Saving one's Life with a Story
In "The Lives of the Dead", O'Brien focuses on stories from his past. He talks about many things, but he focuses most on the lives of his dead friends, friends from Vietnam, friends even who were friends before he knew war. His purpose is not just to remember them, but to bring them back into the realm of the living. For O'Brien, telling stories is a way of bringing the dead to life.
Ted Lavender is an early target of O'Brien's anecdotes. O'Brien remembers the day "in April [when] he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe" (O'Brien 230). He remembers the incredible ‘deadness' of Lavender's body; he describes how he looked and felt like someone had ripped the spirit out of his body. At one point, he remembers Sanders looking at the dead Lavender and talking to him; someone else, pretending to be Lavender, responds, and they start to talk. Through this conversation, they could pretend to talk with Lavender, to fell that he was not really dead, that he was just on a "once in a lifetime mind trip" (231); not gone, just not quite there anymore. He becomes more than just a memory; they feel that he has come back to join them for one last good-bye: "We could see Ted Lavender's dreamy blue eyes.  We could almost hear him". By talking about Ted Lavender, by re-experiencing his personality, he ceases to be truly dead; he lives on in the hearts and minds of his friends.
The primary focus of this chapter was Linda, Timmy's first girlfriend. O'Brien separates Linda's story into many pieces, dispersing them between his other stories, trying to savor each piece, to make each piece come alive. Clearly, Tim is trying to bring Linda back to life, to keep his first love, so wrongfully removed from this world, alive within himself. But there is more to the story than that.  He is trying not just to save Linda, but, in a way, to save himself, "to save Timmy's life with a story" (O'Brien 246). He is trying to preserve, to remember, his younger self, a self who had not yet been exposed to the horrors of war and death. That self is as much gone from this world as Linda, as Ted Lavender; it is, as much as either of them, a dead friend in need of life.
The purpose of storytelling, then, is to bring the dead back to life, to keep them alive in the hearts and minds of those telling their story. But this gives no purpose to the writing of stories. Writing, editing, publishing a book is a far more involved task than writing a story. Tim O'Brien clearly feels that it is worth the effort. A spoken story is a short-lived thing; people hear it, and forget most of it soon thereafter. O'Brien is afraid that he will lose the memories of these people, either through time as they fade or at the end of his own life, and losing these memories is the loss of their last flickering chance at any form of life.  With the loss of their memories, O'Brien's dead friends become completely dead. But a book is an item of permanence. So through writing down their stories, O'Brien hopes to make all of his friends, like Linda, books, stories that, with each new reader, gain new life.