Last Updated 07 Dec 2022

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

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The words, which describe the character: Rat Kiley; sharp gray eyes; tight little strokes of the wrist; he wanted me to believe; big gentle killer eyes; little crazy; they were kids – they just didn’t know; Rat almost bawls writing it; they were like soul mates. The words, which do not describe the character: crazy in a good way; real daredevil; nineteen years old and it is too much for him. The guy’s real name was Bob Kiley, but everyone was calling him Rat (O’Brien 174).

He had lost his friend Curt Lemon in Vietnam, but this loss happened beyond any military actions, when they were playing with grenades (they were real kids); Rat had actually lost his soul mate. Reading the story, Rat’s character created an impression of being flat. However, coming to the story’s end, it is evident that huge sufferings are hidden behind the childish behavior. This childish behavior has indirectly become the cause of tragedy, and suffering through this loss, Rat reveals his round dynamic character.

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He tries to forget his pain, but the fact that he feels it is the sign of his deep soul, which was changed in the cruelties of the Vietnam War. Curt Lemon is the character around which Rat’s actions and thoughts are concentrated. They spent most of their time together and what they felt towards each other was real kinship. The unexpected loss was so difficult for Rat that he didn’t hesitate to mail a letter to Lemon’s sister. This letter has become the expression of his feelings, his sorrow, and his best memories about that person. Re-writing the story from Rat’s perspective

The day didn’t predict anything tragic. We crossed the river – the mountains were in the west, and we had to direct our efforts there. We have already spent three days marching, and it already seemed monotonous…so well…we were trying to entertain ourselves, and in a second Curt Lemon was dead. He simply stepped on a booby-trapped 105 round. One second – and the man was gone forever. We were playing, we were laughing, and then, out of sudden, he was dead. I didn’t notice that the whole hour had passed before we cut off the thick grass for the emergency helicopter to land.

Surprisingly, the day didn’t change; the weather was the same, and we kept marching. The only thing was that Curt was not with us anymore. Higher in the mountains I’ve noticed a baby VC water buffalo. I had no idea how I could come across it so high in the mountains, and it was probably unexpected for me, that at that moment I could think of anything else besides Curt. I managed to get a rope around the baby buffalo and to lead it with us to the village, where we had to stay for the night. I stroked the baby buffalo’s nose, I tried to offer it come pork or beans, but it didn’t seem interested. I shrugged but I felt, how enraged I was.

At that time I didn’t understand, what caused those feelings inside me, but now I know that Curt’s death had made me angry; angry for being incapable to change anything and to return him to life. I shot the buffalo through the front knee. I was shocked at the animal not showing any sign of stress; it didn’t cry. It was silent, though it fell hard onto the ground but then got up again, and at that moment I shot off its ear; I kept shooting and I could see it hurt, but for some reason I could not kill it. I would never make it suffer, but something inside me was preventing me from shooting right.

I had no idea what others were thinking, but they were definitely watching each move and each shot I made. I was the only one to know, what it meant to me – Lemon was dead and he had been the best friend in the world. I am not sure whether it was a question of pain, and what pain one may mean here. I didn’t know whether physical pain could be measured or even compared to the moral pain I felt. I could not understand what I was doing, it was all smoke and I hardly remember whether I had shot the buffalo’s tail; it was as if I were dreaming. I shot it into the throat.

I didn’t want it to experience those physical tortures anymore. I can still remember its eyes – enormous, shiny, and dumb. I can remember myself crying. I wanted to say how sorry I was for both the buffalo and for Lemon, but tears didn’t let any word come out. I understood I needed some freedom, some silence and some time to think, to try to recover and to ultimately feel better. I left the baby, may be it was still alive, but I didn’t know it. I just knew that it was fighting for its life, the chance which Lemon didn’t have. It will remain my sin forever, but my pain was enormous to hide it inside.

I don’t still understand for whom I feel worse – for the baby buffalo I’ve killed or for Lemon who didn’t have a single chance to survive. What I know for sure is that Lemon didn’t go through the pain, which baby buffalo felt before it died. I also understand that this death could become neither physical, nor moral compensation for Lemon’s death. This is what I think now… At that time I was not thinking anything. The baby buffalo’s death remains my biggest weakness – the inability to keep emotions inside. Later that week I wrote a letter to Lemon’s sister to tell her what a great guy her brother had been.

I have written several funny stories from our life – I think that the letter turned to be very personal, even touching. I was almost bawling, because I could not accept the fact of his death. He had been the man able to turn the war into fun. He was right for war, and his attitudes towards war were also right. I clearly understood and I really felt that I would never receive any reply from that young girl, but I needed that writing to release my emotions and express what I was feeling about Lemon. Even when I pretended being angry at her, and called her “dumb cooze”, it was nothing but a mask – I didn’t want anyone know that I could feel…

Justification I decided to focus on Rat Kiley’s character. The author emphasizes his negligent attitude towards life. “Listen to Rat: “Jesus Christ, man, I write this beautiful fucking letter, I slave over it, and what happens? The dumb cooze never writes back” (O’Brien 175). What I think is that Rat didn’t even expect to receive any reply from Lemon’s sister; he needed this letter to express what he had inside, and simultaneously he had to support his image of a guy “nineteenth years old – and it’s too much for him” (O’Brien 175).

I was interested in viewing the story through his perspective, because I initially felt Rat could have been depicted differently, less crazy and more humane. As a result, the events in the narrative would look different through Rat’s perspective. After Lemon was dead, Rat could not find himself. He did not know how he could neutralize the moral pain he had inside. Again, the author could lead the narration in a different direction. Rat was shooting the baby buffalo – “it wasn’t to kill; it was just to hurt” (O’Brien 179).

Has anyone thought that Rat might have not clearly understood what he was doing? The fact that he was crying was the best proof that his actions had been absolutely uncontrolled. Moreover, his negligence has proved to be only surface – he was deeply suffering through the loss of his friend; at his nineteen years he could consider himself happy for having experienced the kinship he felt towards Lemon. My goal was to portray Rat through different features, not the features which the author used in the narration. I suppose that the author has not looked too deep into Rat’s soul.

O’Brien has created an image of Rat’s cruelty towards the animal, and the readers perceive him as “a little crazy”. Simultaneously, he has not emphasized many features which make Rat a real human. Even the scene of animal killing could have been depicted differently, through the prism of Rat’s moral sufferings. “Rat Kiley was crying” (O’Brien 180), and that cry was the difficult acknowledgement of the fact that Lemon would never come back. Works cited O’Brien, Tim. “How to Tell a True War Story”. Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology. P. Geyh ed. New York: W. W. Norton, 1992, 174-183.

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Tim O’Brien “How to Tell a True War Story” essay

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