War is hell, but that's not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead."
I've been thinking about O'Brien's "How to Tell a True War Story" (the seventh piece in the collection/novel The Things They Carried) because I've been thinking about teaching. How do you explain that successful works of art combine resolution, a feeling of completeness, with irresolution, the sense that some other alternative, a wolf with great teeth or the ghost of a murderous white whale, waits just outside the door? We can say, "It is both ways, many ways, never one," but that is only a rule, a generalization, useful, but abstracted instead of actual.
O'Brien's story gives us the generalizations paired, and that helps. It engages the mind's logic, the drive toward inquiry. How do you generalize? How do you tell a true war story? How do you tell any true story? It's the piece's main line of tension. As we read, we think we may come closer to an answer. We also get more pieces of the dramatic war story interspersed with the speaker's attempt to answer questions, but we know the essentials very early on: Rat Kiley's best friend "gets killed" (75).
But that line doesn't say what's essential, and alone, no line in the story can. No single line any writer could pen would capture it. It needs to be told over and over again: "You can tell a true war story by the way it never seems to end. Not then, not ever" (83).