Going After Cacciato
By Gerard Chretien
?It is generally recognized that Tim OBriens Going After Cacciato (1978) is most likely the best novel of the Vietnam war, albeit an unusual one in that it innovatively combines the experiential realism of war with surrealism, primarily through the overactive imagination of the protagonist, Spec Four Paul Berlin. The first chapter of this novel is of more than usual importance. Designed to be a self-sufficient story (McCaffery 137) and often anthologized as one, this chapter is crucial to the novel in that it not only introduces us to the characters and the situation but also sets the tenor of the novel and reveals its authors view of this war in relation to which all else in the novel must be judged. In chapter 1, the plot of the entire novel is defined: A very young soldier named Cacciato deserts, intending to walk to Paris by land. As his squad follows under orders to capture him, Paul Berlin begins his fascinating mind-journey of going after Cacciato, of escape from, and later a reexamination of, the reality of war. But what is defined first, in the first two pages to be exact, is this wars reality and its cost to the young American soldiers involved. These pages list for us those who have died, in action and otherwise, and those who have been maimed, at times through self-injury, underscoring the urgency of the desire to live. These pages also vividly delineate for us the daily miseries and sufferings of the Vietnam war, from rain and mud to disease and rotting flesh, from monotony and fear to a profound sense of futility. As Paul Berlin narrates, It was a bad time (OBrien 1). And the young soldiers undergo all of this while being led by an ill, alcoholic, misanthropic lieutenant who cannot even remember who among his young charges is whom, or who is dead or alive. One thing that the book misses, however, is the same suffering, perhaps even worse, that was imposed upon the Vietnamese people. This is typical of novels from this time; they all exhibit a bold ethnocentrism (Lomperis 5). However, the first chapter does contain one very powerful image of destruction from the Vietnamese viewpoint, which helps to make this somber portrait of the Vietnam War more complete. We are told that Berlin and his squad are taking refuge inside a nearly ruined Buddhist pagoda: …in shadows was the cross-legged Buddha, smiling from its elevated stone perch. The pagoda was cold. Dank from a month of rain, the place smelled of clays and silicates and dope and old incense. It was a single square room built like a pillbox with stone walls and a flat ceiling that forced the men to stoop or kneel. Once it might have been a fine house of worship, but now it was junk. Sandbags blocked the windows. Bits of broken pottery lay under chipped pedestals. The Buddhas right arm was missing, but the smile was intact. Head cocked, the statue seemed interested in the lieutenants long sigh. (OBrien 4) In this otherwise very American novel, which focuses on the American soldiers experiences, feelings, and minds (Lomperis 63), and in which Vietnam is presented primarily as merely a terrain and a climate, this image of the pagoda seems to be symbolic of the country of Vietnam at this time. Invaded, desecrated, nearly destroyed, it still endured, sustained by a culture and a spirituality against which the war and the American warriors seem unimportant and small. Some critics have thought that Going After Cacciato is not an antiwar novel (Vannatta 246; McCaffery 145), but surely they must be incorrect. If, as the common thread of thinking among critics suggests, that this novel is preoccupied with memory and especially imagination, then surely the overwhelming horror occupying the memories and imaginations of the American warriors, and especially our protagonist, can only be understood as an antiwar statement. And if at the end of the novel Paul Berlin finds he must return, resigned to the war reality, he makes clear to us that he does so not because of courage(Bates 278) or principle but because, like his creator, he cannot withstand the societal pressures of family and country and is afraid of the isolation and hardship that opposition to them would impose (322-23)an understandable but hardly a pro-war stance. As for OBrien himself, he has frequently said that war is a complex affair, especially for those who must face it directly, but his prevailing view has become increasingly explicit. For instance, shortly after this novel was published, he said that his main concern in it was to have readers care about whats right and wrong and about the difficulty of doing right, the difficulty of saying no to war (Schroeder 146). Several years later, speaking at the Asia Society conference in 1985, he was even more forthright: Wouldnt all of us admit that a mistake was made in Vietnam?… we misunderstood Vietnamese history…and we were shooting anyway (Lomperis 73). Both the novel and the author condemn this war. And it is in this novels first, crucial chapter that such views are most clearly embodied, molding all the rest.
Bates, Milton J. Tim OBriens Myth of Courage. Modern Fiction Studies 33.2 (summer 1987): 263-79 Lomperis, Timothy J. Reading the Wind: The Literature of the Vietnam War. Durham: Duke UP, 1987. McCaffery, Larry. Interview with Tim OBrien. Chicago Review 33.2 (1982):129-49. Schroeder, Eric James. Two Interviews: Talks with Tim OBrien and Robert Stone. Modern Fiction Studies 30.1 (spring 1984): 135-64. Vannatta, Dennis. Theme and Structure in Tim OBriens Going After Cacciato. Modern Fiction Studies 28.2 (summer 1982): 242-6.
Going After Cacciato