Study Guide

The Things They Carried Truth

By Tim O'Brien


How to Tell a True War Story

This is true. (How to Tell a True War Story.1)

If the main character in a book has the same name as the author, and the book itself is based on a general experience that we know the author had, we instinctively assume that the book is true. In this quote, O'Brien is taking that assumption and making it explicit. Of course, almost nothing in the book is true—except that it totally, totally is, according to O'Brien's definition of truth. 

[…] that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem unreal, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed. (How to Tell a True War Story.18)

Here we get the idea, for the first time in the book, that the truth of something might not be what actually happened to you, but what you felt like happened. We do this all the time when we tell stories—your backpack doesn't actually weigh a ton (we hope), but it sure feels like it, so that's what you say. 

You might remember the way something happened differently than the way it actually did, but if your memory is what dictated your actions and beliefs following that event, then your memory—that "surreal seemingness"—is what's true for you.

You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask… That's a true story that never happened. (How to Tell a True War Story.93-8)

The first story that Tim tells follows a nice, tight narrative structure: exposition, conflict, heroic exploit, resolution.  It's practically a Hollywood movie. Consequently, we want that story to have happened. That's why, deep down, we know that it can't be true, even if it did really happen. 

The second story might start out following a narrative structure, but quickly turns into a mumblecore independent film: exposition, conflict, heroic exploit, the heroic exploit proves to futile, and then the dead people joke around with each other... except then they can't. Because they're dead.  

Something about this story catches at us on a gut level. It feels true, even if it didn't really happen.

If you don't care for obscenity, you don't care for the truth; if you don't care for the truth, watch how you vote. Send guys to war, they come home talking dirty. (How to Tell a True War Story.9)

This is one of the only political statements in the book, and it's telling that it's about the truth. The soldiers who go to war come home knowing truths that civilians cannot know and that, for the most part, they don't want to hear. Here, O'Brien is saying that the truth can't be clean, or easy to hear.

Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong
Rat Kiley

"Among the men in the Alpha Company… multiplying by maybe." (Sweetheart of the Song Tra Bong)

Rat is all about hyperbole. Lying, for him, isn't about lying. He's not being malicious, or trying to trick you. He's just improving the truth.  He's trying to help you feel exactly what he felt. O'Brien does the same thing throughout the book, although O'Brien is less about hyperbole and more about changing the ways things happened, for better or worse.


Norman did not experience a failure of nerve that night… That part of the story is my own. (Notes.20)

This quote feels like a punch to the gut. All along, we've believed that Norman was the one who failed to save Kiowa. Suddenly, we find out that it's our beloved narrator... and none other than Kiowa's best friend. 

Here, O'Brien makes the truth blurry to show how painful something can be. Tim the Soldier can't directly face his own culpability and the agony of that night, so he uses Norman instead. (In the next story, "In the Field," he puts the blame back on himself, but uses the third person to keep a certain distance between himself and the action.)

Norman is back in the story, where he belongs, and I don't think he would mind that his real name appears. (Notes.20)

It's extremely unclear as to whether or not Norman is a fictional character or a real guy. At this point in the book, we're inclined to believe that he's real; even though we know O'Brien's feelings about the nature of truth, O'Brien just flat-out told us that he used Norman's real name. He wouldn't lie to us that blatantly, would he? Would he? 

After you've read "Good Form," though, this quote comes into question. O'Brien might very well be lying to us, and Norman could very well be fictional, along with the rest of the Alpha Company.

Good Form
Tim O'Brien

"Daddy, tell the truth," Kathleen can say, "did you ever kill anybody?" And I can say, honestly, "Of course not."

Or I can say, honestly, "Yes." (Good Form.11-2)

Both truths work—O'Brien uses "honestly" twice to show us that. The "or," though, implies that it's a choice as to which truth to use. You can use one or the other, but not both, and O'Brien has clearly chosen story-truth over happening-truth. 

It's time to be blunt… I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth. (Good Form.1-6)

O'Brien starts out the quote by telling us that almost every single thing in the book is invented, and finishes by putting himself in Rat's shoes. He wants us to feel what he felt. And we like Rat, right? So we'll forgive O'Brien.  Besides, he's finally giving us names for the two different kinds of truth: story-truth (what the truth feels like) and happening-truth (what actually happened). 

This book is lovingly dedicated to the men of Alpha Company, and in particular to Jimmy Cross… and Kiowa. (Dedication)

Okay, so this is the dedication, and not necessarily something that we would normally analyze. But having read the book, you know that every single one of the men he dedicates the book to is fictional. The dedication tricks us into thinking that they're real. 

Maybe he really meant to dedicate the book to all the Rat Kileys and Jimmy Crosses and Kiowas of the world. While we think that's probably part of it, we also think that believing the characters are real makes readers love them more. (How are you not going to adore a real soldier named Rat who reads comic books? Come on!) 

Loving the characters as if they're real makes it harder to detach from them intellectually once you know that they aren't. O'Brien loves mixing things together. He wants us to feel how confusing reality seems in war, and this is a crucial part of that.

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