"How to Tell a True War Story" is the center piece of the novel. It's theme is about everything that O'Brien has been building toward with his tricks and slight of hand regarding the accuracy of the stories. The novel is dedicated to the men of Alpha Company. He names their names and they are the men who appear in the stories. Were they real people? Is the narrator really Tim O'Brien? Did these events really happen? No. They did not. These people are not real. These stories are fiction. But fiction has truth. How can this be?
The story of Adam and Eve and the apple tree is a fable. It is fiction. It did not happen. There was no Adam. There was no Eve. There was no tree of knowledge. But the story has truth. How can this be? Because the story of Adam and Eve is about more than just those two people and their relationship with their creator. It is a story about people who grow up. It is about people who gain experience and knowledge. It is about people who exercise their freewill by disobeying authority. It is about all these things and more. These things do happen in life. These themes are true.
Tim O'Brien creates an intentional paradox for his readers when he writes a wrenching, violent, but gripping story about Rat Kiley and then at the end of the story, tells the reader that the characters and events of the story did not happen as he has just described them, but rather they happened in an entirely different way to other people. But he insists that the story is true. Thus O'Brien challenges the reader to discover what the truth of the story really is. O'Brien asks the reader to discover what the nature of fiction is.
First, did O'Brien cheat the reader when he said that the events did not happen after the reader became involved in those events? No. No more than any other writer. There is no Freddy Kruger. There is no Godzilla. There is no Red Riding Hood. Readers have known this all the time and the reader should have known that there was no Rat Kiley. But O'Brien makes a point of it to write this in his story specifically. Why? He wants specifically to point out that the events are fiction. But he also points out strongly that there is truth in the story. Where is the truth? It lies not in the plot or the character or the setting, but in the theme. That is the theme of this story.