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“How to Tell a True War Story,” by Tim O’Brien Essay

In the essay, “How to Tell a True War Story,” Tim O’Brien tells several stories of war to illustrate to his readers the criteria for truth in storytelling. O’Brien offers his readers a guide to telling and determining war stories that are true, for the author, true does not necessarily mean actual or real. Instead, O’Brien tells us what a true war story is, but his requirements are not always clear precise—a true war story “never seems to end,” (O’Brien 273) “embarrasses you,” (270) “are contradictory,” (275) and have an “uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil” (270)—they are defined and given context by the author through the telling of his own accounts. The essayist Jon Krakauer offers up his own version of a war story, of sorts, in his telling of the story of Chris McCandless, a young man not participating in a war of nations, or a conflict with others; he, in his own words, was involved in “the climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual pilgrimage” (Krakauer 207).

The battlefield for McCandless was not a booby-trapped jungle, saturated with enemies and soldiers for the opposition; no, McCandless’s battlefield was the Alaskan frontier. Like a soldier going to war, McCandless knew that where he was going was dangerous. Krakauer remarks that “he was fully aware when he entered the bush that he had given himself aperilously (emphasis added) slim margin for error. He knew precisely what was at stake” (Krakauer 219). One can draw many parallels between the essays, or war stories, of Krakauer and O’Brien; they are both provocative, and both use descriptive language and paint vivid pictures in the minds of their reader, they both write of young men in the midst of a conflict—emotional or physical—but the stories differ as well. O’Brien presents his ideas of what makes a true war story; based on these ideas, we can determine that the war story told by Krakauer is not a true war story because it is committed to morality.

There are no lessons in true war stories (O’Brien 269); Krakauer offered a lesson in youth and growth in his story about Christopher McCandless. O’Brien and Krakauer are similar in that they both place importance on relaying to the reader the fact that youth and war go hand in hand. It is mainly the young who serve on the frontlines in battle and who are willing to accept the risks associated with war, and it is also the young who become victims of their own inexperience and succumb to the perils war—being involved in war does not equate to readiness for war. For instance, O’Brien tells a true war story of two young men, soldiers in the Vietnam; he writes, “They were kids; they just didn’t know. A nature hike, they thought, not even a war … they were giggling and calling each other yellow mother and playing a silly game they invented” (O’Brien 270). Here, O’Brien sets up his readers with words reminiscent of childhood, the soldiers could have just as well been two kids at summer camp or in a school yard, or any place where kids play, laugh, and call each other names.

O’Brien then takes that childhood scene and infuses it with the brutality of war. He describes how one of the young soldiers who, while playing and laughing, detonated a landmine and was killed. True war stories show the gruesomeness of war—kids die horrific deaths, and life is lost in the blink of an eye. War forces “kids” to grow up quickly, and not on their own terms. Goofing, giggling, and silliness have no place in war; death is a consequence of playfulness, and youth must quickly give way to maturity. In a true war story, a young man may never have the opportunity to figure out life for himself, war does not afford him the opportunity to come to appropriate conclusions about what is right, wrong, moral, or immoral; he will either die, or he will be so exposed to the death of his friends that his moral compass will be disrupted, and he will engage unconscionable behavior. Krakauer presents a similar of theme of youth in the face of danger.

Like O’Brien, Krakauer uses words that construct a rich mental image for the reader; in this case, the image is that of an overly eager child. Krakauer writes, “The boy could hardly contain his excitement. He was about to be alone in the vast Alaska wilds” (Krakauer 206). Krakauer refers to his subject, Chris McCandless, as “the boy,” conveying the inexperience and ineptitude and childlike enthusiasm of McCandless who, because of his bubbling excitement, sounds more like a kid in a candy store or a child on Christmas morning, than he does a like man about to confront the isolation and bitter cold of the wilderness. Later on, that excitement would turn to desperation and eventually death—like the soldier in O’Brien’s story, the boy meets an early end to his life. In spite of this similarity, Krakauer does not tell a true war story. For some young warriors, adulthood is thrust upon them, maturity it is meted out with no opportunity for choice or deliberation; there is no rite of passage.

This is not so for McCandless; Krakauer recognizes growth and maturity arising in McCandless, noting that he made the decision to postpone the river crossing “after weighing his options,” then “settl[ing] on the most prudent course” (Krakauer 212). Learning to tame impetuousness allows one to make moral choices, choices that show respect for oneself and one’s surroundings. This type of learning happens with contemplation, introspection, and time. It is not a true war story; not because Krakauer authored a majestic death for McCandless, but because it seemed McCandless lost his war, and it appeared that the battle was too much for him in the end; because Krakauer wrote of a young man who was able to mature during his war, and was able to learn lessons of humility, morality, and caution during his time alone in the Alaska wilds.

Imagery in a war stories can be graphic, but in a true war story there is no redemptive value in the gratuitousness of violent acts. O’Brien writes about Rat Riley’s who after witnessing the death of his best friend, encounters a baby buffalo in an abandoned village, “He opened up a can of C rations, pork and beans, but the baby buffalo wasn’t interested. Rat shrugged. He stepped back and shot it through the right front knee. It went down hard, then got up again, and Rat took careful aim and shot off an ear. He shot it in the hind quarters and in the little hump at its back. He shot it twice in the flanks. It wasn’t to kill; it was to hurt. He put the rifle muzzle up against the mouth and shot the mouth away…. There wasn’t a great deal of pity of the baby water buffalo” (O’Brien 274).” O’Brien uses the graphic details to give his reader a glimpse into the mind of soldier who has lost his innocence, one who has lost empathy because of the grotesque things he has witnessed.

The killing of the baby buffalo was not only a response to the pain (or numbness) felt by Rat, but was also a response to rejection. War makes people to terrible things, things that they may not do otherwise. In a true war story, there is little or no remorse for the terrible act. For a soldier, terrible acts and normal acts may become indistinguishable after a while. Death, killing, and suffering is an expectation in war, in a true war story, virtue does not exist; therefore, remorse and empathy cannot exist either. O’Brien clearly illustrates this idea, when writing about the buffalo. Krakauer also uses graphic imagery to show the grisly reality of war. Krakauer tells a story about a moose shot by McCandless, “He butchered the carcass under a thick cloud of flies and mosquitoes, boiled the organs into a stew, and then laboriously excavated a burrow in the face of the rocky stream bank directly below the bus, in which he tried to cure, by smoking, the immense slabs of purple flesh (Krakauer 209).”

The shock and gore of cutting up a dead animal with insects biting and flying about could lend itself well to a true war story, but here, it does not. What differentiates this story from O’Brien’s is that Krakauer writes that McCandless felt “remorse soon after he shot the moose” (Krakauer 209). Because of this remorse, this is not a true war story. If this were a true war story as identified by O’Brien, there would be no sympathy for the animal, no moral outrage by the killer that every part of the animal could not be used. A true war story would not show the level of respect for life, for human and animal value; a true war story disregards life. O’Brien writes that when the buffalo torture was over, it was simply thrown in a well with no regard for the animal, an act that not only punished the animal, but demonstrated a lack of respect for human life as the drinking water from that well would be contaminated. Conversely, Krakauer emphasizes the great measures McCandless took to preserve the moose meat, and the moral dilemma McCandless faced because he was not successful.

O’Brien leaves little room for a story that has any moral significance to be considered a true war story. The author contends that “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. There is no rectitude whatsoever” (O’Brien 269). War, for O’Brien, is inherently devoid of morality; so any action occurring as a part of war is fruit from a poisonous tree—it is tainted and cannot be separated to be made clean, or right. True war stories acknowledge this. To say that there can be moral action as two sides are determined to kill more of them while they are trying to kill more of you, is an absurdity. The fighting and conflict, the struggle to maintain one’s humanity in the face of death and dying is challenging to say the least. Four times within “How to Tell a True War Story” O’Brien tells the story of Curt Lemon being killed by a landmine.

Each time the story is told, there is a new variant, or one taken away; his changes in language, words, and details range from revolting to beautiful. Certain things change, but the story stays the same—there is death and loss everywhere. That is the story, the true war story. No matter how it is told, Lemon dies and Riley will never laugh with him again. Contrast this with Krakauer who writes Into the Wild after having already written a magazine article on Chris McCandless. Krakauers “Selections from into the Wild” could not be considered a true war story in the way that O’Brien defines it, because the selection itself is an act of morality. The magazine article Krakauer wrote prior to his writing of the essay can arguably be considered a true war story as it portrays an ill-prepared young man who is done in by his own arrogance. Many who read the article lacked sympathy for the fallen, and instead ridiculed him. People love stories of heroes, but they love stories of failures just as well, as long as the failure is some arrogant jerk getting his just deserts.

Krakauer could have left the story there, but he did not, he chose to look deeper to get to the truth, to get to the “absolute occurrence” (O’Brien 277) that O’Brien warns is irrelevant in a true war story. Krakauer wanted to experience what the subject of his story experienced, and make right the wrong he had done with his article—he wants to do the morally responsible thing. Krakauer writes of his journey to set out on the path blazed by McCandless, “I, too, hope to cross the river. I want to visit the bus. I want to see where McCandless died, to better understand why” (Krakauer 213).

Crossing the river—a metaphor used by O’Brien as well—meant facing the unknown in order to learn more and continuing the search for whatever was lost or missing. In some war stories details are important. They can change they the story altogether. They can change an incompetent, arrogant, boy into a disciplined young man who was willing to take up a dangerous challenge just to prove to himself that he could, even if he did not. Krakauer used the essay as tool to change perceptions to ones based on truth; in changing the details he changed the story.

Not all war stories are true, in “How to Tell a True War Story,” Tim O’Brien lays out the elements needed in a war story to be considered true. Jon Krakauer tells a war story, but it is not a true war story by O’Brien’s standards. Morality is the dividing line between Krakauer telling a war story, a true war story.

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