War of Words: the Ability of Language to Tell a True War Story

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The world of fiction is thought to be just that: fictional. It is supposed to be a time and place that a reader can escape with the closing of a book. There is, however, a fine line between fact and fiction in some literary works that cannot be avoided or ignored; especially in war stories. In Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a compilation of short stories about the Vietnam War, the line between fantasy and reality is blurred. In O’Brien’s case, the task at hand is to tell a true war story while pondering whether it is possible to ever uncover the real truth. Throughout the short stories found in O’Brien’s novel, specifically “How to Tell a True War Story” and “Good Form,” O’Brien grapples with the notion of what makes a “true” war story. He is also torn about whether or not language can fully convey the facts due to all the contradictions that war poses. Despite the fact that these are stories about the failure of language, O’Brien still captures the truth about the Vietnam War by employing literary techniques such as metafiction and imagery.

Metafiction is “a term given to fictional writing which self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality” (Waugh, 2). O’Brien uses this technique throughout his story in order to blur the line between what a reader believes to be the world of fiction and the actual world of the Vietnam War. This technique is used to instruct readers on how a true war story is defined while bringing the reader back to the present, as well as to tell a reader what writing is true and what is fictional. The technique inserts the author into the text, and gives him the authority to tell a reader his version of the truth of Vietnam. O’Brien does this in a very obvious manner. O’Brien gives his readers guidelines for deciphering a true war story which he emphasizes with various tales in “How to Tell a True War Story.” He states, “You can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you don’t care for obscenity, you don’t care for the truth…Listen to Rat: ‘Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fuckin’ letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back” (O’Brien, 69). O’Brien warns the reader that true war stories will be crude, and he immediately follows it with Rat Kiley’s use of foul language. He does this many times in an effort to inform the reader that true war stories don’t have a moral; a true war story cannot be believed (68, 71). This is immediately followed by Mitchell Sanders telling the narrator a story about a group of soldiers who were sent to the mountains to spy on their enemy. They wound up thinking they heard their enemy all over, and millions of dollars in weaponry was wasted. He attempts to tell O’Brien what the moral is, and he says “Hear that quiet, man?...That quiet – just listen. There’s your moral” (77). There is no moral; if there was a moral to the story, Sanders would have been able to tell it to O’Brien. Instead, he told O’Brien to listen to the silence because that was the moral…no moral that could ever be spoken. While O’Brien uses obvious examples of metafiction in “How to Tell a True War Story”, he also, much more subtly, approaches the inability of language to tell a true story. One of the most effective ways that he does this is by the telling and retelling of the same story, especially that of Curt Lemon’s death. When he retells the story, he elaborates more on the details of what happened; he reveals Curt Lemon’s death in pieces throughout the story, but always ending or beginning with his death and the detail of stepping on a landmine. It is not until later that O’Brien states, “you can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it” (85). By continually telling Curt Lemon’s story, O’Brien is making it a true war story even if it never happened. It works in the same way as Old Wives Tales; society continually tells...
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