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.
O’Brien says that when he tells this story, a woman invariably approaches him and tells him that she liked it but it made her sad, and that O’Brien should find new stories to tell. O’Brien wishes he could tell the woman that the story he told wasn’t a war story but a love story. He concludes that all he can do is continue telling it, making up more things in order give greater truth to the story.
“How to Tell a True War Story” examines the complex relationship between the war experience and storytelling. It is told half from O’Brien’s role as a soldier, as a reprise of several old Vietnam stories, and half from his role as a storyteller, as a discourse on the art of storytelling. O’Brien’s narrative shows that a storyteller has the power to shape his or her listeners’ experiences and opinions. Much in the same way that the war distorts the soldier’s perceptions of right and wrong, O’Brien’s story distorts our perceptions of beauty and ugliness. O’Brien tells Curt Lemon’s death as a love story. Despite its gruesomeness, evident by O’Brien’s graphic recounting of the situation, he describes the scene as beautiful, focusing on the sunlight rather than the carnage. Blood and carnage are never even discussed, not even as O’Brien and Dave Jensen are forced to shimmy up the tree in order to throw down Curt Lemon’s body parts. The way O’Brien describes this action, and the death in general, is unspecific and detached. His storytelling functions as a salve that allows him to deal with the complexity of the war experience, so much even as to turn the story of Curt Lemon from a war story to a love story.
A true war story, O’Brien explains, has an absolute allegiance to obscenity and evil that renders commonly held storytelling notions of courage and pride obsolete. When we learn that Rat Kiley sends a letter to Curt Lemon’s sister, extolling the virtues of his fellow soldier after his death, we expect the death and the story to have a positive, heartwarming outcome. The essence of the true war story lies in the reality of the situation: the sister does not respond, and Kiley reacts immaturely. This irony makes sense, O’Brien contends, both because Kiley is young and because he has been exposed to such unspeakable things. He calls the sister a “dumb cooze” not because he is a misogynist but because it is his way of negotiating anger. Blame must be assigned, Kiley rationalizes in his anger, and O’Brien sees the truth in Kiley’s emotions. A true war story is not about courage and heroism but about the reality of misplaced anger and the inability of soldiers to deal effectively with their feelings about a horrible experience.
Although all members of the Alpha Company are effectively soldiers turned storytellers, O’Brien and Sanders take their role as storytellers more seriously than the rest. Ironically, Sanders’s most vehement piece of advice—to get out of the way and to let the story tell itself—is one that both he and O’Brien ignore. When he inserts himself into his story about the soldiers who hear voices, Sanders gets in the way, with his comments and clarifications, where he might have let the image of the men speak for itself. This contradiction proves that there are no truths to storytelling, even and especially in true war stories.
Sanders’s advice points out that even in the case of an unreliable narrator, the truest part of a true war story is the listener’s visceral reaction to the details. O’Brien insists the story is absolutely true, but then, after telling it, in a more general discussion of storytelling, insists that it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. The only conclusion we can arrive at is that truth in a true war story is irrelevant. O’Brien is so explicit as to say “war is hell,” but that simple statement has little impact because it is so general and clichéd. Truth is what “makes the stomach believe,” like the image of Rat Kiley torturing a buffalo because he cannot sit with his emotions about Curt Lemon’s death. The image of this suffering Viet Cong buffalo that refuses to die is a far more vivid testament to war than a hollow cry of “war is hell.”