Going After Cacciato

Going After Cacciato

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Going After Cacciato Chapter 31 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The chapter concerns Paul Berlin’s early experiences in the army. He and the other soldiers of his platoon are marching single file through the jungle and mountains, occasionally seeing a rice paddy. Berlin dreams of the day that the soldiers will reach the sea—then, he thinks, there will be no more marching. In the meantime, the soldiers entertain themselves by singing and telling jokes.
The two main storylines—the story of Berlin’s pursuit of Cacciato, and the “frame story” in which Berlin sits near the beach—are beginning to come together. It seems that Berlin and his fellow soldiers are sent to a fort near the sea in Vietnam after they finish going after Cacciato.
Themes
Obligation vs. Escape Theme Icon
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon
Berlin thinks about the death of Billy Boy Watkins, which has happened only a few days ago. Doc Peret—who isn’t Berlin’s friend yet—confirms that Billy Boy died of a heart attack. Berlin, who seems terrified of Billy Boy’s death, imagines explaining the incident to his father, and shrugging as if to say, “not so bad.”
One reason why Billy Boy’s death is so terrifying for Doc, and later for Berlin, is that it’s completely unpredictable. Moreover, it’s “self-imposed”: it’s Billy Boy’s own fear that kills him, rather than anything tangible like a bomb or bullet. This reinforces one of O’Brien’s key points: often the soldier’s greatest enemy is himself.
Themes
Obligation vs. Escape Theme Icon
Discontinuity and Trauma Theme Icon
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon
Paul Berlin tries to concentrate on forgetting the details of Billy Boy’s death, but the harder he tries, the more difficult it becomes. He tells himself “not to take it personally.” As he marches through the forest, Berlin strikes up a conversation with Cacciato, who is chewing his favorite gum. Cacciato has been a soldier for longer than Berlin, and he tells Berlin that he’ll soon adjust to life in the war. As Cacciato and Berlin talk, Berlin imagines a telegraph telling Billy Boy’s father that his son has been “Scared to death.” Berlin finds that he can’t stop laughing and giggling.
It’s still not clear what Cacciato’s mental state is. He’s called a simpleton many times, but seems more or less mentally stable in this section. The difficulty of pinning down Cacciato’s personality points to a general quality of the text: because the novel is written from Berlin’s point of view, it’s often hard to understand what the other characters are thinking, and even to trust the reliability of the events being narrated
Themes
Discontinuity and Trauma Theme Icon
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon
Berlin continues laughing, and as he laughs, he remembers the day that Billy Boy died. The men were sitting around, drinking soda and fooling around with their guns, shooting at the cans of soda. Suddenly, Billy walked away from the soldiers, and accidentally triggered a land mine. Amazingly, the mine didn’t kill Billy—indeed, it left him virtually unharmed. The mine ripped off his foot, but didn’t seem to hurt him at all—at least not at first. Berlin remembers Doc Peret telling Billy, “War’s over. That’s a million-dollar wound.”
For the second time in the novel, a land mine fails to kill the person who sets it off. We can almost sense that this incident gave Berlin the idea for the smoke bomb that spares his fellow troops’ lives in the first chapter of the book. Doc Peret, upbeat as always, sees the bright sight in what is, admittedly, a gruesome injury.
Themes
Discontinuity and Trauma Theme Icon
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon
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Berlin continues to remember Billy Boy’s death. After losing his foot, Billy Boy felt a sudden rush of pain. Billy Boy gritted his teeth and rocked his head back and forth, seemingly unable to speak. Suddenly, his body went slack. Doc Peret touched Billy Boy’s chest, and checked for a pulse. He reported, with great surprise, that Billy Boy was dead—apparently of a sudden heart attack. Doc claims that he’s seen people “scared to death” before. The other soldiers nod and wrap Billy Boy up in a body bag. They radio for a helicopter, and before the long, the helicopter arrives to carry Billy Boy’s body away.
Billy Boy’s death is so terrifying because it’s so normal: it could happen to any one of the soldiers in squad three. It’s impossible not to be afraid as a soldier in Vietnam, and only Cacciato seems endowed with a mystical sense of calmness. In other words, every soldier in the novel is in danger of coming to the same sudden end as Billy Boy. This, ultimately, is what makes the story so disturbing for Berlin.
Themes
Obligation vs. Escape Theme Icon
Discontinuity and Trauma Theme Icon
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon
As the incident of Billy Boy’s death ends, the soldiers resume their business. Eddie sings humorous songs about Billy Boy, and Cacciato offers Berlin a stick of his prized Black Jack gum. He tells Berlin, “You’ll do fine. You will. You got a terrific sense of humor.”
Humor, many of the characters argue, is the only way to deal with the horrors of Vietnam. But we recognize that this isn’t the whole story—there are some horrors that are simply too big to be spoken of at all.
Themes
Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Discontinuity and Trauma Theme Icon
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon