O'Brien says this is a true story about his buddy Bob "Rat" Kiley in Vietnam. One of Rat's friends got killed and a week after that Rat wrote a long letter to the friend's sister telling her about how great her brother was. Rat mails the letter, waits two months. When he's asked about the letter he says, "the dumb cooze" never wrote back. O'Brien claims "a true war story is never moral" or uplifting. All war stories have a strict allegiance to "obscenity and evil."
O'Brien starts off with this story about Rat Kiley to show the amorality of a war story. Rat's story doesn't have an uplifting end or a moral to it—it simply exposes what the war was like, and his profound sense of loss over his friend, and his bitter anger about not being heard or responded to.
O'Brien says you can tell a true war story if it embarrasses you. If you're not one for obscenities, then you can't care about truth—and if that's the case then you should look out for how you vote because it might end up sending boys to war that come back speaking obscenely.
In war there is only death, and the only way to respond to that reality is with obscenities. Those who send their boys off to war think they are doing so for noble reasons, but war always reduces any noble ideas to obscenity.
The dead friend's name was Curt Lemon. The third day after crossing a river into the mountains, Lemon and Rat Kiley were fooling around throwing smoke grenades back and forth near a trail leading into the jungle. Mitchell Sanders was playing with his yo-yo, Norman Bowker and Kiowa and Dave Jensen were trying to nap. Except for Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon making noise, things were quiet. O'Brien turned at the sound of a detonator and watched Lemon step from out of the shade into the sunlight and explode. Lemon's death was almost beautiful with the sunlight all around him, and how it looked like it had sucked him up into the tree above.
Curt Lemon and Rat Kiley were best friends and they were so young they didn't understand how careful they needed to be in the war. Or perhaps they weren't being careful because that was the only way to escape from the constant fear of the war. Or both. O'Brien makes Lemon's death seem almost beautiful, because that was how it seemed to him, that moment seared into his memory, and somehow the beauty makes it more horrible without becoming any less beautiful.
In a true war story, it's difficult to distinguish between what happened and what seemed to happen. "What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way." Everyone's vision and their angle of it are different. The memories get confused. After, when you try to tell the story, there is always "that surreal seemingness," which makes the story sound like a lie, "but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed."
The idea O'Brien describes here is echoed in "Good Form," with the concepts of story-truth and happening-truth. "Seemingness" is where the truth of the story is, because it communicates the sensory experiences of those who were there—an ineffable quality of how it felt to be at war in Vietnam, which only a story, a true war story, can communicate.
"In many cases a true war story cannot be believed," and if you find yourself believing a story you should be skeptical. It's often the case that the craziest parts of the story are true and the normal things are made up because they're there to make you believe the crazy things. For some things, there is no way to tell a true war story, "it's just beyond telling."
That the craziest parts of the story are often true while the benign things aren't shows how devastating and brutal war is and can be, so much so that they surpass a "civilian's" wildest imagination.
O'Brien recalls a story that Mitchell Sanders told him about a six-man patrol in the mountains. If they heard anything suspicious, they were to call in artillery to take the enemies out. Otherwise, they had to remain completely quiet. After a few days they start to hear music with weird echoes. They tried to ignore it, but soon they start hearing instruments, voices and clinking glasses like they're at a cocktail party. Finally they lose it and call in airstrikes. But the guys still hear the sounds. When they return to base camp the colonel demands to know what they heard, but the guys just look silently at the colonel, "and the whole war is right there in that stare."
In this story the men are driven so mad by things that they cannot distinguish are real or imagined. When they are asked about what they heard, they can't explain it. It was unsayable, unspeakable. Those things that cannot be said or put into language because they're so horrific or strange or unbelievable—that's the war, and those are the things that can only be expressed through stories so that those who weren't there, who didn't experience, can maybe understand.
O'Brien says you can tell a true war story by how it never ends, or never seems to. He recalls how Mitchell Sanders showed frustration in telling the story of the men at the listening post because he wanted to get all of the details right. The next night at O'Brien's foxhole, Sanders touched O'Brien's shoulder and said the moral was that no one listens: the colonel, the politicians, girlfriends. The following morning, Sanders approached O'Brien and said he had to confess to lying about a few parts of the story, but he insisted that it was still true—those men heard things out there. O'Brien asked what the moral was, and Sanders was quiet for so long it felt embarrassing. Then he told O'Brien that the quiet he was hearing was the moral.
Sanders keeps coming up with more morals for the story. The first is that no one listens. The second is that there isn't even anything to listen to, that even if there were people listening there isn't something they could hear or understand. Another way of looking at the story is that there are lots of morals to it, that there are endless morals in it, that war contains everything and at such intensity it is beyond anyone's ability to directly communicate. But a story doesn't have to communicate directly.
O'Brien claims in a true war story, if there is a moral, it's impossible to fully tease out. One meaning only leads to a deeper meaning and then in the end there's not much to say about a true war story, "except maybe "Oh." True war stories don't generalize, they aren't abstract, they don't analyze. He says it comes down to whether your stomach believes the story to tell whether it's a true war story.
On the day Curt Lemon died, the platoon saw a baby water buffalo and captured it. After dinner, Rat Kiley pet it and offered it some of his food, which it refused. Rat shrugged and then shot the animal again and again, careful not to kill it. Everyone was watching but didn't say anything. Rat Kiley was crying, and he walked off holding his rifle. Everyone else stood around without speaking. Then someone kicked the animal. It was barely alive. Dave Jensen said he'd never seen anything like that in his life. Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders carried the baby buffalo and dumped it into the village well. Everyone then sat waiting for Rat to pull himself together. Dave Jensen was still astounded, "A new wrinkle. I never seen it before." Mitchell Sanders played with his yo-yo and said that was Vietnam, the Garden of Evil, where "every sin's real fresh and original."
Rat Kiley's behavior is, in a way, a gross parallel between how he feels towards Curt Lemon's sister: he tries to write her a letter and when she doesn't respond he reduces her to just a "dumb cooze," except here Rat Kiley is acting out his anger and pain on the baby water buffalo. The war and its lack of moral rules opens up the space for acts that were without name yet—they were unsayable. Kiowa and Mitchell Sanders don't shoot the animal to put it out of its misery, instead they throw it down the village well—which is menacing in its own way because the animal would drown and poison village's water.
O'Brien asks how do you generalize? It's true that war is hell, but that's not all it is. It can be beautiful, mysterious, and exciting in unexpected ways. To generalize about war is the same as generalizing about peace—almost all of it is true and almost none of it is true. Any soldier will tell you that being close to death just makes you closer to life. After a firefight, there is no greater pleasure than simply being alive and you feel you are your truest self. The old rules don't exist anymore, and neither do the old truths. Right and wrong aren't what they used to be. Order gives way to chaos. The only thing that is certain is ambiguity.
War is ultimately a contradiction; there is no way to generalize it. Just like there's no way to generalize peace. He suggests maybe war is another name for death, and this expresses this contradiction well because only when you're closest to death do you feel most alive. O'Brien insists that all of the moral binaries—right and wrong; truth and untruth—are broken down in war and in war stories.
O'Brien claims true war stories often don't have a point. He offers a story that wakes him up. Parts of Curt Lemon were hanging above in a tree after he died so Dave Jensen and O'Brien were ordered to retrieve them. O'Brien remembers pieces of Lemon, but the thing that wakes him up is how Dave Jensen was singing "Lemon Tree" as they threw the parts of Curt Lemon down.
There's something uncanny, morbid, and almost evil about Jensen's choice of song. It's darkly ironic and obscene in a way that's pointless but also terrifying, and yet it's also kind of funny.
O'Brien says you can tell a true war story "by the questions you ask." If someone tells a story and afterward you ask whether or not it was true and the answer matters, then it's not a true war story. O'Brien's example: one soldier jumps on a grenade to save his three comrades, the answer of whether or not that happened matters to the listener. A thing can happen and be a lie, and a thing may not have happened and be "truer than the truth." O'Brien's example: one soldier jumps on a grenade to save his three comrades and the grenade kills all of them, but not before one asks the jumper why he did it, and he says, "Story of my life, man."
O'Brien's example of the four men and the grenade forces the reader to ask themselves if they would feel cheated if the first story weren't true. The story of the four men who die couldn't have happened because no one was there to witness it, but it holds the truth of so much of the war that it feels true to what a true war story is and should be. The first story makes you feel good about heroism. The second story makes you feel the combined insanity, heroism, and pointlessness, and humor of the war.
Twenty years later, O'Brien can still see how the sunlight was on Lemon's face right before he exploded. In the moment his foot touched down on the ground, he must have thought the sunlight was what killed him.
O'Brien wants the reader to feel the way he felt when he turned to look at Lemon, to feel how Lemon felt—to understand the surprise and horror and beauty all wrapped together.
When O'Brien tells the story of Curt Lemon he is often approached after—always by an older woman. The woman will always say O'Brien should put all the war stories behind him and find different kinds of stories to tell. O'Brien will picture Rat Kiley and think, "You dumb cooze." For O'Brien, the woman wasn't listening because it wasn't a war story; it was a love story.
O'Brien believes that he isn't telling a war story, he's telling a love story. Rat Kiley lost his best friend who he loved, and he acted out by killing the animal. O'Brien feels like just calling it a war story is missing the point, and the only way to communicate that is through obscenity.
But O'Brien can't say what he's thinking to the woman, so all he or you can do is tell the story again, modifying it, making up new things to try to get to the truth. A war story will become true if you keep telling it. Ultimately, though, a true war story isn't about war. It's about sunlight, love, sorrow, and memory. It's about sisters who don't write back and "people who never listen."
But back from the war, there are social obligations—you can't just use obscenities. So all he can do is keep working on the story, try to find a way to communicate the things he wants to communicate through the story, to communicate not about war as a generality but the specifics of that story, of all the personal and contradictory things within war, and even the ways that people who did not directly experience them fail to understand those things no matter how well you tell the story.