The Things They Carried

  • Study Guide

“How to Tell a True War Story”

Summary “How to Tell a True War Story”


O’Brien prefaces this story by saying that it is true. A week after his friend is killed, Rat Kiley writes a letter to the friend’s sister, explaining what a hero her brother was and how much he loved him. Two months pass, and the sister never writes back. Kiley, frustrated, spits and calls the sister a “dumb cooze.” O’Brien insists that a true war story is not moral and tells us not to believe a story that seems moral. He uses Kiley’s actions as an example of the amorality of war stories. O’Brien reveals that Kiley’s friend’s name was Curt Lemon and that he died while playfully tossing a smoke grenade with Rat Kiley, in the shade of some trees. Lemon stepped into the sunlight and onto a rigged mortar round.

O’Brien says sometimes a true war story cannot be believed because some of the most unbearable parts are true, while some of the normal parts are not. Sometimes, he says, a true war story is impossible to tell. He describes a story that Mitchell Sanders tells. Sanders recounts the experience of a troop that goes into the mountains on a listening post operation. He says that after a few days, the men hear strange echoes and music—chimes and xylophones—and become frightened. One night, the men hear voices and noises that sound like a cocktail party. After a while they hear singing and chanting, as well as talking monkeys and trees. They order air strikes and they burn and shoot down everything they can find. Still, in the morning, they hear the noises. So they pack up their gear and head down the mountain, where their colonel asks them what they heard. They have no answer.

The day after he tells this story, Mitchell approaches O’Brien and confesses that some parts were invented. O’Brien asks him what the moral of the story is and, listening to the quiet, Sanders says the quiet is the moral. O’Brien says the moral of a true war story, like the thread that makes a cloth, cannot be separated from the story itself. A true war story cannot be made general or abstract, he says. The significance of the story is whether or not you believe it in your stomach. Heeding his own advice, he relays the story of Curt Lemon’s death in a few, brief vignettes. He explains that the platoon crossed a muddy river and on the third day Lemon was killed and Kiley lost his best friend. Later that day, higher in the mountains, Kiley shot a Viet Cong water buffalo repeatedly—though the animal was destroyed and bleeding, it remained alive. Finally Kiowa and Sanders picked up the buffalo and dumped it in the village well.

O’Brien expounds on his problem by making a generalization. He says that though war is hell, it is also many other contradictory things. He explains the mysterious feeling of being alive that follows a firefight. He agrees with Sanders’s story of the men who hear things in the jungle—war is ambiguous, he says. For this reason, in a true war story, nothing is absolutely true. O’Brien remembers how Lemon died. Lemon was smiling and talking to Kiley one second and was blown into a tree the next. Jensen and O’Brien were ordered to climb the tree to retrieve Lemon’s body, and Jensen sang “Lemon Tree” as they threw down the body parts.

A true war story can be identified by the questions one asks afterward, O’Brien says. He says that in the story of a man who jumps on a grenade to save his three friends, the truth of the man’s purpose makes a difference. He says that sometimes the truest war stories never happened and tells a story of the same four men—one jumps on a grenade to take the blast, and all four die anyway. Before they die, though, one of the dead turns to the man who jumped on the grenade and asks him why he jumped. The already-dead jumper says, “Story of my life, man.”

Thinking of Curt Lemon, O’Brien concludes he must have thought the sunlight was killing him. O’Brien wishes he could get the story right—the way the sunlight seemed to gather Lemon and carry him up in the air—so that we could believe what Lemon must have seen as his final truth.