Physical setting

The events described by Tim O’Brien in the short story “How to Tell a True War Story” take place in Vietnam, during the Vietnam War. The Vietnam War lasted from 1955 to 1975, which places the period when the events take place around that time. The conflict was between North Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union and China, and South Vietnam, allied with democratic countries, including the US. The narrator does not focus on a specific place, but on life on the front in general. 

At the beginning of the story, Kiley’s touching letter to Lemon’s sister contains information about the day-to-day activities in a war. Kiley talks about Lemon “going fishing with a whole damn crate of hand grenades” (p. 1, ll. 14-15), and “doing recon or going out on (…) night patrols” (p. 1, l. 7). Sanders’ story presents the routine of a listening-post operation “up into the mountains” (p. 3, l. 14), while the story of the baby water buffalo takes place in a “deserted village” (p. 6, l. 23). 

However, the narrative mostly focuses on the contradictory nature of war. Although the narrator highlights the horror of the Vietnam War, he is also fascinated by its beauty. Therefore, when he talks about the aftermath of a fire fight, the narrator focuses on how the physical setting influences him mentally:

At the hour of dusk you sit at your foxhole and look out on a wide river turning pinkish red, and at the mountains beyond, and although in the morning you must cross the river and go into the mountains and do terrible things and maybe die, even so, you find yourself studying the fine colors on the river, you feel wonder and awe at the setting of the sun, and you are filled with a hard, aching love for how the world could be and always should be, but now is not. (p. 8, ll. 10-15)

The narrator is mainly fascinated by the “awful majesty of combat” (p. 7, l. 30), a paradox that highli...

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