Going After Cacciato

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Themes and Colors
Fantasy, Magical Realism, and Storytelling Theme Icon
Vietnam and the Chaos of War Theme Icon
Obligation vs. Escape Theme Icon
Discontinuity and Trauma Theme Icon
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Going After Cacciato, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Discontinuity and Trauma Theme Icon

Going After Cacciato’s plot and style are occasionally fantastic and far-fetched, but what’s arguably more jarring about the novel is what O’Brien leaves out of the story. At least half a dozen times, O’Brien ends a chapter on a “cliffhanger”—a suspenseful, seemingly unresolvable climax—and then, in the next chapter, flashes forward to a time when the cliffhanger has been inexplicably resolved. Thus, it’s not described how the soldiers find their way out of the tunnel in Laos, or how they lose Cacciato in the hills of Vietnam. Many of the other “important” parts of Going After Cacciato are also deliberately omitted, such as the soldiers’ murder of their commander, Lieutenant Sidney Martin. It’s as if O’Brien is leaving out the parts of his novel that he knows we want to read most.

One major reason why O’Brien structures his novel in this unorthodox way is that he wants the structure of his book to mirror the feverish imagination of his protagonist, Paul Berlin. It’s never entirely clear if the events of the book are happening in the real world, or if they’re playing out, at least partly, in Berlin’s imagination as he stands at an observation post overlooking the sea. O’Brien reinforces this sense of disorientation by leaving out the resolutions to his cliffhangers: he implies that Berlin, the “author” of his own story, is making things up as he goes along, brushing over the snags and contradictions in the plot.

And yet there’s also a deeper, and arguably more important reason why O’Brien emphasizes the discontinuities in his novel: the influence of war. The Vietnam War was the first American war during which medical researchers uncovered evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in veterans. Even now, there are tens of thousands of American soldiers who suffer from the trauma of the events they witnessed during the war. One way that the human mind reacts to trauma is to repress the original experience. There are even cases in which victims of war or violence forget what they saw, and replace their memories with new, milder experiences. When read in this way, the discontinuities in Going After Cacciato function as a kind of psychological defense mechanism. Thus, Berlin and his fellow soldiers “forget” that they murdered Sidney Martin in much the same way that the text of the novel skips over this important event in the plot.

The problem with this form of repression is that it’s always impermanent. It’s impossible to truly and completely forget a traumatic experience—one can repress it for a time, but the memory will resurface with a vengeance later on. And even when the memory is supposedly suppressed, it remains a sinister presence in one’s mind, causing other psychological problems. This is apparent in the case of Sidney Martin’s death. It’s clear that Berlin and the other soldiers are responsible for Martin’s murder, but ironically, the fact that O’Brien offers no literal description of Martin’s death makes the event even more sinister in our imaginations.

For the most part, O’Brien doesn’t “fill in” the gaps in his novel with untruths—the gaps remain empty (perhaps so we notice them better). This is the case in the final two chapters of the novel, during which it’s revealed that Berlin may or may not be responsible for murdering Cacciato, his former friend. It’s left up to the reader to decide what happens, meaning that Berlin’s ultimate guilt in the mission is left agonizingly unclear, as is the question of whether Berlin is actually making up the entire story of Going After Cacciato to alleviate this guilt. Perhaps O’Brien (himself a soldier in Vietnam) leaves so much in his novel unresolved because he simply isn’t ready to talk about what he experienced as a soldier. In later works like The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien deals with the theme of trauma while discussing the violence and chaos of Vietnam much more overtly. For the time being, however, the gaping discontinuities in his novel stand in for all the terror he and his fellow soldiers experienced.

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Discontinuity and Trauma Quotes in Going After Cacciato

Below you will find the important quotes in Going After Cacciato related to the theme of Discontinuity and Trauma.
Chapter 10 Quotes

Then they were falling. Paul Berlin felt it in his stomach. A tumbling sensation. There was time to snatch for Sarkin Aung Wan's hand, squeeze tight, and then they were falling. The road was gone and they were simply falling, all of them, Oscar and Eddie and Doc, the old lieutenant, the buffalo and the cart and the old women, everything, tumbling down a hole in the road to Paris.

Related Characters: Paul Berlin , Lieutenant Corson , Sarkin Aung Wan , Oscar Johnson , Eddie Lazzutti
Related Symbols: Paris, Tunnels
Page Number: 76
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul Berlin and his fellow soldiers have stumbled upon a secret Vietcong lair, which may or may not be booby-trapped. Berlin and his fellow soldiers fall underneath the ground, though O'Brien never describes exactly how. It's left up to us to decide whether the episode is real or imagined: certainly, American soldiers encountered more surreal spectacles during their service in the war (and the Vietcong did have a complex system of tunnels during the war), and yet O'Brien depicts the soldiers' fall underground in fantastical terms that echo Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, making us wonder if the entire scene is a dream or hallucination of some kind.

The soldiers' fall is deliberately paralleled with Cacciato's flight: Cacciato is slowly freeing himself from his duty to the military, while his fellow soldiers find themselves mired in the horrors of war. Once again, the soldiers associate Paris with peace, escape, and tranquility--and the hole into which they have fallen delays their journey to Paris. (Of course, it's worth noting that the peace and prosperity of Paris comes in part from the exploitation of poorer countries and its former colonies like Vietnam--surely a deliberate choice of symbol on O'Brien's part.)


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Chapter 11 Quotes

They spent the night along the Song Tra Bong. They bathed in the river and made camp and ate supper. When it was night they began talking about Jim Pederson. It was always better to talk about it.

Related Characters: Jim Pederson
Page Number: 79
Explanation and Analysis:

As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that Berlin and his fellow soldiers are hiding something. Having fought in one of the bloodiest wars in American history, they've seen tremendous death and destruction; they've also committed acts of violence against innocent civilians, as well as against their own peers. In other words, every soldier in the army is living in a state of constant guilt and fear.

O'Brien, who served in Vietnam himself, is very perceptive about how soldiers deal with their pain. The best therapy is talking: by keeping their feelings bottled up, the soldiers run the risk of cracking under the pressure of keeping their own tragic secrets. Through conversation and gallows humor, the soldiers find an outlet for their feelings, which allows them to regain a sense of solidarity and community, and remember that they're not the only ones feeling guilty and anxious.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Sarkin Aung Wan uncurled her legs and stood up.
"There is a way," she said.
The lieutenant kept studying his hands. The fingers trembled.
"The way in is the way out."
Li Van Hgoc laughed but the girl ignored it.
"The way in," she repeated, "is the way out. To flee Xa one must join it. To go home one must become a refugee."
"Riddles!" Li Van Hgoc spat. "Insane!"
Sarkin Aung Wan took Paul Berlin's hand. "Do you see?" she said. "You do need me."

Related Characters: Sarkin Aung Wan (speaker), Li Van Hgoc / Van (speaker), Paul Berlin , Lieutenant Corson
Related Symbols: Tunnels
Page Number: 97
Explanation and Analysis:

Sarkin, who is still trapped underground with Paul Berlin and the other soldiers, offers some ambiguous wisdom in this passage: "the way in is the way out." Sarkin thinks that she has a way of escaping the tunnels--even though Hgoc, who's been around for far longer, denies any possibility of escape.

It's hard to take Sarkin's words literally (by this point in the novel, we're so confused about the tunnels that we don't know what to believe). But on a symbolic level, Sarkin's pronouncement has a lot to say about the soldiers' state of mind. Traumatized by war, Berlin and his friends are trying to return "home"--both in the sense that they're trying to make it back to the U.S. in one piece, and in the sense that they're trying to preserve their sanity. Just as Sarkin implies, in order to savor one's home, one must first become an outsider. We see this through Paul Berlin's behavior: not too long ago, he was a frustrated young man, eager to leave his home and fight in the army--now, however, he's desperate to return to the homeland and state of innocence he left behind. In short, Sarkin's ideas reflect the soldiers' broken-down, yet strangely optimistic, worldview.

Chapter 16 Quotes

Then they were out of the water, regrouping, moving up the clay path into Trinh Son 2. Paul Berlin's head roared with quiet. Splitting—but he moved into the dark village. When Rudy Chassler hit the mine, the noise was muffled, almost fragile, but it was a relief for all of them.

Related Characters: Paul Berlin , Rudy Chassler
Page Number: 110
Explanation and Analysis:

Early in their time in Vietnam, Paul and the other soldiers are bored and restless. Secretly, they want something to happen. One day, the soldier Rudy Chassler steps on a land mine, killing himself--and the other soldiers are secretly relieved. In some way, the tension of waiting and being afraid is worse than actual violence and danger.

Disturbing as the passage is, it points to the anxieties of being a soldier in the Vietnam War. Many of the men and women who saw active duty in the conflict suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition which left them unable to cope with normal life after the war. Some of the soldiers who suffered from PTSD reported wanting to return to war, since Vietnam represented the last time when they felt they had some control over their lives. Berlin and his fellow soldiers define themselves in terms of war--an event like Rudy Chassler's death, as tragic as it might be, marks their only way of finding a kind of meaning and "resolution."

Chapter 29 Quotes

"There it is. The old man's suffering from an advanced case. Nostalgia, it comes from the Greek. I researched it: straight from the Greek. Algos means pain. Nostos means to return home. Nostalgia: the pain of returning home. And the ache that comes from thinking about it. See my drift? The old man's basic disease is homesickness. Nostalgia for the goddamned war, the army, the lifer's life. And the dysentery, the fever, it's just a symptom of the real sickness."
"So what do we do?"
"Time," Doc said. He put his glasses on. "It's the only antidote for nostalgia. Just give the man time."

Related Characters: Paul Berlin (speaker), Doc Peret (speaker), Lieutenant Corson
Page Number: 183-184
Explanation and Analysis:

The soldiers arrive in the city of Tehran, but their supposed leader, Lieutenant Corson, is almost incapable of leading anyone: he's an older, weak man, and he's pining for a woman named Jolly, whom he met in India. Doc make a slightly different, and rather contradictory claim: that Corson is suffering from nostalgia, the fear of leaving the army behind altogether and the fear of returning home. So it's not clear what Corson's problem really is: if he's sad about leaving something behind, or if he's afraid of returning, or both.

The passage represents one of the closest links between O'Brien's novel and Homer's Odyssey, the Greek epic poem that's often cited as a major influence on this novel. O'Brien writes about a group of old veterans trying to reach home once again; in the same way, Homer wrote about Odysseus and his group of veterans trying to return to their island of Ithaca. Doc's explanation that Corson needs "time" might also suggest that there's no true cure for a soldier's PTSD--Doc can only hope that the soldiers learn to readjust to civilian life.

Chapter 40 Quotes

Shrugging, glancing again into the mirror, the girl opened the door and stepped out. She watched while Oscar dumped out her suitcase and sleeping bag. She never stopped smiling.
Eddie drove, Oscar rode shotgun.
"You know," Doc said wistfully, "sometimes I do feel a little guilt."

Related Characters: Doc Peret (speaker), Oscar Johnson , Eddie Lazzutti
Page Number: 276
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, a young "hippie" woman helps the soldiers travel across the country into Paris. In spite of the woman's kindness, the troops treat her cruelly, taking her car and throwing her things on the ground without any care. Strangely, the woman continues to smile. Perhaps O'Brien intends this character to represent the innocence and foolishness of the youth movement's response to Vietnam. In the 60s and 70s, there were millions of young men and women who opposed the war in Vietnam. Often, these people treated American soldiers as mere pawns (just like the government they were opposing did)--they were more interested in arguing against the sociopolitical reasons for the war itself than they were in empathizing with individual soldiers. By the same token, the woman who drives the troops seems to respect the "idea" of fighting in the war, but also seems to make no effort to understand Paul and his friends individually.

Doc's claim that he feels guilty is meant be taken ironically--he seems to be referring to the young woman whose car he's just taken, when in fact he should be feeling guilty about the crimes he's committed in Vietnam--a morally complex issue that the young woman herself clearly doesn't understand.

Chapter 46 Quotes

"I guess it's better this way," the old man finally said. "There's worse things can happen. There's plenty of worse things."
"True enough, sir."
"And who knows? He might make it. He might do all right." The lieutenant's voice was flat like the land. "Miserable odds, but—"
"But maybe."
"Yes," the lieutenant said. "Maybe so."

Related Characters: Paul Berlin (speaker), Lieutenant Corson (speaker), Cacciato
Related Symbols: Paris
Page Number: 336
Explanation and Analysis:

In this final scene, a flashback to the beginning of the novel, Paul and Lieutenant Corson (who will eventually become rivals for Sarkin's love), discuss the possibility that Cacciato--who's just run away from the army--will succeed in reaching Paris. Strangely, both men agree that Cacciato very well might succeed in his quest, unlikely as it seems.

In a way, Cacciato's disappearance is meant to symbolize the soldiers' desire to survive the war in Vietnam--if Cacciato can make it all the way to Paris unharmed, then perhaps Paul, Corson, and the others can make it back to the U.S. sane and in one piece, too. The scene also reminds us that the novel we've just read might be the product of Paul's imagination--perhaps Cacciato is killed early on in his journey, but Paul continues imagining that Cacciato makes it away from the war and completes his unlikely odyssey to Paris. In the end, O'Brien leaves us with a cautious optimism--perhaps it's possible for the soldiers of this bloody, brutal war to survive while also maintaining their sanity--and perhaps it's hope, imagination, and fantasy that helps them do so.