The Things They Carried

According to O’Brien, what is more important: historical truth (what actually happened) or fictional truth (what is important to you?”

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“How to Tell a True War Story” passes judgment on the very act of storytelling. There is a right way and a wrong way to do it, an authentic way and an inauthentic way. O’Brien frowns on telling stories with a macho perspective, as Lemon would have done. But he also objects to the polar opposite: telling tear-jerking stories for an effect. This short story acts as a guide to the style of the entire book. O’Brien tells only what he believes are “true stories”: absurdist stories that never end, stories that could not possibly have happened. What he is asking for from his reader in return is a minimum of sentimentality. Not only is there a right and a wrong way to tell stories, this chapter tells the reader, but there is a right and a wrong way to listen to them.

Identifying varying methods of storytelling is also a way for O'Brien undercut his own narrative. One of the projects of the book is to put readers on guard against unreliable narrators. This is a deeply political agenda. O’Brien is angry with his generation of young men and women for not asking enough questions of authority figures. He blames them, at least partially, for being blindly led into the quagmire of Vietnam. He wants to teach his readers to do better: to ask questions, not to believe too easily.