Truth is Stranger than Fiction in O’Brien’s Brilliant Collection About Vietnam

Tim O’Brien went to war because he was a coward. His fellow soldiers fought and “killed and died because they were embarrassed not to … they were too frightened to be cowards.” These are just a few of the upside-down truisms illuminated in Tim O’Brien’s brilliant and moving collection of metafictional short stories about the Vietnam War, “The Things They Carried”. O’Brien’s tales play fast and loose with the facts. At times he uses real names, assuring the reader he has received permission from his old war buddies. At other times the plots can veer freakishly off into the realm of horror or genre fiction. And just when we think we’ve gotten our bearings, O’Brien tells us he’s been messing with our heads all along: “In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it’s safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true.”

What is true is that, as a young man, Tim O’Brien was drafted into the Vietnam War. He considered fleeing to Canada, but found that his sense of shame wouldn’t let him go through with it. And so the author went to war because he was ashamed not to. He became close friends with the soldiers in his unit. He fought. He cowered. He saw people die. He might have killed someone. And when he came back, Tim O’Brien began to write, trying to wrap his mind around the paradox that was Vietnam. “War is hell,” O’Brien writes, “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.”

In the title story, “The Things They Carried”, the author inventories the belongings of every soldier in his unit, mementos and photographs and toothbrushes and weapons and “pounds of ammunition, plus the flak jacket and helmet and rations and water and toilet paper and tranquilizers and all the rest, plus the unweighed fear.” The inventory moves quickly from a listing of physical objects to the awful weight of the war, the guilt and shame and depression and rage that these soldiers will carry for the rest of their lives, assuming they make it back home.

Once home, O’Brien writes stories as a kind of talk therapy. In a combat zone, the author argues, imagination can get you killed. The soldier needs to be present, aware, on constant alert. Stateside, though, imagination can bring the dead back to life, heal psychic wounds, and begin to spin a more resonant emotional truth from the chaos. Below is the entire text of one of the stories in this collection, entitled “Good Form”:

It’s time to be blunt. I’m forty-three years old, true, and I’m a writer now, and a long time ago I walked through Quang Ngai Province as a foot soldier.
Almost everything else is invented.
But it’s not a game. It’s a form. Right here, now, as I invent myself, I’m thinking of all I want to tell you about why this book is written as it is. For instance, I want to tell you this: twenty years ago I watched a man die on a trail near the village of My Khe. I did not kill him. But I was present, you see, and my presence was guilt enough. I remember his face, which was not a pretty face, because his jaw was in his throat, and I remember feeling the burden of responsibility and grief. I blamed myself. And rightly so, because I was present.
But listen. Even that story is made up.
I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.
Here is the happening-truth. I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and I was afraid to look. And now, twenty years later, I’m left with faceless responsibility and faceless grief.
Here is the story-truth. He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.
What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.
I can look at things I never looked at. I can attach faces to grief and love and pity and God. I can be brave. I can make myself feel again.
“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.”

A recurring theme in this collection is the big fish story. Soldiers in war tell whoppers: ghost stories, battle stories, stories about getting laid, stories about what it will be like to get home, stories about dreams and nightmares they’ve had. They tell the stories in order to bond with one another, in order to calm themselves down, in order to capture the horrible essence of their predicament in the combat zone. As the author continued to rely upon this frame tale technique, I was reminded of Scheherazade, the storyteller in “One Thousand and One Nights”, stringing her executioner along with one imaginative tale after the next. Like Scheherazade, Tim O’Brien guides the reader through an increasingly enchanting dreamscape with each successive story in this collection. It’s a place where long-gone friends come back from the dead. It’s a place “where miracles can happen.” It’s a place where the weak have a voice, and where wrongs can be made right.

O’Brien writes here as if his life depended upon it. And in the end, it does: “I’m young and happy. I’ll never die. I’m skimming across the surface of my own history, moving fast, riding the melt beneath the blades, doing loops and spins, and when I take a high leap into the dark and come down thirty years later, I realize it is as Tim trying to save Timmy’s life with a story.”