Going After Cacciato cuts back and forth between several different time periods, all of which are seen from the perspective of a young, inexperienced soldier named Paul Berlin.
As the novel begins, Berlin and his fellow soldiers are in the midst of a brutal war in Vietnam. Berlin’s commanding officers are Lieutenant Corson, an old, sickly, and sometimes seemingly senile man, and Oscar Johnson, a young, angry officer. One day in October 1968, the troops discover that Cacciato, a cheerful, simple-minded (and possible mentally challenged) soldier, has gone missing, having first told Berlin that he’s planning on walking to Paris. The soldiers decide to chase after Cacciato before he gets too far away. Many of the soldiers, such as Harry Murphy, who wields the squad’s “big rifle,” and the army doctor, Doc Peret, suggest to Corson that they turn back, rather than risk their lives for the sake of one deserter. Corson insists that they proceed. The soldiers track Cacciato to a hill, but are unable to arrest him before a smoke bomb goes off. That night, the soldiers try to arrest Cacciato while he’s asleep on a hill. The chapter ends before we can see what happens, and when the plot resumes, two days have passed: the soldiers are still chasing Cacciato through the jungle.
The novel contains many chapters set at a mysterious “Observation Post” overlooking the seas of Vietnam, some time after the soldiers have returned from pursuing Cacciato. Berlin, who is keeping night watch, remembers Cacciato’s mad attempt to walk to Paris, and thinks about how Cacciato managed to escape capture for so long. He concludes that “it was possible” to go from Vietnam to Paris—unlikely, but possible. Berlin also thinks about his conflicted relationship with his mother and father as he sits at the observation post. He remembers struggling—usually without success—to win his father’s love. He also vividly remembers placing a call to his parents from Vietnam, and being heartbroken when neither of them picked up the phone.
Berlin also thinks back on his earliest days in the military, in June 1968. He was assigned to the 198th Infantry Brigade (in real life, the brigade that witnessed, and in some cases participated in, the My Lai Massacre, and the brigade in which O’Brien served). His commander, Lieutenant Sidney Martin, was an arrogant, proud man who quickly alienated his troops. When the troops encountered a secret Vietcong tunnel, Martin insisted that his soldiers “clear” the tunnel before they threw grenades into it. Clearing tunnels was a dangerous job, and many of Berlin’s friends died in the process. The soldiers came to despise Martin for insisting on the same procedure at all times.
In late October 1968, Berlin and the other soldiers are still pursuing Cacciato. Harold Murphy has abandoned the others, leaving his big rifle behind—he refuses to endanger his life by going after Cacciato. One day, the remaining soldiers come across a young woman and her two aunts. The young woman, Sarkin Aung Wan, explains that they are trying to flee the country and find safety in the “Far West.” Berlin notices that Sarkin is very beautiful. Corson allows the three women to join the soldiers while they pursue Cacciato, though he cautions that they’ll have to go a separate way as soon as they find a convenient town.
The narrator reports that one of Berlin’s fellow soldiers, Stink Harris, nearly catches Cacciato, but is slightly wounded by Cacciato, and has to let him go free. The soldiers, still accompanied by Sarkin and her aunts, chase after Cacciato through Laos. There, the group falls “through a hole,” and ends up in a mysterious underground network of tunnels. (Sarkin’s aunts seem not to have survived the fall through the hole, though this is never explicitly stated.) The soldiers crawl through the tunnels, eventually coming across a man who introduces himself as Li Van Hgoc, or Van. Van explains that he’s a Vietcong soldier who’s been punished for trying to desert the army by being confined to the Vietcong’s enormous network of tunnels. Van refuses to let the soldiers leave, pointing out that they’re on different sides in the war. Corson orders the troops to tie up Van and destroy everything in his room. The soldiers leave Van and try to navigate their way out of the tunnels, with little success. Suddenly, Sarkin tells the soldiers, “the way in is the way out.” With this, she pulls the soldiers toward her, and they “fall out” of the tunnels, emerging in the city of Mandalay.
In Mandalay, the soldiers reside in a hotel, and spend their days trying to track Cacciato through the city. Berlin and Sarkin develop feelings for each other. Sarkin tells Berlin that they must try to reach Paris, and then live there for the rest of their lives. One day, Berlin sees Cacciato dressed as a priest. Berlin tries to arrest Cacciato, but a group of Cacciato’s new friends—also wearing priestly robes—overpower him, and Cacciato succeeds in eluding the soldiers yet again. Sarkin tells Berlin that she saw Cacciato running to the next train to Delhi—thus, the troops bring Sarkin along as they chase Cacciato to Delhi.
In Delhi, the soldiers stay at the Hotel Phoenix, and spend their days trying to find Cacciato. Lieutenant Corson befriends a young, beautiful hotel worker named Hamijolli Chand, or Jolly for short. Jolly treats the soldiers and Sarkin to a delicious meal, and explains that she studied in Baltimore for two years. Corson seems to be falling in love with Jolly. A few days later, Doc Peret discovers a photograph in the newspaper, showing Cacciato boarding a train to Kabul, Afghanistan. Although the troops need to ship out to Kabul, Corson refuses to join them—he’s decided to stay behind with Jolly. The soldiers seem to accept Corson’s decision, but later in the evening, when Corson is very drunk, they carry him to the train. When Corson wakes up, he finds himself traveling away from Delhi. He’s very sad, but accepts that he’ll have to move on.
In flashbacks, the narrator reveals how Lieutenant Corson came to be the commander of his soldiers. Lieutenant Sidney Martin was a talented commander, but he endangered his soldiers’ lives. As a result of Martin’s insistence on following rules, several soldiers, including Bernie Lynn and Frenchie Tucker, were murdered by Vietcong soldiers stationed in the tunnels. One day, Oscar Johnson proposed to the other soldiers that they get rid of Sidney Martin, rather than wait to be shot by Vietcong. Johnson passes a grenade around to his fellow soldiers—each of them touches the grenade, signaling support for Johnson’s plan. The only soldier not present to touch the grenade is Cacciato. Johnson sends Berlin to get Cacciato’s support. Cacciato, whom everyone regards as a simpleton, touches the grenade when Berlin offers it to him, but it’s never made clear that Cacciato understands what he’s voting for. Shortly afterwards, Lieutenant Martin dies—presumably because Johnson murders him—and Lieutenant Corson is brought in as his replacement.
Back in the present, the soldiers and Sarkin travel through Kabul, and then on to Tehran. It is Christmas, 1968, and the soldiers celebrate by drinking alcohol and playing cards. In Tehran, the soldiers are arrested for traveling without the proper identification. They’re taken to a jail, where they meet Captain Rhallon, a young, intelligent Iranian officer. Rhallon asks the soldiers about their mission in Iran, and Doc—thinking on his feet—explains that they are pursuing Cacciato to Paris, in accordance with the supposed “Geneva Codes.” Rhallon accepts this lie, and accepts that American soldiers have the right to travel through other countries without passports. He even takes the soldiers out for a night of drinking.
Several weeks after their first encounter with Rhallon, the soldiers are arrested again. This time, Rhallon explains that the soldiers are in serious trouble, since they have no proof of their mission to track down Cacciato, and the American Embassy in Iran has no information on American troops from Vietnam traveling through the Middle East. The troops, along with Sarkin, are sent to jail and told that they’ll be beheaded at dawn. Berlin has a feverish dream. When he wakes up, he sees the soldiers blowing up the door of their jail cell with grenades. They rush out of the jail, find a car, and drive away from the prison, out of the country.
The soldiers drive from Tehran to Izmir, where they arrange a boat’s passage to Athens. The boat ride is uneventful, except that on the final day of travel, the soldiers are horrified to see armed police officers waiting for them at the dock, seemingly ready to make arrests. Stink Harris is so terrified that he jumps off the boat rather than be captured. Amazingly, the other soldiers land and manage to make their ways past the other soldiers without being detected.
The soldiers search Athens, but find little evidence of Cacciato. They hitch a ride through Yugoslavia with a girl from California. From Yugoslavia, the soldiers drive through Luxembourg, and then take the train to Paris. In Paris, the soldiers find a beautiful city—every bit as idyllic as the one they’d imagined. Berlin and Sarkin are especially wowed by the city’s beauty. Although the soldiers go through the motions of looking for Cacciato, they’re mostly happy to be living in Paris. They rent rooms in a hotel, and money—the narrator claims—“isn’t a problem.” Berlin and Sarkin become so taken with Paris that they plan to buy an apartment in the city and forget about the military altogether. Berlin tells Corson his plans to leave the army for good, and to his surprise, Corson accepts Berlin’s decision. The soldiers have already abandoned the military, Corson argues—they were only pretending to follow a “mission” by going to Paris.
When Berlin returns to his hotel to collect the last of his belongings and move into an apartment with Sarkin, he see his fellow troops, including Corson, assembled outside. Doc informs Berlin that police officers have caught up to them once again—their only chance of saving themselves from imprisonment is to produce Cacciato’s body (dead, it’s strongly implied), thereby proving that their mission was a legitimate one.
In the coming days, Berlin and the others spend long hours hunting down Cacciato. One day, Berlin finds Cacciato at an outdoor market. He tracks Cacciato back to a hotel and records the room number and hotel address. Berlin then rushes back to the other soldiers to tell them, but is amazed to learn that Corson and Sarkin have run off together. Oscar Johnson becomes the soldiers’ new commanding officer, and he orders them to ambush Cacciato in the middle of the night.
That night, the soldiers, minus Lieutenant Corson, rush to Cacciato’s hotel. Oscar Johnson angrily orders Berlin to carry the big rifle into the hotel and use it to “take care” of Cacciato once and for all. Berlin, nearly paralyzed with fear, walks into the hotel, followed by the other soldiers. He walks up the stairs to Cacciato’s room, and is surprised to find the door open. Inside, he collapses on the floor, but not before he fires several rounds into the darkness.
In the final pages of the novel, the narrator returns to the day in October 1968 when Berlin and the other soldiers were supposed to arrest Cacciato at the hill in Vietnam. Although the narrator doesn’t describe exactly what happened when Berlin tried to arrest Cacciato, it’s suggested that Berlin wound up accidentally shooting and killing Cacciato. Corson, sympathetic to Berlin’s mistake, reports that Cacciato is missing in action. Afterwards, Berlin and Doc discuss the possibility that they’ll be transferred to an observation post overlooking the sea—a safe, secure area. It’s suggested that at the observation post, Berlin has been fantasizing about an “alternate timeline” in which Cacciato flees all the way to Paris—that is, the previous events of the novel. Berlin and Lieutenant Corson discuss the possibility that Cacciato might have succeeded in traveling from Vietnam to Paris. Corson agrees with Berlin: the chances of Cacciato succeeding were slim, but it was certainly possible.