Themes and message


The trauma of war

The short story “How to Tell a True War Story” by Tim O’Brien explores the theme of the trauma of war, which affects the characters both physically and mentally. All the stories that are told by the narrator and his comrades emerge from the trauma of war and are a way of helping the characters come to terms with their war experience. 

The narrative reveals that the stories might or might not be true and that they are essential when it comes to dealing with the trauma of war. Kiley, for example, is traumatized by the violent death of his best friend. He tries to overcome his trauma by  shooting a baby water buffalo and later by writing a touching letter to Lemon’s sister. Both attempts to deal with his trauma prove unsuccessful, as Kiley is emotionally distressed and frustrated. 

The narrator is also traumatized by Lemon’s death – a scene which he relieves and tries to reconstruct even twenty years after the event. War has made his experience paradoxical. He describes Lemon’s death scene as “almost beautiful” (p. 2, l. 35) and another time as “horrible” (p. 8, l. 35), which shows that he has not yet been able to cope with his experience. The narrator’s trauma also affects him physically, as he has nightmares about his Vietnam experience: 

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