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Going After Cacciato: Ideals Collapsed

    In Going After Cacciato, O’Brien skillfully accomplishes a difficult task of making the reader feel crummy at the end.  He constructs and builds up an elaborate fantasy of ideal escape from war, of a chance to live in peace, and then cruelly and abruptly collapses it into nonexistence – at the apex of suspense, when the Third Squad is on the verge of capturing Cacciato, he reveals that virtually the entire book, or at least everything good that has happened, was nothing more than “pretending” (O’Brien 10) in Paul Berlin’s mind.  As a result, the reader is left with an empty, unsettling feeling.  So why has O’Brien done it this way?  Why couldn’t he let Paul Berlin and Sarkin Aung Wan, as well as the rest of the Third Squad, settle peacefully in Paris?

    Before collapsing the fantasy, O’Brien is very meticulous in setting up the atmosphere of ultimate happiness.  He builds a reality which the reader can easily associate with his own dreams of bliss, and that makes it all the more painful when it crashes.  In the words of John Updike, “the picaresque interludes... serve not only as relief from Vietnam but as a kind of excuse from it” (358), and Celia Betsky calls the book “a vision of peace, of transcendence” (358).  The epitome of a peaceful and happy ending, of course, is Sarkin Aung Wan.  Since the moment she enters the story line, the reader’s feelings for the whole mission change; catching Cacciato becomes secondary (and, later, hindering) to having her and Paul Berlin settle down together and be truly happy.  O’Brien draws on the reader’s desire for such an end, and he deploys powerful imagery to have us share Berlin’s feelings for Sarkin Aung Wan.  Sensuality seethes through her every description: “smooth skin, dignity, eyes that were shy and bold, coarse black hair... much too young” (O’Brien 55).  Paul Berlin’s feelings, though not stated directly, are shown avidly, since the point of view centers on him, and his desires become the reader’s:

True, it was no place for women.  True, it would be a dangerous journey, full of bad times and bad places, and, true, they could not be burdened by weakness or frailty... But Paul Berlin could not stop toying with the idea: a mix of new possibilities.  A whole new range of options.  He wanted Sarkin Aung Wan to join the expedition.  He wanted it badly, and he wanted it even more when, by the light of a midnight campfire, she showed him her many strengths.  “Do you see?” she whispered.  “Do you see that I am strong?”  And she was.  Fragile, delicate like a bird, but still strong.  She lifted the robe.  Her legs were brown and smooth and muscled.  The skin was tight without lines or wrinkles... The fire made silver in her eyes (O’Brien 60-61).

    Every character, from Berlin to Lieutenant Corson to every other man on the Squad, feels this transition from a military mission to the desire of a peaceful outcome.  After Tehran, they all want to get to Paris and settle down, to get away from the army and from the war; Cacciato is simply an official excuse at this point.  “We get to see what these men are like outside the drama of war,” maintains Elizabeth Pochoda, “and this allows us to answer the soldier’s perennial question about his actions:  put yourself in my place, what would you or anyone have done?” (Pochoda 357).  For instance, when things get rough for the Squad in Paris, Oscar commands that they trade Cacciato to the embassy in exchange for permission to quit the war:  “Oscar grinned.  ‘Like we go huntin’.  That’s what ... We put on our huntin’ threads an’ we do it right.  We catch the dude an’ we bring him in and we drop him on the bargaining table’” (O’Brien 313).  “Not only does ‘going after Cacciato’ mean escape, liberation,” asserts Celia Betsky, “it makes the men learn together, experience love and responsibility” (358).  The feelings of spiritual bliss as the dream of peace gets closer and closer to becoming a reality show up best in Paul Berlin’s perceptions as they approach Paris on the train:

He feels himself start to smile.

“Paris,” he murmurs.

The rain makes his eyes burn.  He blinks and forces his nose straight into the wind.  High spires sweep by.  There is a long shudder of thunder, deep thunder rolling from horizon to horizon.  The pealing of bells.  Behind him, he hears Sarkin Aung Wan squealing, Oscar and Eddie and Doc cheering.  But Paul Berlin wants this for himself.  He pushes his face deeper into the rain.  He spreads his hands out, wide open, watching them turn red and wet and raw.  Far off, buried in the thunderhead, he sees for an instant the twin towers of Notre-Dame.  He sees a gargoyle’s wild eyes.  The gargoyle is torn from its mount, wings flapping, and it flies—it does! ...The thunderhead scoops up whole pieces of Paris: a great stone bridge, a bus, a cabbage from a lady’s handbag, pennants and confetti.  Real?  He licks rain from his lips, he feels the wind, he gulps lungsful of rain and blinks and smiles, and it’s real.  Sure, it’s real! (O’Brien 293)

    Having the hindsight of how the book ends, one can see the irony in Berlin’s reassuring himself that the scene is real and not merely a figment of his imagination.  The phantasmagoric blending of scenes, of a gargoyle being torn off the tower and of the street details – a cabbage, a bus, a bridge – all this, while definitely unrealistic, doesn’t strike the reader as a clue to the fact that this is happening within Berlin’s fantasy.  Instead, it serves to reinforce the sought-for feeling of freedom, of finally escaping the actuality of war.  In fact, O’Brien’s high level of detail throughout the book keeps the reader reassured that everything must really be happening:  “It is [O’Brien’s] factuality that gives the book its eerieness” (Betsky 358).

    O’Brien skillfully walks the line between reality and fantasy throughout the book, “but the story remains clear” (Wilkie).  Without knowing the outcome, the reader doesn’t even begin to suspect that he’s submerged in a fantasy, and the clues that give it away blend negligibly into the narrative.  This is apparent in the hill scene, after which the book dives into Paul Berlin’s phantasm; anyone reading the book for the first time is guaranteed to continue reading as if nothing’s changed:

Waiting, trying to imagine a rightful but still happy ending, Paul Berlin found himself pretending, in a wishful sort of way, that before long the war would reach a climax beyond which everything else would seem bland and commonplace.  A point at which he could stop being afraid.  Where all the bad things, the painful and grotesque and ugly things, would give way to something better.  He pretended he had crossed that threshold.

He wasn’t dreaming, or imagining; just pretending.  Figuring how it would be, if it were (O’Brien 25).

    In hindsight, the reader sees more clearly the unrealistic “holes” in the narrative.  For a war, many things seem too easy: the Squad’s effortless passage through the jungle (when compared to Paul Berlin’s flashback descriptions of marches through Vietnam), their escape from the Tehran jail with Cacciato’s help, the threat of police at the Athens’ port that ended up being a false alarm, the earthquake that deposited them in the subterranean tunnels (“The road was gone and they were simply falling, all of them, Oscar and Eddie and Doc, the old lieutenant, the buffalo and cart and old women, everything, tumbling down a hole in the road to Paris”) (O’Brien 76).  Everett C. Wilkie stipulates: “All that is needed... to deal with numerous critical situations... is to ignore a few practical improbabilities, such as the ability to walk around Tehran armed to the teeth.”  Some critics find this to be the weak point: “[The Squad’s] adventures and idylls along the road as Berlin imagines them are often formulaic, designed by the novelist to illustrate this or that about men in war and out of it.  They are not particularly successful” (Pochoda 357).  Others still see the book as “a grittily beautiful picture of a war none of the participants seem to support or understand” (Betsky 358), and its “formulaic” nature only reaffirms the incapacity to comprehend the war.  In medias res, the unrealistic details simply contribute to the chaotic passage of war and things that, at times, are simply beyond understanding.  As Thomas Edwards puts it: “The novel asks us not to accept it but to understand it and find it moving” (Edwards 359).

    As for “the painful and grotesque and ugly things” (O’Brien 25), O’Brien makes sure to include more than enough to paint an accurate picture of what the war was like.  Throughout the book, war scenes are scattered regularly, describing both the chaos of combat and the living conditions in the interim: “Paul Berlin moved his tongue along his teeth, collecting spit, and when he spat it came out green.  Bits of algae swam in the bubbles.  His hands were caked with slime” (O’Brien 77-78).  Doris Grumbach states: “By using all the authentic and bloody detail that he knows so well from the war he survived, [O’Brien] has created a narrative that borders on myth and theology, psychology and epic, a picaresque parable of the imagination” (Grumbach 357).  From the very first page, the readers are pulled into the horror and foulness of war:

It was a bad time... Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose.  Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels.  Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead.  Buff was dead.  Ready Mix was dead... The rain fed fungus that grew in the men’s boots and socks, and their socks rotted, and their feet turned white and soft so that the skin could be scraped off with a fingernail, and Stink Harris woke up screaming one night with a leech on his tongue (O’Brien 1).

    Along with showing atrocities of the war, O’Brien portrays the pointlessness and cruelty of people who are drawn into it: “It made [Berlin] angry and sad when... women were frisked with free hands, when old men were made to drop their pants to be searched, when, in a ville called Thin Mau, Oscar and Rudy Chassler shot down ten dogs for the sport of it.  Sad and stupid.  Crazy” (O’Brien 265-6).

    Despite its share of gruesome, stomach-turning details, Going After Cacciato is not about the war, but about its effect on human character.  “[O’Brien’s] essential contrast is not between Vietnam and other wars but between war and peace,” stipulates Updike, proceeding to cite examples from the book: “‘War has its own reality.  War kills and maims and rips up the land and makes orphans and widows.  These are the things of war.  Any war.’  Whereas peace, Paul Berlin finds in Paris, is elusive in its reality.  ‘He looked for meanings. Peace was shy.  That was one lesson:  Peace never bragged.  If you didn’t look for it, it wasn’t there’” (Updike 358).  Throughout the novel, Sarkin Aung Wan asks Berlin a moral question: what will he do upon capturing Cacciato?  Will he return to his duty as a soldier and go back to Vietnam, or will he continue with her to live happily in Paris?  Close to the end of the book, just before Sarkin Aung Wan leaves Berlin alone in his fantasy, there is a fantasy-debate scene where she makes her final plea to him:

“We must be brave.  It is one thing to speculate about what might be.  It is quite another to act in behalf of our dreams, to treat them as objectives that are achievable and worth achieving.  It is one thing to run from unhappiness; it is another to take action to realize those qualities of dignity and well being that are the true standards of the human spirit.

“Spec Four Paul Berlin:  I am asking for a break from violence.  But I am also asking for a positive commitment.  You yearn for normality – an average house in an average town, a garden, perhaps a wife, the chance to grow old.  Realize these things.  Give up this fruitless pursuit of Cacciato.  Forget him.  Live now the dream you have dreamed.  See Paris and enjoy it.  Be happy.  It is possible.  It is within reach of a single decision... Even a refugee must do more than flee.  He must arrive... Having dreamed a marvelous dream, I urge you to step boldly into it, to join your own dream and to live it.  Do not be deceived by false obligation.  You are obliged, by all that is just and good, to pursue only the felicity that you yourself have imagined” (O’Brien 320-21).

In the last few lines, Sarkin Aung Wan is, in a way, telling Berlin that his entire trip to Paris was a dream, and urges him to make it come true, to forget Cacciato and war and his soldier’s duty.  Yet Berlin cannot.  In discussing this scene, Edwards writes: “It’s finally not a commitment to liberalism and its purposes… that thwarts Berlin’s dream of freedom, but a harder and more demanding idea, that of personal integrity... His conclusion is that obligation matters more that happiness."  In another remark, Edwards continues: “Berlin’s story can never quite accept personal freedom and peace as its proper ending... Berlin, who’s invented a Vietnamese girl to offer him love and security, finally rejects her pleas and opts for duty and self-respect” (359).  This is part of O’Brien’s ultimate plan, and even though he knows that the reader wants Berlin to heed Aung Wan’s advice, he uses disappointment to push through his final moral lesson of disillusionment.  “[O’Brien] seems no less committed than his protagonist [Berlin] to a moral evaluation of the world, or war, valor, peace, dedication, boredom.  The most important thing his men learn – and it is precisely what they, and others, were prevented from learning in Vietnam – is to tell good from evil” (Betsky 358).

    All the idealized illusions of escape from war, all promises of ultimate happiness – they were collapsed for a reason.  O’Brien built up the whole book and then had the dreams crash painfully to show and create the feeling that, in war, there can be no happy ending.  The more one tries to idealize and escape into a happy unreality, the harsher the blow is when he is jerked back into the real world.  To Paul Berlin, these happy fantasies mean more than the actual life (“pretending was his best trick to forget the war”) (O’Brien 10), but he has been so demoralized and desensitized by the war that he feels no remorse or pain at the end, even though he’d reached Paris in his dreams.  On the opposite, the reader’s ideological beliefs in the possibility of happiness serve to make the blow harsher.  O’Brien’s concluding message is that, in war, no matter how much one tries to idealize or justify its purpose or the means to win it, there simply cannot be a happy outcome.  War is hell.


Works Cited

Betsky, Celia.  “Books: ‘Going After Cacciato’.”  Rev. of Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.  Commonweal CV.18.  Sep. 15, 1978: 603-4.  Excerpted and reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism.  Vol. 19.  Ed. Sharon R. Gunton.  Detroit:  Gale, 1981.  358.

Edwards, Thomas R.  “Feeding on Fantasy.”  Rev. of Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.  The New York Review of Books XXVI.12.  Jul. 19, 1979: 41-2.  Excerpted and reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism.  Vol. 19.  Ed. Sharon R. Gunton.  Detroit:  Gale, 1981.  358-9.

Grumbach, Doris.  “Walking Away from Horror.”  Rev. of Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.  The Chronicle Review Feb. 13, 1978: 14.  Excerpted and reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism.  Vol. 19.  Ed. Sharon R. Gunton.  Detroit:  Gale, 1981.  357.

Marcus, James.  “A Hole Is to Dig.”  The Nation 241.14, Nov. 2, 1985: 452-3.  Discovering Authors.  Vers. 2.0.  CD-ROM.  Detroit:  Gale, 1996.

O’Brien, Tim.  Going After Cacciato.  New York:  Delacorte Press/Seymore Lawrence, 1978.

Pochoda, Elizabeth.  “Vietnam, We’ve All Been There.”  Rev. of Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.  The Nation 226.11.  Mar. 25, 1978:  344-6.  Excerpted and reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism.  Vol. 19.  Ed. Sharon R. Gunton.  Detroit:  Gale, 1981.  357.

Updike, John.  “Books: ‘Going After Cacciato’.”  Rev. of Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.  Commonweal LIV.6.  Mar. 27, 1978:  128-30, 133.  Excerpted and reprinted in Contemporary Literary Criticism.  Vol. 19.  Ed. Sharon R. Gunton.  Detroit:  Gale, 1981.  358.

Wilkie, Everett C., Jr.  “Tim O’Brien.”  Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook:  1980.  Ed. Karen L. Rood, Jean W. Ross, and Richard Zieggeld.  Detroit:  Gale, 1981.  286-90.  Discovering Authors.  Vers. 2.0.  CD-ROM.  Detroit:  Gale, 1996.