The Things They Carried
by Tim O'Brien
The Things They Carried How to Tell a True War Story Summary
- When one of his friends is killed, Rat writes to the friend's sister.
- He explains what a great guy her brother was, and tells her how close the two of them were. It's a long letter, and very personal.
- Rat is practically crying as he writes it. She never writes back.
- O'Brien tells us that a true war story is not a moral story, that you can tell a war story is true if it contains obscenity and evil. He says that because of Rat's response to the sister's non-response—that "the dumb cooze never writes back"—you can tell that it's a true war story (How to Tell a True War Story.10).
- Rat's friend's name was Curt Lemon. The day of his death is a peaceful day. Rat and Lemon are playing chicken under a tree, tossing a smoke grenade back and forth in the sunlight.
- Lemon must have stepped on a mine, because all of a sudden it seems as if the sunlight has lifted him off the ground and right into the tree.
- O'Brien explains that even though it wasn't the sunlight that really killed Lemon, that's what it seemed like—and therefore that's the truth of what happened. This is the first time that O'Brien gets really into his idea of story-truth and happening-truth, but there'll be a lot more later, so keep your eyes peeled.
- Another way that you can tell that a war story is true is if it sounds too crazy to be believed. Like this one, from Mitchell Sanders:
- A six-man patrol is supposed to go up into the mountains and listen for enemy movement for a week. They're supposed to be completely silent; just listen.
- They start to hear things. Music. Chimes, xylophones, voices at a fancy cocktail party, a glee club, a choir. The voices of Vietnam.
- They freak out and order up a bunch of firepower on the mountain. They completely destroy the place.
- The next morning, things are quiet. They go back down the mountain.
- A colonel asks what happened, what they heard, and why they just spent six trillion dollars on firepower. The men just stare at him, amazed at how little he hears.
- Later, Sanders tells O'Brien that he figured out the moral of the story. It's that no one ever listens.
- Later still, Sanders admits to O'Brien that he invented a few details—the glee club, the opera—but that the guys definitely did hear crazy things. O'Brien says that he gets it.
- Then Sanders tells us that the real moral (or maybe it's just another moral…) is the quiet around them. Neither he nor O'Brien chooses to elaborate on that for us.
- O'Brien goes on to talk about whether or not there can even be a moral in a true war story; he says that if there is, it's not a coherent message that you can separate from the rest of the story.
- He says that true war stories are about instinct, not trite generalizations like "War is hell." They should make your stomach believe.
- Here's another one:
- After Curt Lemon is killed—could be the same day, could be a while after—the soldiers find a baby water buffalo.
- Rat Kiley pats its nose. He tries to feed it.
- Then he begins to shoot it. (Yes, our face just contorted too.)
- He keeps shooting it until it is a mutilated lump of barely alive baby buffalo (you really need to read the book for the details), and then, crying, he goes off by himself.
- Dave Jensen keeps saying he'd never seen anything like it.
- They drop the baby buffalo in the well.
- O'Brien tells us that we can't generalize about war any more than we can generalize about peace. It's hell, but it's other things besides that. Battles are grotesque, but also beautiful; napalm is devastating, but also astonishing. And after a battle, you feel immensely, wonderfully alive.
- There's no clarity in war. Which means that no war story is ever completely true.
- Sometimes in a true war story there's not even a point.
- After Curt Lemon is killed, all the parts of him are hanging in a tree. O'Brien and Dave Jensen have to climb up the tree and throw all the bits down.
- The gore is awful, but what really sticks in O'Brien's head is Jensen singing "Lemon Tree" while they're up there.
- You can tell if a war story is true by whether you'd feel cheated if it hadn't happened. If you'd feel betrayed by its untruth, then it's not true, even if it happened. If you wouldn't feel betrayed, then it's true, even if it didn't happen.
- O'Brien thinks that the truth is that the sunlight killed Curt Lemon, not a rigged 105 round. Lemon must have believed that it was the sunlight. And O'Brien thinks that if he could get the story right, if he could describe it in just the right way, then we'd believe it, too.
- Okay, brace yourselves, because O'Brien's about to really screw with your heads:
- He says that when he reads this story, sometimes a woman will come up to him and say she liked it, because of the poor baby buffalo and oh how horrible, he missed his friend, and O'Brien should really just try to put it behind him.
- O'Brien thinks that she's an idiot, because she's missed the point. It's not a war story, it's a love story.
- So he retells the tale, taking out Rat and Lemon and the buffalo and the setting and everything, because it's all made up. And that really it happened in a totally different place and it happened to some guy named Stink Harris.
- O'Brien says that you can tell a true war story if you just keep on telling it.
- It's not about war, exactly, it's about all the things that go into war—sunlight and love and memory and people who don't listen.
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