The Purest Form of Truth: Truth’s Role in “The Things They Carried” “War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead” (76). According to Tim O’Brien, all of these generalizations about war are the truth. However, as O’Brien continuously reshapes readers’ concept of truth throughout The Things They Carried, one quickly comes to realize that none of these facts represent truth about war.
Readers experience the essence of Vietnam through each of O’Brien and his squadron’s vivid memories: Rat Kiley’s loss of a friend as Curt Lemon stepped into his last ray of sunlight and was blown up into the trees, Norman Bowker resigning to letting Kiowa slip under the mud and out of this life, and the “dainty young man” with his jaw in his throat and his eye as a star-shaped hole that was O’Brien’s only kill. Though portrayed as true life experiences, these events and even most of these characters are eventually revealed as fabrications of O’Brien’s mind. Does this mean that the stories are not true?
As explained in another passage, “You can tell a true war story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a story, let’s say, and afterward you ask, ‘Is it true? ’ and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer” (79). So, does it matter that O’Brien never really killed a man, that Bowker never sacrificed the Silver Star medal, and that Curt Lemon never trick-or-treated through a Vietnamese village during Halloween? After the undeniable impact on readers associated with the human experience, war experience, and essence of individuals captured within these stories, the answer to that question proves to be a resounding “no. One of the main reasons for differentiating between “story-truth” – which may not be true in real life but gives a genuine glimpse of the Vietnam experience – and “happening truth” – what really occurred – is that “happening truth” lends itself easily to glorification of war. For example, the story of a man winning a medal for outstanding bravery in saving his friend, or O’Brien’s example of a man sacrificing himself to save his group from a landmine, both convey a sense of pride, honor, and valor associated with having gone to war and even having died in Vietnam.
Having been told these stories, learning that they were false would come as a shock because stories like these seem to reassure society that although hundreds of young men lost their valuable lives or came back as changed men, it was all worth some sort of grand distinction in the end. On the other hand, O’Brien’s stories, possessing “story-truth,” retain their significance whether they have “happening-truth” or not. As O’Brien puts it, “A true war story is never moral.
It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie…You can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (65).
This quote presents a case of inherent irony in which the fabricated stories – complete with the gore of torturing a baby water buffalo after a friend’s death, the guilt of having a man die under your watch, the terror of looking a man you just killed in the face, and the disappointment of returning home only to find you’ll never fit back in – convey much more truth than most conventionally “true” war stories, which sweep the utter brutality of war under the rug. Thus, only through O’Brien’s “story-truth” do we see that these young men did not arrive in Vietnam for honorable reasons.
These men went to war for fear of shaming their friends and families, these men gave their lives for a battle that did not enhance their life experiences, and even failed to result in progress for our nation, and those men that escaped with their lives were faced with the burden of death each and every day in that they could never escape the memories, could never truly communicate the horror they went through, and could never completely transition back into normal life.
Though O’Brien did not truly kill a man or witness some of these events, the stories leave no doubt in readers’ minds that similar occurrences did happen in war and that the emotions conveyed by the stories truthfully capture how they made the men feel – which was anything but gratified and honored. Therefore, the lessons one can take away from these stories makes “story-truth” much more valuable than most cases of “happening-truth” about the Vietnam War.
While O’Brien’s stories leave readers with the knowledge of how human emotions are impacted in a setting none of us are able to imagine, they also serve another purpose that also ceases to rely on truth: capturing the essence of a specific individual. We see this first in the case of Curt Lemon, whose personality is perpetuated throughout the novel by the stories of his best friend in Vietnam. O’Brian states that “To listen to the story, especially as Rat Kiley told it, you’d never know that Curt Lemon was dead.
He was still out there in the dark, naked and painted up, trick-or-treating, sliding from hootch to hootch in that crazy white ghost mask. But he was dead” (227). Although this story about Lemon is highly exaggerated, and the question remains whether it is even true at all, readers can trust that what it reveals about Lemon’s character – his spontaneity and daring behavior – are in fact accurate, so it comes as no offence when it is revealed that Kiley regularly embellished the tale. “Story-truth” gains its final point of relevance when O’Brien describes how he uses stories to preserve his childhood love, Linda.
Linda’s character compares being dead to being like a library book, safe on the very top shelf where no one has checked it out for a long, long time. Like Curt Lemon, Kiowa, Ted Lavender, and even the man Tim killed, Linda and all the memories surrounding her would tend to disappear with time if she were not illuminated by O’Brien’s novel. O’Brien remarks that now when he incorporates Linda’s essence into his stories, “She’s not the embodied Linda; she’s mostly made up, with a new identity and a new name, like the man who never was. Her real name doesn’t matter” (232).
Whether “happening-true” or just “story-true,” Linda’s presence solidifies the idea that even if the characters in The Things They Carried have fake names, false actions, or entirely fictitious identities, they each bring forth a unique set of characteristics that alight on “truth. ” For instance, even if Linda were not real, the way she made Tim (and readers) realize the purest form of love cannot be denied, and even if the man Tim killed had no story besides the one Tim developed, the way he represents men who never wished to fight, whose opportunities are cut off in early life, will live on forever.
In this, the feigned truth of “story-truth” creates legends; it sheds light on interpersonal relationships and validates the lives of those who no longer have the ability to do so for themselves. As one progresses through The Things They Carried, it becomes more and more evident just how masterfully O’Brien has blurred the lines between truth and reality. Readers begin the book assuming it contains stories of fiction. It is not until the third chapter that one finds the narrator is a writer plagued by memories of war, and assume the stories to take on an element of truth.
Soon after, one sees that O’Brien the narrator and O’Brien the author are two very different personas, and finally, towards the end of the novel, O’Brien reveals that, “…a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai province as a foot soldier. Almost everything else is invented” (171). Seemingly, traveling through such ups and downs of truth and falsity would be recognized as a sort of betrayal to readers. Yet, O’Brien’s framework of war stories, within the story of the Vietnam War, within the larger story of O’Brien’s actual life serves to undermine any disappointment concerning the authenticity of events.
Readers quickly learn that the statement “This is true” has double meanings, and truth itself is redefined as any incidence lending sincere insight into war and how it affects people, whether it occurred, did not occur, or very well might have occurred. Overall, when it comes to opening society’s eyes to a situation capable of bringing out the most evil, the most desperation, and the most appreciation for life simultaneously, one realizes O’Brien’s novel to be absolutely and undeniably “true. ” Works Cited O’Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston, MA: Houghton Miflin, 1990. Print.