Toward the end of the novel, Paul Berlin, a young, inexperienced soldier in the Vietnam War, meets with his on-off girlfriend, a half-Vietnamese, half-Chinese woman named Sarkin Aung Wan, and has a long, formal argument with her. Sarkin and Berlin are living together in Paris, but Berlin has to make a choice between his duty to his military commanders and his desire to spend all of his time with Sarkin. Sarkin argues that Berlin should escape from his military obligations, since he’s suffered enough for them already. Berlin, much to Sarkin’s surprise, takes the opposite point of view. He argues that he should value his obligations to other people above than anything else—even his love for Sarkin.
It’s clear from early on in Going After Cacciato that the distinction between obligation and escape is one of the novel’s most important themes. And yet for most of the book, these two concepts don’t seem to be clearly distinguishable. A group of American soldiers, led by Lieutenant Corson, travels through Vietnam, then Laos, and then India and Afghanistan, all to hunt down a deserting soldier, Cacciato. While the soldiers have a clear duty to capture Cacciato—since he’s a soldier who’s breaking the law by going AWOL—it’s equally obvious that they themselves want to escape Vietnam and pursue Cacciato all the way to Paris, because they’d much rather be in the safe, beautiful city of Paris than the war-torn jungles of Vietnam. The soldiers are all traveling to Paris, but it’s not clear if they’re doing so because it’s their duty, because it’s their desire, or both. The only characters who are unambiguously traveling to Paris because of their own, selfish reasons are Cacciato himself and Sarkin.
Once the group of soldiers, along with Sarkin, arrive in Paris, it quickly becomes clear that obligation and escape (in other words, one’s loyalty to others versus one’s loyalty to oneself) can’t coexist for long. Berlin, egged on by Sarkin, wants to stay in Paris for the rest of his life, while his fellow soldiers urge him to leave Sarkin and focus on capturing Cacciato, so that they won’t be arrested under suspicion of desertion. In the end, Sarkin betrays Berlin by running off with Berlin’s commander, Lieutenant Corson. Berlin, by contrast, had refused to escape with Sarkin, because he valued his duty to his fellow troops more highly than his personal desires. Berlin argues that he couldn’t betray his fellow soldiers, because his loyalty to these soldiers was an important part of his personality: by escaping the army for good, he would be breaking his own personal identity. Although it’s highly critical of the American military, Going After Cacciato raises the point that obligation has great value, regardless of the moral worth of the thing to which one is obligated. Berlin has every reason to stay in Paris—it’s the safest choice, the most pleasurable choice, and even the most moral choice. And yet staying in Paris conflicts with his obligations to his peers—so he chooses not to stay.
In the end, O’Brien brings us to a frustrating “lose-lose” conclusion. Berlin chooses to remain loyal to his fellow soldiers, only to find that they despise him and regard him as a weakling. Berlin has no winning move: either he stays with his peers and remains miserable, or he runs off with Sarkin and confirms that he’s a selfish traitor. All people have to deal with the conflict between their own desires and their duties to other people, but only a few people have to deal with this conflict in such black-and-white terms. The only thing that can relieve the tension between obligation and escape is the story of Cacciato itself: when the soldiers go after Cacciato, their sense of duty and their desire for happiness become one and the same—if only for a time.
Obligation vs. Escape ThemeTracker
Obligation vs. Escape Quotes in Going After Cacciato
Paul Berlin watched through the glasses as Cacciato's mouth opened and closed and opened, but there was only more thunder. And the arms kept flapping, faster now and less deliberate, wide-spanning winging motions—flying, Paul Berlin suddenly realized. Awkward, unpracticed, but still
He would go to Europe. That's what he would do. Spend some time in Fort Dodge then take off for a tour of Europe. He would learn French. Learn French, then take off for Paris, and when he got there he would drink red wine in Cacciato's honor.
"Crazy," Oscar said. He kept wagging his head. "Over an' out."
It made Paul Berlin feel good. Like buddies. Genuine war buddies, he felt close to all of them. When they laughed, he laughed.
"Yes," the captain said, "running is also what the soldier thinks of, yes? He thinks of it often. He imagines himself running from battle. Dropping his weapon and turning and running and running and running, and never looking back, just running and running. Soldiers think of this. I know it. Yes? It is the soldier's thought above other thoughts."
The man touched his moustache and smiled. "And purpose is what keeps him from running. Without purpose men will run. They will act out their dreams, and they will run and run, like animals in stampede. It is purpose that keeps men at their posts to fight. Only purpose."
There was great quiet. A very noisy quiet, Paul Berlin thought. He felt Oscar staring at him from across the room—a long, hard stare—as if to accuse. As if to say, Your fuckin dream, man. Now do something.
After a moment Doc Peret sighed. "Well," he said, "I guess it's time for some diplomatic pressure. By Uncle Sam, I mean. Time for Sammy to step in on our behalf."
The captain shook his head. "Sadly," he said, "that will not be possible. Certainly not productive. As I say, your government does not know you. Or chooses not to. In either case, I fear the outcome is the same."
Oscar lifted the grenade from his belt. It was the new kind, shaped like a baseball, seamless, easy to handle and easy to throw. He held it as if judging its weight. "See my point? It's preservation. That's all it is—it's selffuckin-preservation."
Like a daughter caring for an ailing father, she encouraged him to eat and exercise, coddled him, scolded him, gently coaxed him into showing some concern for his own welfare and that of his men. The lieutenant seemed deeply attached to her. It was an unspoken thing. They would sometimes spend whole days together, walking the decks or throwing darts or simply sitting in the sun.
When the lieutenant showed signs of the old withdrawal, Sarkin Aung Wan would remind him of his responsibilities. "A leader must lead," she would say. "Without leadership, a leader is nothing."
They knew the old myths about Quang Ngai—tales passed down from old-timer to newcomer—but they did not know which stories to believe. Magic, mystery, ghosts and incense, whispers in the dark, strange tongues and strange smells, uncertainties never articulated in war stories, emotion squandered on ignorance. They did not know good from evil.
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."
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.”