How to Write War: Learning from Tim O’Brien

by Eddie Dzialo


Though it seems like a different life, I used to be an infantry officer in the Marine Corps. I deployed to Iraq in 2008, Afghanistan in 2009, and I usually don’t elaborate further. I don’t avoid talking about my service to protect myself from painful memories. Some of the proudest moments of my life happened during those years and the people that I deployed with know a side of me that no one else can. When I avoid the subject of my deployments, I do so because I know I will become the focus of the story. And I’m not the point. I’ve read too many war books, written by people who aggrandize their heroics, their condemnation or support for the political ideologies that fuel combat. I didn’t want to become one of those people. Shortly after getting out of the Marines, I stopped reading books about war altogether.

When I entered the Mountainview MFA program, I wrestled with how to write about my own experiences in a way that would overcome the trappings of war narratives that I so detested. As I struggled, my mentor recommended I read The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien, to show me how O’Brien navigated the difficulties of writing about combat. I agreed to read it only to prove my mentor wrong, to explain why I was against such books. It would be my excuse to walk away from writing about my experience. But my mentor was right. Halfway through the first story, O’Brien had already posed and answered the questions I hadn’t even known to ask.

I understand what O’Brien was risking by writing those stories: making the book about himself.  In writing war, you are never what’s most important. Any fear that Tim O’Brien might have written this book for his own edification leaves with the story “On the Rainy River.” Tim O’Brien, the story’s protagonist, is present, but as a frightened teenager who’s been swept up in events that he was powerless to stop. It’s self-deprecating, discussing fear with a brutal integrity that does not allow ‘heroics’ to intrude on the story’s honesty. “...I was too good for this war. Too smart, too compassionate, too everything.”  These earnest emotions allow O’Brien to downplay his role within the stories and allow them to become more powerful than himself.

 “How to Tell a True War Story” gave me the words to understand my discomfort with war narratives by explaining what a war story is, what it isn’t, and what it can achieve.

What it isn’t: “A true war story is never moral...if a story is moral, do not believe it.” By not attaching lessons to his war stories, O’Brien is making a conscious effort not to bend them towards a purpose. He doesn’t give the atrocities any value. A real war story has an “...absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.”

What it is: “In any war is difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen.” Though the book is a work of fiction, The Things They Carried blurs the line between fiction and reality. The men named in the dedication are characters in the stories, and the opening sentence of “How to Tell a True War Story” is “This is true.” The reader cannot distinguish fact from fiction, just as O’Brien struggles to resolve his memories of war. “When a guy dies, you look get jumbled; you tend to miss a lot.”

What it can achieve: The most emotional scene in “How to Tell a True War Story” occurs when one of the characters tortures a baby water buffalo. The more the baby struggles, the more pain the character inflicts upon it. “It wobbled and went down sideways. Rat shot it in the nose.” As disturbing as this story is, the reader is left wondering if it really happened, if the author spliced an event that he witnessed into his fiction. To O’Brien, veracity is relative. “I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.”

I still approach books about war with a healthy amount of skepticism, but by reading The Things They Carried, I witnessed how Tim O’Brien embraced his past and discussed it with honestly and humility. It’s a book that was selflessly written for other people, and I think that each time I reread it.