For our second semester reading project, I chose to analyze Tim O'Briens novel, Going After Cacciato.
War Is War
May 13, 1997
As O'Brien's third novel, Going After Cacciato is one of his most acclaimed works. The book brings to the reader many chilling aspects of war while developing a connection between the reader and the narrator. After nearly twenty years, Going After Cacciato still dominates over more recent war novels by providing a unique glimpse into the soldiers mind. O'Brien reflects upon his wartime experiences in Vietnam while successfully blending reality and fantasy in an original war story.
In the first chapter of the book, the relationship between the story and its title is quickly made. As the character who encites the chase, Cacciato embarks on the seemingly ludicrous journey to Paris. A voyage of eighty six hundred miles on foot is not one to be taken lightly. To get an idea of the distance that Cacciato is planning to transverse, imagine walking across the United States four times bringing only what one can carry. Paul Berlin, to whom Cacciato has divulged his travel plans, and his unit begin on a mission to retrieve Cacciato. Told from Berlin's viewpoint, the story is revealed from the experiences of a person who questions his own purpose in the war. The soldiers are literally walking away from the war as they follow Cacciato through the jungles of Vietnam. Paul's journey with the others is occasionally broken up by sudden lapses into the past. Such unexpected transitions have positive and negative affects on the reader. The latter result is immediate; the quick topic changes add an element of confusion as to what exactly is happening in the novel. However, the divisions also attribute to increased interest during these flashbacks as they break up the monotony of the march.
The varied concepts of the book make it difficult to place into one definite genre. It would be incorrect that Going After Cacciato is strictly a tale of war and heroism. The dreamlike quality of the events that Berlin undergoes also pushes this book into the realm of fantasy and science fiction. There are stories within stories in this book, adding to the loose definition of this book as a war story. The secondary plots often demonstrate the mind of a soldier at war. Cacciato's desertion or "Humping to Paris," (5:7) as Berlin calls it, was a thought in many soldier's minds, dreaming of a place where they would rather be. Another group of people in the book are the villagers who at times fall victim to the soldier's orders. In the systematic raiding of villages, Berlin begins to develop a sense of understanding; he realizes the villagers accept that he does not want to destroy their hamlet but it must be done, as it is his duty. Parts of the book are about self-discovery as Berlin finds his place in the war. During one of the flashbacks, the men decide to "touch the grenade," (5:209) in agreement to kill their lieutenant. By returning to the war setting, O'Brien is able to return the novel to its primary motif, war.
Repeated throughout the novel is Berlin's solitude during the war as he is at the observation post considering "the issue...of courage." (5:73) Alone during the early hours of the day Berlin makes decisions of how he will act, about exactly what is going on in Vietnam. Decisions of that type influenced how he filled his role in Vietnam, as an individual trying to stay alive. On the march, Berlin is always at the end of the group, dead list. His position in the group represents O'Brien's opinions on the war, which is not enthusiastic. Being last by choice is to say that one is unwilling to participate, though one will if they must. The chase after Cacciato is one of confusion, a mission without direction; the soldiers did not know where Cacciato was, but only where he was headed. This element of purposelessness is one that was present during the Vietnam War. The soldiers fighting had no clear enemy; they were not fighting a threat to the US, but a political war. Symbolism is an important facet of any well-written book, and in this case, it is abundant.
As the soldiers travel, they encounter many unique people. Aside from Berlin and Cacciato, the individuals they meet play an important role in completing the novel. Sarkin Aung Wan, a young refugee, enters the search with the men shortly into their journey. At first, a minor role, she eventually plays an important part by motivating the men and supporting Berlin. She also brings an innocent view of the events which helps the men not give up hope. A sickly person, Lieutenant Corson is loved by his men and is the one who made the choice to go after Cacciato. While having little influence over the squad, Corson still commands the men's respect. Sarkin also is significant to the Lieutenant because she later gives him the mental support needed to survive. The third key supporting character is Doc Peret. Aside from his normal duties as a medic, Doc is one who is looked up to by the others. He is the one who the men go to when they have moral questions. Doc influences the squad's attitude by providing the moral support that they need.
Before serving for the military during Vietnam, Tim O'Brien had already taken his first steps into writing. When in college, he was a very vocal student who often protested in support of certain issues. O'Brien developed his writing skills in voicing his strong opinions. O'Brien then received a draft notice; he was being asked to serve in a war that he had protested (1:442). O'Brien went to Vietnam not to fight for his country but to please his family. O'Brien uses the various characters to state how he felt about the war. When asked to tell about the war in Vietnam, Doc replies:
"...war is war no matter how it is perceived. War has its own reality. War kills and maims...makes orphans and widows. These are the things of war. Any war...I'm saying it was just a war like every war. Politics be damned. Sociology be damned." (5:176)
When saying this, he brings about an important point of the novel. O'Brien did not support the war in any manner, he saw war as having no order, there was no good or bad that went on; war is chaos. O'Brien's views on war were changed by his experience in Vietnam.
The novel Going After Cacciato is not just a war story by any means. O'Brien used the book to voice his opinions on the war, and to express the sense of confusion that went on during this period. By creating a fantasy world inside a horrifying reality, he defines the war. This war is not one only fought by weapons but is fought inside the soldier's mind. The minds, which O'Brien creates, reveal the convoluted aspects of war. Going After Cacciato succeeds because the story is written to create a link between the reader and the characters in a familiar, yet fictional world.
- "O'Brien, Tim." Current biography Yearbook. 1995 ed.
- "Tim O'Brien's Homepage, Novelist." 24 April, 1997. <http://www.illyria.com/tobhp.html> (10 May 1997).
- Chisdes, Jonathan. "Moral Questions In Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato: How To Do Right In An Evil Situation." 10 August 1995. <http://www.nightmare.com/~jon/cacciato2.html> (9 May 1997).
- Devine, Mary. "Love and War in the Land o' Lakes." MPLS-St. Paul Magazine Oct. 1994: 179.
- O'Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. New York: Dell Publishing, 1978.
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