How to Tell a True War Story


This study guide will help you analyze the short story “How to Tell a True War Story” (1990) by Tim O’Brien. You can also find a summary of the text, as well as inspiration for interpreting it and putting it into perspective

Tim O’Brien (b. 1946) is an American writer. He is best known for the collection The Things They Carried, which contains short stories inspired by O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam War. The short story “How to Tell a True War Story” was published in The Things They Carried and deals with how truth is connected with the art of storytelling.


Here, you can read an extract from our study guide: 

Social setting

The story's social setting mainly focuses on the psychological effects of war. For example, all the stories that the narrator presents are part of a coping mechanism that helps him adapt to life after war. The events have happened twenty years ago (p. 2, l. 22), yet the narrator recalls them vividly and tells them in an attempt  to cope with his war experience. 

Many years after the war, the narrator still struggles to connect with others. In the last part of the story, he suggests that people – older women in particular – do not understand him and do not truly listen. The story shows that people who have not been involved in wars tend to minimize the psychological effects of war: “What I should do, she’ll say, is put it all behind me. Find new stories to tell” (p. 9, ll. 28-29).

The story also deals with issues like the...

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How to Tell a True War Story

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