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A Literary Analysis of How to Tell a True War Story Essay Sample

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A Literary Analysis of How to Tell a True War Story Essay Sample

The short story that will be discussed, evaluated, and analyzed in this paper is a very emotionally and morally challenging short story to read. Michael Meyer, author of the college text The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature, states that the author of How to Tell a True War Story, Tim O’Brien, “was drafted into the Vietnam War and received a Purple Heart” (472). His experiences from the Vietnam War have stayed with him, and he writes about them in this short story. The purpose of this literary analysis is to critically analyze this short story by explaining O’Brien’s writing techniques, by discussing his intended message and how it is displayed, by providing my own reaction, and by proposing why this story has withstood the test of time and is worthy of inclusion in an anthology.

The writing techniques used within this short story will be discussed first. O’Brien uses various writing techniques for the construction of the language. He uses informal diction and colloquial diction. Meyer states that informal diction “represents the plain language of everyday use, and often includes idiomatic expressions, slang, contractions, and many simple, common words,” and that colloquial “refers to a type of informal diction that reflects casual, conversational language and often includes slang expressions” (1619-1620). The characters in O’Brien’s story speak with an extremely conversational style, and O’Brien uses lots of military slang. He uses informal diction whenever he is telling the war stories or paraphrasing his friends’ stories, and an example of the colloquialism within this story is when O’Brien has Mitchell Sanders say, “They bring in the Cobras, and F-4s, they use Willie Peter and HE and incendiaries” (476). In addition, O’Brien uses middle diction, which Meyer states “maintains correct language usage, but is less elevated than formal diction” (1620). O’Brien’s narration in between war stories and during others is written in middle diction, and he uses middle diction for writing about his own experiences and his own opinions about war stories.

The author uses many other writing techniques, as well. O’Brien uses accents to emphasize certain words. For example, O’Brien writes, “Cooze, he says. He does not say bitch. He certainly does not say woman, or girl. He says cooze” (473). This example places the heightened emphasis on the word ‘cooze.’ O’Brien also uses paradoxes, which Meyer states is “a statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense” (1630). For example, O’Brien writes, “he looks at you with those big gentle killer eyes” (473). It seems that gentle eyes and killer eyes are contradictory descriptions, but it becomes clear that most of these military men are young and gentle, but they are forced to be killers as well. Situational irony is also evident. Meyer notes that situational irony “exists when there is an incongruity between what is expected to happen and what actually happens due to forces beyond human comprehension or control” (1625). O’Brien displays situational irony by writing “what wakes me up twenty years later is Norman Bowker singing ‘Lemon Tree’ as we threw down the parts” (480). It is ironic that Lemon is blasted into the tree, which no one expects to happen, and the tree ironically becomes a ‘lemon tree’.

Images and figures of speech such as similes and metaphors are also apparent within this story. O’Brien uses a simile to compare similarities in generalizations. Meyer defines a simile as “a common figure of speech that makes an explicit comparison between two things by using words such as like, as, than, appears, and seems” (1635). O’Brien writes, “To generalize about war is like generalizing about peace” (479). O’Brien also uses a metaphor to compare the feel of war to that of fog. Meyer notes that a metaphor is “a figure of speech that makes a comparison between two unlike things, without using the word like or as” (1627). O’Brien writes, “For the common soldier, at least, war has the feel—the spiritual texture—of a great ghostly fog, thick and permanent” (480). Allusions are also used in this story. Meyer defines an allusion as “a brief reference to a person, place, thing, event, or idea in history or literature” (1615). O’Brien writes, “‘Well, that’s Nam,’ he [Sanders] said. ‘Garden of Evil. Over here, man, every sin’s real fresh and original’” (479). O’Brien is alluding to the biblical story of the Garden of Eden and original sin.

The intended message of this story is that true war stories are stories that people really do not want to hear. People want to think of war stories as glorious, victorious, and heroic, but O’Brien’s message is that no such true war stories are anything like that. O’Brien displays his message through his narration in between the war stories, and through the examples of the war stories themselves. He also sends the message that war stories are not about war at all. O’Brien writes, “In the end, of course, a true war story is never about war,” but it is about all the emotions and actions that have to do with it such as “love and memory,” “do[ing] things your are afraid to do,” “sorrow,” and “sisters who never write back and people who never listen” (481). O’Brien wants his readers to know that the truth within war stories is about the people involved in them and not about the questionable facts of the actual story. SparkNotes adds that O’Brien’s message concerns “the idea that the purpose of [war] stories is to relate the truth of experience, not to manufacture false emotions in their audiences” (1).

Many war stories that media or other people tell are ones that are uplifting, and they evoke false emotions that have nothing to do with the true experiences of the people involved in the story. According to SparkNotes, O’Brien’s message is that “the technical facts surrounding any individual event are less important than the overarching, subjective truth of what the war meant to soldiers and how it changed them” (1). Lastly, O’Brien uses his message to help explain why he wishes to tell his war stories even though they may not be completely factual or perceived the way he wants them to be perceived. SparkNotes states that “O’Brien is attempting not to write a history of the Vietnam War through his stories but rather to explore the ways that speaking about war experience establishes or fails to establish bonds between a soldier and his audience” (1). O’Brien’s message urges his readers to be more aware of what a soldier is actually trying to tell, and that a bond between soldiers and audiences can be created if audiences truly listen and face-up to what they are really hearing.

My reaction to this short story was one of sadness and fear. My husband is a soldier in the U.S. Army, and this short story resonates very personally with me. I hear war stories all time; from my husband, from his friends, and from the other Army wives. O’Brien’s stories and experiences remind me of all the other sad and horrific stories that I have heard. But what is even sadder is that those not involved with the military do not understand the truth, and if they really understand the truth and the people behind all the war stories they hear, then they would not be so quick to make hasty decisions concerning sending others to war, or maybe they would at least write back. I also feel sadness for O’Brien and the characters in his stories. What they have experienced will be with them forever, and no matter how many times they replay it through their minds or tell someone else their story, they will never ever be at peace with what really happened. I also reacted with fear because of my personal connection to the military. I am proud of my husband and all those who serve, but I also know that he and his fellow soldiers, God forbid, may be injured, killed, or suffer severely from post-traumatic stress disorder. However, I am glad that O’Brien wrote this story and addressed the issues that he did.

This short story has obviously withstood the test of time and is worthy of inclusion in an anthology because of its focus on soldiers’ experiences, bonds and relationships, and the true reasons behind the telling of war stories. War has been a part of our world’s history since history began to be documented. The stories in O’Brien’s short story may be factually true or not true at all, but the experiences, the emotions, and the relationships are all true. His message that true war stories are not about war at all also helps this story transcend time and continue to be read. His message and view is quite unique, and it sets him apart from other war story authors. O’Brien also forces his readers and society itself to face the reality of our voting decisions concerning war. The subject of war will forever be an aspect of civilization, and O’Brien’s short story will continue to live on and be included in anthologies as soldiers, families, and countries experience everything O’Brien writes about.

In conclusion, all the writing techniques that O’Brien uses are very effective, and none of them are ineffective. The techniques enrich the story and help the reader experience the situations and emotions firsthand. The techniques are also effective in moving the story along well and keeping the reader engaged. O’Brien’s message is that true war stories are not about war, but about the true people, experiences, bonds, relationships, and emotions of the stories. He displays this message and reinforces it again and again through his stories and narration. Through reading this story and discovering O’Brien’s message, I reacted with sadness and fear for all military veterans and those currently serving. Lastly, O’Brien’s subject of war and unique view about the truth of war stories has helped this work withstand the test of time and be worthy of inclusion in anthologies.

Works Cited
Meyer, Michael. The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. 7th ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story.” The Compact Bedford Introduction to Literature. 7th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2006. 473-481. SparkNotes LLC. “The Things They Carried: Themes, Motifs, and Symbols.” 2008. 8 Nov. 2008.

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