Significance of truth?
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By giving the narrator his own name and naming the rest of his characters after the men he actually fought alongside in the Vietnam War, O’Brien blurs the distinction between fact and fiction. The result is that it is impossible to know whether or not any given event in the stories truly happened to O’Brien. He intentionally heightens this impossibility when his characters contradict themselves several times in the collection of stories, rendering the truth of any statement suspect. O’Brien’s aim in blending fact and fiction is to make the point that objective truth of a war story is less relevant than the act of telling a story. O’Brien is attempting not to write a history of the Vietnam War through his stories but rather to explore the ways that speaking about war experience establishes or fails to establish bonds between a soldier and his audience. The technical facts surrounding any individual event are less important than the overarching, subjective truth of what the war meant to soldiers and how it changed them.
The different storytellers in The Things They Carried—Rat Kiley and Mitchell Sanders especially, in addition to O’Brien—work to lay out war’s ugly truths, which are so profound that they require neither facts nor long explanations. Such statements as “This is true,” which opens “How to Tell a True War Story,” do not establish that the events recounted in the story actually occurred. Rather, they indicate that the stylistic and thematic content of the story is true to the experience that the soldiers had in the war. This truth is often ugly, in contrast to the ideas of glory and heroism associated with war before Vietnam. In O’Brien’s “true” war story, Kiley writes to Lemon’s sister, and when she never responds, he calls her a “dumb cooze,” only adding to the ugliness of the story. O’Brien’s declaration that the truest part of this story is that it contains no moral underscores the idea that the purpose of stories is to relate the truth of experience, not to manufacture false emotions in their audiences.