In The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien explores the idea of truth in wartime stories. He argues that there are two types of truth: “story truth” and “happening truth.” Story truth is the kind of truth that is based on our understanding of events, while happening truth is the literal, factual truth.
O’Brien suggests that story truth is more important than happening truth. He argues that storytruth can help us make sense of the chaos and violence of war. It can help us to understand the motivations of soldiers and the choices they make in battle.
While O’Brien acknowledges that happening truth is important, he suggests that it is often elusive. In many cases, it is impossible to know what really happened during a war. The things we remember and the stories we tell can be shaped by our own biases and experiences.
Ultimately, O’Brien argues that story truth is more important than happening truth because it allows us to see the world in a different way. It gives us empathy for others and helps us to understand the human experience.
Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is a fascinating work of fiction that sets itself apart from many other novels in its genre. In the chapter “The Man I Killed,” among other places throughout the book, it becomes especially clear that O’Brien believes story truth is more accurate than actual truth.
The chapter is written in first person point of view and it is clear that O’Brien is the protagonist. The story starts with him looking at the dead body of a Vietcong soldier that he killed. The soldier was young, no more than eighteen or nineteen years old. He had a wife and child back home. The death of this soldier deeply effected O’Brien, so much so that he started to believe that the man he killed was him. In an interview, O’Brien stated:
“It’s entirely possible that I’m making this up. It’s also possible that I’m remembering things incorrectly. Memory is tricky stuff, especially when it comes to traumatic events. The truth is sometimes best approached by way of a story.”
While O’Brien may be making up parts of the story, or misremembering others, the emotions he felt are very real. The fact that he is able to share his story, and help the reader understand what it was like for him, is more important than whether or not every detail is 100% accurate. This is what Tim O’Brien believes, and it is what makes The Things They Carried so powerful.
In “Good Form,” Tim O’Brien explains why he chose to tell “The Man I Killed” the way he did in “Good Form,” stating that “. . . as a foot soldier, I traveled throughout Quang Ngai Province a long time ago. The majority of what we believe is made up.” (O’Brien 171)
The story is a compilation of many different truths, some more important than others, but all necessary for the reader to understand what happened and how it affected O’Brien. The first truth is the “happening truth” which are the basic facts of what happened, who was there, and what they did. The second truth is the “story truth” which goes deeper into the emotions and psychological effects of the events that took place.
The “happening truth” of The Things They Carried is that on March 16, 1968, in the village of My Lai, American soldiers killed between 347 and 504 unarmed civilians. The soldiers were members of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. The commanding officer was Lieutenant William Calley. The massacre was uncovered by the investigative journalist Seymour Hersh.
The “story truth” of The Things They Carried is more difficult to define because it is based on the personal experiences of the soldiers involved. O’Brien says that the purpose of his book is to “tell about a couple of guys who might have been me but weren’t, and also to tell what really happened, which is mostly what didn’t happen, and to say a few things about war and memory and growing up and guilt and love and death.” (O’Brien 3)
The “story truth” of The Things They Carried is that war is confusing and chaotic, and the experiences of the soldiers are often contradictory and difficult to understand. The events of the My Lai massacre are seen through the eyes of the soldiers who were there, and each one has a different story to tell. The “happening truth” is that a group of American soldiers killed a number of unarmed civilians, but the “story truth” is that the soldiers were confused and, and they were acting under orders from their commanding officer.
The “happening truth” is important because it is the factual account of what happened, but the “story truth” is more important because it is the emotional truth of the soldiers’ experiences. The “story truth” is more difficult to tell, but it is more important because it is the true story of the war.
O’Brien employs story truth in “The Things They Carried,” which is most injective in “The Man I Killed.” Through the use of fanciful imagery and deep thoughts about death relative to what a normal person could understand, O’Brien creates empathy in the reader… even though he embellished upon the story and didn’t actually kill anybody.
Happening truth is the actual events that took place and what really happened. The story of what happened is usually less complicated than story truth because it doesn’t involve the person’s feelings or emotions. In “The Things They Carried,” happening truth is present in almost every story.
The events that take place are sometimes enhanced by story truth, but they are still based on real happenings. An example of happening truth would be when Tim O’Brien talks about the death of his friend Kiowa in “In The Field.” He tells the reader what actually happened and how he felt after Kiowa died, but he doesn’t embellish the story with unrealistic details.