracy are supposed to be objective by nature. One can be sincere and still not report the truth, due to the simple fact that one does not know any better. Accuracy, however, is supposed to represent facts, bits and pieces of information that paint a picture of an event, untouched by opinion or attitude.
In his short story, O’Brien unravels step by step the irony in the double meaning of truth, implied in this first statement, “This is true”, to the reader which is then woven through the entire story. By trying to characterize what constitutes a true war story, but never really achieving this goal, the true irony of his short story is revealed. Even though in some instances giving away his opinion explicitly, the sheer contradiction of honesty and reality becomes even more visible in an implicit way by following O’Brien’s explanations throughout the story while he deconstructs his first statement. The incongruity between his first statement and what is actually shown in his examples does not need any explicit statements to drive home his message.
An interesting combination of recalled events and editorial commentary, the story is not set up like a traditional short story. One of the most interesting, and perhaps troubling, aspects of the construction of “How to Tell a True War Story” is O’Brien’s choice to create a fictional, first-person narrator who might just as well be the author himself. Because “How to Tell a True War Story” is told from a first-person perspective and O’Brien is an actual Vietnam veteran, a certain authenticity to this story is added. He, as the “expert” of war leads the reader through the story. Since O’Brien has experienced the actual war from a soldier’s point of view, he should be able to present the truth about war in a more accurate way than a civilian.
The story is set up almost in a didactic manner: O’Brien seemingly gives the reader the components of a “true war story” and explains, using short narratives of his own recollections of the Vietnam War as well as stories told to him by his fellow soldiers, to provide examples that would support his point. Almost like in a manual for story writing, O’Brien starts out every part of this short story by giving away a supposedly important feature of a “true war story” and then giving a matching example to help the reader visualize his lesson.