In summary, the central argument of "How to Tell a Historical War Incident" is that in order to emphasize the veracity of a true story, it may be necessary to embellish or fictionalize it slightly. The problem with this approach is that while the original story was true, the enhanced version is no longer true. Thus, historical writers who use this technique run the risk of distorting history.
John Keegan's argument is that historians should always tell the truth and avoid lying by saying that something happened when it factually did not. History is written by the winners so if you are writing about a period of time when there was only one side winning, you would want to give credit where it is due by mentioning other leaders or events that probably influenced the outcome of the battle or war.
For example, if I were writing a book on World War II and came across a photo of Hitler giving the Nazi salute from his wheelchair then told you it showed him at the 1936 Olympics when in fact he had been injured in an air raid earlier that year, that would be lying because it wasn't true when I wrote it down and someone else eventually found out about it and published a picture of him doing it from another angle. Even though it was true then it wouldn't be true now because people know better than to believe everything they read in books.
If there is a moral in a genuine war narrative, it is like the thread that makes the garment. You can't make it up. You can't extract the meaning until you first uncover the underlying meaning. True war stories do not lend themselves to generalization. The specifics must be heard to be believed.
According to O'Brien, the moral of a genuine combat narrative, like the thread that weaves a garment, cannot be detached from the story. He claims that a real battle account cannot be generalized or abstracted. The story's relevance is determined by whether or not you believe it in your stomach. A good story remains a good story even if you know where it will end.
O'Brien says that a good story is one that people enjoy hearing over and over again. It can be a history lesson, but it should also contain elements of fantasy. People love stories about courage and sacrifice, but they also love stories about revenge and justice.
People want to hear how things turned out for the good guy, but they want to hear it from someone who was there - someone who lost friends and colleagues but still managed to bring home the bacon. In other words, people want to know what you thought and felt while everything was happening.
In conclusion, O'Brien says that a good story is one that people enjoy hearing over and over again. People want to know how things turned out for the good guy, but they want to hear it from someone who was there - someone who lost friends and colleagues but still managed to bring home the bacon.
O'Brien presents the most essential issues of his work, including memory, imagination, episte-mology (the study of the nature of knowledge), and truth, by attempting to identify what makes a true combat narrative but never actually attaining this task. He concludes that there are two kinds of stories that can be told about war stories: true ones and false ones. True stories are those that ring true, that fit together smoothly and seem likely to have happened in the same way more than once. False stories are those that do not ring true, that do not make sense or could not have happened as described. O'Brien believes that no story can be judged as either true or false, only as ringingly true or not.
He starts by examining how we remember events from our past, and how some people's memories are better than others'. He then turns his attention to fiction, particularly war stories, and asks what makes them true or false. After discussing many examples, he comes to the conclusion that there are really only two types of stories that can be used to tell about war stories: true ones and false ones. A true story would be one that rings true, that fits together well and seems likely to have happened in the same way more than once. A false story would be one that does not ring true or that cannot possibly have happened as described.
You may relate a genuine war narrative if it makes you uncomfortable. If you don't like profanity, you probably don't like the truth; if you don't like the truth, watch how you vote. If you find yourself shaking your head at certain points in the story, stop reading. This isn't just about being polite: you have to be willing to hear what others have to say. A true war story will make you think about what happened afterward, perhaps even change the way you view life.
If you can answer "yes" to all of these questions, then you have a real chance of relating to someone who has written a war story.
8 Writing Tips for Realistic War Stories