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Roger Bonsant

Mrs. Field

LNG 405

9 November 2010

Nature of the True War Story

The war story contains evidence of so many contradictory truths, that if one tries to seek

out a single and well defined truth from it, they will likely not find one. All that can really be

said of the true war story, is that it seemingly “makes the stomach believe”. Tim O’Brien’s The

Things They Carried argues that the true war story is its own kind of beast, and that it cannot

simply be emulated by pretty words and good storytelling. The American people typically see

war through the lenses of politicians and through newspapers and television screens which often

do little justice in reporting the truth. Tim O’Brien allows us to view this conflict from the

different but very real perspective of the soldier, from the eyes of the men and women who find

themselves doing battle overseas for their country. Directed by Randall Wallace, We Were

Soldiers Once and Young presents the Vietnam War from several perspectives, but most notably

from that of the soldiers. This visualization of the gruesome battles that take place helps to aid

our minds in comprehending the crude and unforgiving nature of true wartime combat. Both of

these representations allow us to truly understand the incredible hardships suffered not only by

these men alone, but also by those who hold them dear.

It may be argued that although war is a very physical machine, fighting as a soldier also

comes with an incredibly emotional experience that is the mark of a true war story. There are

many emotional experiences to be observed in We Were Soldiers Once and Young. When asked

by reporters the number of casualties after the battle, Lt. Col. Hal Moore gives no reply. Another

under-ranking officer also withholds his answer when asked the same. Only the soldiers who

fought with the men who died could truly understand the enormous grief felt by the loss of every

single man who took up arms to defend their country, while the press were only interested in

numbers. While both forces do battle, countless lives are lost and only those who held those lost

souls dear or fought alongside them can truly appreciate the emotional aspects that the war

carries with it. This quote from John Steinbeck's “Why Soldiers Won't Talk” argues the same

message when the speaker explains that “In all kinds of combat the whole body is battered by

emotion” (Steinbeck 1116). This quote evidences the fact well understood by those well-

experienced in combat that soldier is emotionally driven to pull through. It doesn't stop there

however, because the emotions felt by the soldiers are also unlimited in number. They range

from fear and sorrow to anger and various forms of twisted excitement. According to these

sources and many others, the true story finds itself in the emotional integrity of the events taking


Many will also argue that the experience in and of itself is the true war story. From this

perspective, a true war story really cannot be told. In The Things They Carried, O'Brien takes

note of this position as well, when Rat tells Sanders“They Won't understand zip. It's like trying

to tell somebody what chocolate tastes like” (O'Brien 108). The words coming from his mouth

are easy to understand. Clearly, one must experience the horrors of war to even have a chance of

comprehending the truth. It may also be understood from reading the story that the war is a

personal matter in itself to every individual man and woman who find themselves involved.

When the recollection blends itself with personal perspective, one may wonder if the truth lay

forgotten in the process, perhaps intentionally. O'Brien shows us how there might not be a

lesson or moral to be learned from the story, and how the truth will not be understood even if it is

told. In regard to this thought, the narrator explains that“ 'In a true war story, if there's a moral at

all, it's like the thread that makes the cloth. You can't tease it out. You can't extract the meaning

without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there's nothing much to say about

a true war story, except maybe 'Oh' ”(O'Brien 74). This quote argues that not only is the truth too

difficult to find, but also that there is more than one and they cannot be understood by those

inexperienced in the ordeals of war. O'Brien argues that the truth cannot be told because the

different truths contradict one another, because “...war is also mystery and terror and adventure

and courage... War makes you a man. War makes you dead. The truths are contradictory”

(O'Brien 76). When taking this view into consideration, it may be understood that even the men

fighting on the front lines struggle to understand the true nature of war. It is not surprising

therefore, that the civilian also cannot comprehend war.

The true war story is very physical in nature, as it lends itself to death and destruction,

dismemberment and slaughter, and to laborious combat and strategy. The soldiers that belong to

each respective army do battle and partake in a game that plays in exchanging blood. Many

soldiers recall that it becomes increasingly easy to lose sight of reason, and some even come to

think of their objective as pointless slaughter. O'Brien presents this idea in his story as well,

when his speaker thinks to himself, “You take a feeble swipe at the dark and thing, Christ, what's

the point?”(O'Brien 79). This quotation also evidences the fact that many soldiers have difficulty

in matching reason to their duties. Even the pieces of the war machine can't comprehend its

nature. One must realize that to fully deny the physical nature of war only in favor of the

emotional and physiological aspects is to deny the war itself. We Were Soldiers Once and Young

certainly pays tribute to this hellish aspect of warfare with its shocking visualizations of true

combat situations that depict heavily graphic deaths, including even unfortunate events of

friendly fire. This theme also pays tribute to the idea that the true war story can only be

experienced, for the combat is also something that only the men on the danger lines can partake


One will find it difficult not to stumble across the many different perspectives war,

because those inconvenient little contradictions lie all over the place. Many will find it difficult

in the face of these opposing ideas not to wonder whether or not a true war story can even be

told. The true war story encompasses the ordeals of the entire platoon, of the entire army, and of

the entire nation. The truth lends itself to objective proof, but the subjective also cannot be

ignored. One may define the true story differently than his comrade, and to all intents and

purposes, neither of them are wrong. But how are they both right? If the truth must be defined in

the singular, then perhaps there is none. There are many, let alone the terrible truth that tells us

the enemy soldiers are also human beings with their own minds that carry drastically different


Works Cited

O'Brien, Tim. The Things They Carried. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Print.

Hemingway, Ernest. “In Another Country.”McDougal Littell Literature: American Literature.

Eds. Allen, Janet, et al. Evanston, Illinois: McDougal Littell, 2010. 968-974. Print.

Steinbeck, John. “Why Soldiers Won't Talk.” McDougal Littell Literature: American Literature.

Eds. Allen, Janet, et al. Evanston, Illinois: McDougal Littell, 2010. 968-974. Print.

We Were Soldiers. Dir. Randal Wallace. Perf. Mel Gibson, Madelene Stowe, Sam Elliott, Chris

Klein, and Keri Russell. Icon Productions, 2002. Film.

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