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Free Study Guide-The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien-Free Book Notes
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CHAPTER SEVEN (How to Tell a True War Story)


OíBrien tells a story about the medic, Rat Kiley. When Ratís friend gets killed, he sits down and writes a letter to the guyís sister in effort to comfort her and tell what a great soldier he was. In the letter, he talks about all memorable experiences they shared, how her brotherís approach to the war made it almost fun for the people around him, and how everyone trusted him wit their lives. Itís a very emotional letter, and he almost cries writing it. He finishes by saying that heíll look her up when he gets home. The girl never writes back.

The guy who died was named Curt Lemon. He and Rat had been playing a game of catch with a smoke grenade. They were young guys who didnít understand the spookiness of Vietnam, just goofing around. One minute, theyíre having fun, the next moment Curt steps on a land mine. For OíBrien, there was something beautiful about the way the sunlight hit Curtís face just as he was sucked up into a mossy tree. The whole experience seemed so surreal that itís difficult to sort out what really happened from what seemed to happen.

People are right to be skeptical of war stories, because sometimes a story is beyond telling. As OíBrienís platoon sat in their foxholes, Sanders tells a story about a six-man patrol up in the jungle listening for the enemy. Eventually the spooky silence of the mountain jungles gets to them. They begin to hear ďgookĒ music, followed by a chamber orchestra at a cocktail party, a boys choir, and weird Buddhist monk chants. It seems to them as if the whole countryside is talking at once. So they finally decide to call in air strikes that demolish the entire sound of the mountain. Afterwards, they hear only silence. When they return to camp, the Commanding Officer wants to know what was hit by all those air strikes, but they just salute and walk away. Some stories you donít ever tell.

Later, Sanders admits to having embellished the story in order to convince OíBrien of its truth, to bring out the moral. A true war story doesnít generalize; it simply makes the stomach believe.

The same day that Curt Lemon was killed, the platoon stopped in a village square where a baby water buffalo lay. Rat Kiley went over to water buffalo and stroked its nose. He shot it in the left knee. He shot off an ear. Then he shot it in the hindquarters, the butt, and chunks of meat off the ribs. All the while, Kiley carefully aims carefully to hurt, not kill, the animal. After reloading and shooting the baby buffalo several more times, until only its eyes were moving, he cradled his rifle and went off to cry by himself. The platoon had just witnessed something profound, ďa piece of the world so startling there wasnít a name for it yet.Ē (Page 79) Sanders commented that Vietnam was a Garden of Evil, where every sin was fresh and original.

War is hell, but generalizations donít tell the half of it. War can also be thrilling, drudgery, nasty, and fun. Generalizations donít account for the beauty of phosphorous flares or the glow of napalm. They donít convey how youíre never more alive than just after a firefight that almost killed you. The ambiguity of war breaks down the old rules, right spills over into wrong, until youíre not sure of anything. In that sense, nothing about war is ever absolutely true.

In another story, four soldiers go down a trail when a grenade comes rolling down the path. One GI jumps on it and saves his buddies. A story like that canít be true even if it really happened. It would be more believable if it had a killer grenade and all four guys die anyway. That story never happened, but it has more truth in it.

When he tells these at a gathering, OíBrien always has someone coming up to him saying he needs to put it all behind him. He needs to come up with some new material and retire all the war stories. But she wasnít listening, because the story about Rat Kiley and the buffalo wasnít a war story, it was a love story. And none of it ever happened. Even so, the story conveys the truth about love, and memory, and sunlight, and sorrow, and people who never listen and girls who never write back.


This collection of stories conveys the idea that a true war story has very little to do with what actually happened, and everything to do with the underlying meaning. For instance, the story about Rat Kileyís letter conveys to the reader the massive gulf between soldiers and the people back home. Rat assumed that the bond that attached him to his buddy would somehow transfer to his sister. He felt close to her, but obviously she did not return the feeling.

The gulf between participants and non-participants also underlies the story about the six soldiers who hear music while theyíre out on recon in the jungle. They donít tell their CO what happened; because he can you explain it? Itís something you have to experience. Sanders embellishes the story in order to convey the strangeness of the atmosphere, to make the stomach believe.

The baby water buffalo story didnít happen either. Itís simply a graphic method of exploring how a Vietnam soldier copes with losing a buddy. Rat Kiley hurt so much he need to hurt something back, even something as innocent as a baby water buffalo.

The story about a soldier who throws his body on a grenade, but doesnít manage to save his buddies is more true (even if it didnít happen). Instead of being merely inspiring, the story conveys the profound truth that heroism in battle doesnít always save lives. Sometimes it can even make things worse. Most people donít realize that the truth of a story isnít in the details, itís in the gut reaction you feel when listening to it.

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