“How to Tell a True War Story” by Philip Hotchkiss

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Philip Hotchkiss Intro to Literature Short Story Analysis Paper October 5, 2009 “How to Tell a True War Story” I found “How to Tell a True War Story” the most interesting short story we have read so far. Why? Because the story is true and so very real. The story paints such a vivid picture of war and what effects it has on the many men involved. The people are real people, the events are real events, and the story is a real story. It really drives home the point because war is such a big part of life today in which it is always going on. War is part of our past, we are in a war right now, and I’m sure we will have war in the future.

It is almost inevitable in ones lifetime to not witness a war which is another reason why it hits so close to home and is so real. “How to Tell a True War Story” was written by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien served in the Vietnam War after being drafted. His works are highly influenced by this time of service. Not only is he telling the stories of these actual men he is also revealing his own feelings along the way. We see this in the pare of the story when he is talking about Rat’s letter. Rat sends a very elaborate and heartfelt letter to his best friend’s sister who was killed at war.

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This is where O’Brien’s feelings are first shown in his story. The sister of the fallen soldier never writes Rat back after all the effort and emotion that he put into it. O’Brien reacts in the way of calling the man’s sister a ‘cooze’. He mentions everything about the letter and all the feelings that were put into it and seems disgusted and frustrated with this woman and how she did not even have the decency to respond to such a letter. Also the fact that it was from her brother’s best friend and she still did not feel compelled to send something back.

However, this also raises a question. How do O’Brien and Rat know that this woman ever received the letter? We are not told that she receives the letter we are just left and it is natural to assume that she received the letter and chose not to respond. Something that really stuck out to me in this story were the characters. They are the kind of people you run into on your normal day activities. The intriguing thing is that it shows what the human being does and how a person reacts when pushed to the brink and when their back is against the wall.

This was shown at two key parts in the story. The first example of these almost psychological breakdowns occurs during the story telling of Mitchell Sanders to O’Brien. The story began with a six-man party that was to go up into the mountains to listen for enemy movement. They were ordered to be completely silent, not a sound among them unless they heard something which they then were supposed to radio back to base and let them no where to drop the bombs and heavy artillery. Sanders made it a great point to make sure that O’Brien knew that they were supposed to be invisible.

They remained silent for one week and it is hard to imagine just being there and not to have made a sound among them. This just seemed to be asking for a mental breakdown. There they laid however for seven days. They were located in the mountains and it is an erie description of them being there. Sanders went deeper in detail mentioning a certain type of fog that just settled over the mountains. This fog was always there. It was as if a blanket was covering them or as it was raining cause everything was wet but no rain and the other thing was that they could not see their hand in front of their face. pg. 545) It was as if they had no eyes or ears for a week straight. One can imagine the kind of games your mind would begin to play. Eventually they begin to hear music and various voices. (pg. 545) They thought it was the rock talking, but not only the rock the fog seemed to be talking too. (pg. 545) You can assume that they started to freak out and eventually it got bad enough to where they called it into base and the mountains got lit up by the heavy artillery as if only to keep their sanity and stop the voices. After this they were able to return and that they did not saying a word. pg. 547) They saw the Colonel and still not a word out of any of their mouths. They had become broken down not only as one would think physically during a war, but also more mentally. Many things that happen out at war are not told often because the men cannot repeat it. It seems as if by repeating it that they would have to relive it. It becomes so dented and imprinted in their brains that some would rather die than have to think about and relive those stories. Out of this come the issue of post traumatic war syndrome. How can some of these men cope with the terrible things they have seen?

That is just the thing some people can not do it. Some can not come to terms with the people who they were with every minute of everyday for the past few months, becoming so close and attached, having to lose them. But not only losing them but also having to witness that death. Some men can not bare to handle it. They become a shell of what they once were. It is as if they are ‘dead’ because they begin to just be and not really live. As if when they get back they do not know what to do with themselves and having seen the horrible things that they had to see and not only that but also do.

It is like some hang on a piece of string and there is one thing that pusses them over the edge, that one event that snaps that string. O’Brien also includes this in his story. He shows how much the human brain can handle. O’Brien recalls the story of Curt Lemon which seemed to be the overall story of this writing. War leaves such a great impression or imprint on ones mind and being. O’Brien remembers almost every little detail proving that war leaves that great of a mark on ones brain. He can see in his mind so vivid the funny half step from shade to light.

It was twenty years later and he yet can still see Lemon’s face hanging from that tree with the sunlight hitting it. (pg. 551) How everything changed in that instant. O’Brien includes this story and it shows how drastically things change. Goes from one second laughing and just playing catch, to seeing someone’s body mangled in a tree by a peculiar side step. Went from life to death in an instant. O’Brien includes how one could even possibly begin to deal having seen something like that. He goes on in great detail the coping process of Rat Kiley.

He explains in great detail the methodical work of Rat the eventually lead to the killing of the baby bison. (pg. 549) he just tortures the anima almost as if he knows how the memories of the war will torture him long after he is done and home. It is as if he takes out the sleepless nights, the nightmares, and the waking up in cold sweats out on this animal. Cutting it down before it could live it’s life as that of Curt’s. He was nineteen still so young not having really got to live life out to the full.

It is almost symbolic in the way that Rat kills the young bison in it’s prime as that of Curt’s having died before his prime. O’Brien relates war to many things. He contradicts himself also and compares his contradictions to that of war. A few of the contradictions he makes would be that war is nasty but also fun he says war is thrilling but yet drudgery and that It makes you a man but makes you dead in the process. (pg. 549)All of these are demonstrated in the stories told. War is thrilling in the heat of battle, but yet drudgery and boring when having to sit in a fox hole or worse having to sit and wait in silence.

War is nasty in the way it shows death, yet fun in the thrill of victory having the opposing force surrender. I fell the biggest truth O’Brien shows is that war is gruesome and grotesque but yet beautiful and majestic. (pg. 550) He relates things that could cause death to that of something amazing and beautiful. The fluidness of the troops on the move and sheets upon sheets of metal-fire coming down from a gun ship. (pg. 550) I find it almost crazy how he says after a firefight amongst all the death that had taken place he still says it is the most of life then in that moment.

Saying that in that moment everything comes to life, the trees, soil, and grass are all alive and vibrant. (pg. 550) It shows me how a person should live. A person should live with no regrets taking everything in and showing that if a person can find beauty amongst such death and turmoil I can find such beauty in everyday life. I feel O’Brien brings this point out of the feeling that he shows in his commentary in these amazing real stories. What makes a great short story? Not only that but what makes a person want to keep reading a short story?

An author has to do a very good job of the inclusion of certain fact that makes a reader want to keep reading and with a true story I believe it makes that all the more difficult. O’Brien shows his own style of writing a short story not only is it facts about war and almost the dark under lying psychological affects that come with it that people may not understand. He gives the reader his own opinions of what war is and how dark but yet how beautiful it can be. This is what makes the reader want to keep reading. Or at least makes me want to keep reading.

He talks about war to which everyone has an opinion about and it’s effects on human nature. He is giving his fellow soldiers who might have not made it due to the rigorous of war a chance to let their stories heard. I find O’Brien brave. War is such a controversial topic and having been at war he knows what it is like and gives people a glimpse of what really goes on. Not only that but he also must be haunted by some of the things that he saw. How can one not be when they see someone they have been with for months most likely just all of a sudden be gone? In an instant life is done.

He is brave to re write these stories and giving his fellow soldiers justice that they might not have gotten if he had not written them. And even though it may not be out right said in his stories I take out of it that life is short. Everything can change in an instant and be very unexpected. So that being said we need to make the most out of it. We need to live life to the full. We will take lumps but we can not let that keep us down. Learn from past mistakes, grow stronger from them, and never cease to find the joy in every little thing. Even after a fire fight finding everything so beautiful and alive.

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“How to Tell a True War Story” by Philip Hotchkiss. (2018, Feb 18). Retrieved from


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