Going After Cacciato
It is generally recognized that Tim O’Brien’s 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 author’s 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 war’s 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” (O’Brien 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 ethnocentricism (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 buddha’s right arm was missing,...