Morality in O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato
Going After Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien, is a book that presents many problems in understanding. Simply trying to figure out what is real and what is fantasy and where they combine can be quite a strain on the reader. Yet even more clouded and ambiguous are the larger moral questions raised in this book. There are many so-called "war crimes" or atrocities in this book, ranging from killing a water buffalo to fragging the commanding officer. Yet they are dealt with in an almost offhanded way. They seem to become simply the moral landscape upon which a greater drama is played-- i.e. the drama of running away from war, seeking peace in Paris. This journey after Cacciato turns into a morality play, the road Westward metaphor. As Dennis Vannatta explains, "The desire to flee may have begun as a reaction to fear, but by the time the squad has reached Paris, Paul has nurtured and cultivated it until it has become a political, moral, and philosophical statement" (245). But what about the atrocities going on all the time? How could they be ignored in the face of this larger drama? As Milton J. Bates puts it, although Going After Cacciato is "not atrocity-based in the manner of much Vietnam War autobiography and fiction, [it does] record incidents in which Vietnamese civilians are beaten or killed and have their livestock and homes destroyed" (270). This book has an almost offhanded-like way of dealing with these My Lai-like atrocities. Why? What's going on here?
Well, one thing that one must take into consideration is the author's aim. As quoted by Timothy J. Lomperis at a conference, O'Brien has said, "'For me, the purpose of writing fiction is to explore moral quandaries. The best fiction is almost always the fiction which has a character having to make a difficult moral choice'" (52). This certainly comes out in the fragging incident, when the squad kills Lieutenant Sidney Martin. But there's something more. Another time, O'Brien was quoted as saying, "My concerns have to do with the abstractions: ... How does one do right in an evil situation?" (Bates 263). That is the big question, of course, that this novel deals with. See, the point that O'Brien is making is not that war is an evil situation. He's trying to take that for granted and move beyond. Now that you've got this evil situation, what do you do?
Where is the good? In the observation post, Paul Berlin "remembered what his father had said on their last night along the Des Moines River. 'You'll see some terrible stuff, I guess. That's how it goes. But try to look for the good things, too. They'll be there if you look. So watch for them'" (O'Brien 58). So he does look for the good things. That's beauty being born out of despair, if you will. He enjoys watching the sunrise. And Bates refers to Paul Berlin helping treat a young Vietnamese girl and having sensitive feelings towards her (270). This is almost as if to say that war...