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.
Obligation vs. Escape Theme Icon

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.

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Obligation vs. Escape Quotes in Going After Cacciato

Below you will find the important quotes in Going After Cacciato related to the theme of Obligation vs. Escape.
Chapter 1 Quotes

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


Related Characters: Paul Berlin , Cacciato
Page Number: 12
Explanation and Analysis:
O’Brien here sets the surreal, rather confusing tone of his novel. Paul Berlin, a young soldier fighting in the Vietnam War, has been tasked with following Cacciato, a mysterious soldier who’s apparently deserting the army. As Paul tries to track down his former peer, he finds Cacciato moving through the plains of Vietnam, apparently flying. O’Brien never entirely explains whether this scene is real or imagined. Berlin is portrayed as an unreliable narrator with an active fantasy life, but it’s also possible that the novel itself—not Berlin—is meant to be fantastic and unrealistic. O’Brien chooses to write his novel in such a way—blurring the line between fantasy and reality—because he feels that such a book is the only honest way to deliver an account of the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, many American soldiers like Paul Berlin confronted unspeakable horrors and sustained deep psychological wounds, eventually, they could no longer distinguish between nightmare and the real world. The sight of Cacciato stretching his “wings” and trying to fly conveys the soldiers’ frantic desire for freedom and escape in a way that a totally realistic novel could never manage.

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Chapter 5 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Paul Berlin , Cacciato
Related Symbols: Paris
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Paul Berlin, stationed on a beach, imagines escaping from his duty in Vietnam and traveling to Europe, where he dreams of leading a leisurely, sensual life of wine and women. O’Brien keeps returning to the image of Berlin sitting on the beach, and at first, it’s unclear when, exactly, Berlin is sitting there. But as the novel goes on, it becomes clearer that Berlin is remembering—and at times, fantasizing—about a search for Cacciato in which he participated recently.

Perhaps the key phrase in this section is “in Cacciato’s honor.” For Berlin, Cacciato (and Paris, the city with which he's associated) is a symbol of escape from the terrors of Vietnam: although Berlin and his fellow soldiers have been tasked with capturing Cacciato, they secretly regard him as something of a hero for finding a way out of the nightmarish world in which they’re trapped.

Chapter 24 Quotes

"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.

Related Characters: Oscar Johnson (speaker), Paul Berlin
Page Number: 157
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, O'Brien shows how a young, inexperienced soldier bonds with his fellow troops. Paul Berlin and Oscar (a fellow soldier) have gone to take phone calls from their families back in the U.S. Berlin waits for Oscar, and when Oscar comes out of the phone room, he's looking very serious. Berlin then feels strangely close to Oscar--tragedy brings them together in sympathy and mutual respect.

O'Brien suggests that tragedy and trauma bring soldiers together, more than anything else. Paul and his fellow troops witness unspeakable tragedies. They're bound together for life by their experiences--they have nobody else to talk to about the things they've seen and done. Berlin has yet to fight in battle at this point, but he's already learning about how military bonding works--sadness is the "glue" that holds everyone together.

Chapter 29 Quotes

"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."

Related Characters: Doc Peret (speaker), Captain Fahyi Rhallon (speaker)
Page Number: 199
Explanation and Analysis:

The soldiers, still in Tehran, cross paths with a suspicious young Iranian military officer, Captan Fahyi Rhallon. The Captain asks the soldiers how it's possible for them to be traveling through Tehran without passports. Doc claims that he and his friends are allowed to travel to track down Cacciato, due to some obscure stipulations of the Geneva Codes. It's not entirely clear if Rhallon buys Doc's explanation or not--i.e., if he's being serious or if he's toying with the troops.

Whether or not Rhallon is being sincere with the soldiers, his speech about running and "purpose" echoes the paradox of the soldiers' mission to track down Cacciato. As we know by now, the soldiers are certainly running from their active duty in Vietnam--going to Paris sounds much better than fighting and dying for no discernible cause, after all--and yet they're also on a mission on behalf of the U.S. military. In short, the soldiers are both loyal and disobedient to their commanders. Rhallon emphasizes purpose at the expense of freedom, yet the soldiers have found freedom from Vietnam because of the purpose their commanding officer has given them.

Chapter 33 Quotes

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."

Related Characters: Doc Peret (speaker), Captain Fahyi Rhallon (speaker), Paul Berlin , Oscar Johnson
Page Number: 228-229
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Captain Rhallon--newly suspicious of Berlin and his fellow troops traveling through Iran--has the troops arrested and sentenced to be executed. Rhallon is as calm as ever, but this time there's no ambiguity in the air of menace he gives off: he's going to let his new "friends" be killed. And this time, Doc's bluffs of knowledge and control don't work--Rhallon knows full-well that Doc is lying about traveling through the country via the Geneva Codes.

Even at this dark moment in the text, there's a strong element of fantasy. Oscar stares as Paul Berlin as if to reference Paul's "dream"--a clear reminder of the possibly fictional nature of the entire story (it's later suggested that Paul is dreaming his mission as he sits on the beach). Rhallon's words, for all their menace, have some truth in them: the soldiers' government doesn't care about them. In fact, the U.S. government sent its soldiers into Vietnam to die--the government wanted its men to further its own causes in Vietnam, not escape to Paris.

Chapter 34 Quotes

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."

Related Characters: Oscar Johnson (speaker)
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:

Sidney Martin, the commander of Paul Berlin and the other troops, has ordered his troops to "clear" a bunker--a highly dangerous activity that's already resulted in two lives lost. One by one, the soldiers refuse to put their own lives in danger. Martin writes down everyone's name, promising to report them for insubordination, and then he goes into the hole himself. While he's down there, Oscar and his peers seem to be seriously considering murdering Martin.

On the surface, Oscar's inclination to kill a fellow soldier seems barbaric, and yet he has a legitimate point--that doing so would protect his own life, and the lives of his fellow soldiers. Being a "good" soldier in Vietnam means voluntarily endangering one's own life. We already knew that there's a big difference between pursuing one's own peace and happiness and following orders (going after Cacciato is insubordinate, after all), and yet it's not until this scene that we see the stark conflict between survival and duty that Paul and his fellow troops must face.

Chapter 38 Quotes

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."

Related Characters: Sarkin Aung Wan (speaker), Lieutenant Corson
Page Number: 256
Explanation and Analysis:

As Sarkin, Paul, and the other troops get closer and closer to Paris, their commander, Lieutenant Corson, gets more and more healthy. In war, Corson was sickly and ineffectual, but away from battle he seems to have regained his strength. Corson's improving illustrates the personal toll that war takes on a human life, whether one lives or dies. The Lieutenant has fought in many wars, and over a lifetime of battle, he's accumulated more weakness and sadness than most people could bear.

It's also important, of course, to note that it's Sarkin who cares for Corson. Even though Corson is a symbol of destruction and aggression in Sarkin's native country of Vietnam, Sarkin still treats him with kindness.

Chapter 39 Quotes

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.

Page Number: 270-271
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, O'Brien describes how the American soldiers interact with the people of Quang Ngai. The soldiers have been told that some of the people in Quang Ngai may have worked with Vietcong soldiers to kill American troops--but it's impossible to know which people, if any, did so. In the confused environment of Vietnam, the American soldiers don't know who to trust. They want to protect themselves, and so they think of every Quang Ngai civilian as a potential threat--in other words, they can't distinguish good and evil.

As the passage suggests, the American troops in Vietnam are confronted with a series of moral tests in which their loyalty to one another is pitted against their desire to get along with the Vietnamese civilians. As we've already seen, Paul and his friends are sometimes forced to make decisions with no "good" option--the savagery of the war forces them to do evil without calling it evil. To take this idea even further, O'Brien seems to suggest that in wartime there is no clear divide between good and evil--everything is vague, fantastical, horrifying, and instinctual.

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 44 Quotes

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.”

Related Characters: Sarkin Aung Wan (speaker), Paul Berlin , Cacciato
Related Symbols: Paris
Page Number: 318
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Sarkin Aung Wan asks her lover, Paul Berlin, to stay with her in Paris. Paul has reached a cross-roads: thus far, he could always pretend that he was following military orders by pursuing Cacciato to Paris, even when it was clear that he was really going to Paris to escape the war. Now, Paul and his friends are about to be chased out of the city: the authorities have finally caught up with them, and they know Paul is a deserter. Sarkin asks Paul to stay behind with her, risking arrest but also possibly gaining true happiness.

One should keep in mind that Sarkin might be an opportunist, more interested in having money and a nice apartment than in Paul himself. But in a sense, Sarkin is exactly right. Paul isn't just following his orders; he's choosing to have a difficult life. He obeys authorities and goes with the group, even when doing so makes him miserable and endangers his life.