Literature Study GuidesThe Things They CarriedHow To Tell A True War Story Summary

The Things They Carried | Study Guide

Tim O'Brien

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The Things They Carried | How to Tell a True War Story | Summary



This selection weaves together the narrator's comments about war stories, different soldiers' reactions to Curt Lemon's death, and a mysterious tale told by Mitchell Sanders. This summary covers the stories separately; the comments on war stories are treated in the insight.

Curt Lemon's Death

On the day of Curt's death, the platoon is in "deep jungle." Rat and Curt, "just kids," don't notice the place's "spookiness." They invent a game that involves tossing a live smoke grenade. When it explodes they dance around in the smoke. The soldiers hear a noise—a detonator, the narrator later realizes. When Curt moves from shadow into sunlight, he steps on a booby-trapped round, which blows his body apart. The narrator describes Curt's death as "almost beautiful": the light seems to lift him "into a tree full of moss and vines and white blossoms." He and Dave Jensen climb the tree to collect Curt's body parts; with morbid humor, Dave sings "Lemon Tree" as they do this gory work.

After Curt's remains are flown out, Rat comes across a baby water buffalo. He pets it and tries to feed it, then shoots it in the knee. The animal falls, then gets up again, and Rat shoots off one of its ears. He continues to shoot different parts of its body, not "to kill" but "to hurt," while the others watch, "feeling all kinds of things" but not "a great deal of pity" for the animal. Somehow, the buffalo stays alive. Rat whispers something to it, starts to cry, and walks away. Kiowa and Mitchell dump the dying animal in a well. "A new wrinkle," Dave says—something he's never before witnessed. Mitchell, finding a moral to the story, as always, calls Vietnam the "Garden of Evil," where "every sin's fresh and original."

Rat Kiley and Curt Lemon were "like soul mates," so, after Curt's death, Rat writes a long letter to Curt's sister. He says that Curt was "a number one pal and comrade" who had "stainless steel balls." Curt threw hand grenades into a river to fish. He painted his body and went "trick-or-treating" in a village, nude except for "boots and balls and an M-16." To Rat, Curt made the war "seem almost fun." Two months pass, but Curt's sister never writes back, prompting Rat to call her a "dumb cooze."

Mitchell's Story

Mitchell tells the narrator a story he claims is "God's truth" about six soldiers who blend into a mountain to listen for "enemy movement." For "seven straight days," they are silent, disappearing into a dense fog that carries sounds "forever." A few days in, they hear strange music, "chimes and xylophones," that are unlikely to be produced in the environment around them. The men become anxious. Then they hear what sound like voices at a cocktail party, "champagne corks," even "violins and cellos." But the sounds aren't made by humans; they come from the foggy mountain.

Finally the soldiers "lose it," calling in air strikes to "crash that cocktail party." In the morning the soldiers still hear the strange noises on the mountain. They return to base camp, but they refuse to talk about their experience. Even when a "fat bird colonel" demands an explanation for the air strikes, the men won't speak. The colonel can't grasp what they've experienced, so they salute and walk away. The moral, Mitchell decides, is that "nobody listens." Politicians, civilians back home, and military commanders don't understand Vietnam because they've never listened to the enemy in the "vapors" and "rocks" of its landscape.


"How to Tell a True War Story" uses the stories of Curt's death and Mitchell's story to illustrate the narrator's thoughts about war stories. He explains what true war stories are and are not.

True war stories aren't "moral." Their purpose is not to teach or inspire or "suggest models of proper human behavior." They have never stopped and will never stop men from "doing the things men have always done." The story of Rat torturing the buffalo isn't intended to prevent future cruelty but to convey Rat's grief about Curt's death.

True war stories aren't slaves to the facts. Stories may fluctuate between truth and fiction. Many go even further: "A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth." In fact, people who lived the events in a story often can't "separate what happened from what seemed to happen." Even the story of Curt's death and its aftermath is not the real truth. "Every goddamn detail" is made up. However, the point is not the accuracy of the details but the accuracy of the feelings they convey.

True war stories are utterly wedded to "obscenity and evil." Rat doesn't call Curt's sister a "woman" or even a "bitch"; she's a "cooze," a coarse word for female genitalia. A true war story embarrasses listeners.

True war stories are hard to believe and may therefore not convince listeners. And some can hardly be told. Mitchell pauses repeatedly as he struggles to tell his story, making sure the narrator is with him, grappling for words to explain the inexplicable and insisting, "every word is absolutely dead-on true."

A true war story, the narrator adds, "never seems to end." It haunts the teller and the listener, for decades in some cases. But, as the narrator notes, these stories are not in fact stories of war but stories of "love and memory."

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