Going After Cacciato

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Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Analysis

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.
Survival and Self-Preservation Theme Icon

Arguably the most basic and important theme of Going After Cacciato—the theme on which all others are predicated—is that of survival and self-preservation. While survival seems to be perfectly straightforward—as Doc says, “Don’t get shot”—the novel demonstrates that survival can be a complicated process in which there’s not always a clear, or even a correct, choice.

Survival dictates the most important choices that the novel’s characters make, and yet these choices must themselves be “survived” with. When the soldiers’ first lieutenant, Sidney Martin, orders them to “clear” Vietcong tunnels before blowing up the tunnels, the soldiers quickly learn that tunnel clearing is a dangerous, often suicidal undertaking. Every time Martin orders a soldier to clear a tunnel, he’s effectively ordering the soldier to die. As a result, the group, led by Oscar Johnson, agrees to kill Sidney Martin with a grenade. The choice seems to be a straightforward case of “kill or be killed”—self-preservation is the unbreakable principle underlying each soldier’s choice.

And yet self-preservation is far more complicated than preserving one’s body. Preserving the “self” means preserving one’s sanity—in short, living with one’s choices. One way that the soldiers live with their experiences is to talk about them—laughing, joking, and singing until the horrors of war don’t seem so bad. This is their strategy when dealing with the death of Billy Boy Watkins, a soldier who seemingly dies of a heart attack. But at other times, the soldiers preserve their “selves” by refusing to talk about what they’ve seen and done. This is the case with Lieutenant Sidney Martin—after he dies, they never mention him again. Saving one’s body is often a split-second decision, while saving one’s mind, by contrast, isn’t so much a choice as it a constant process with no clear end in sight.

In the end, Going After Cacciato demonstrates that self-preservation is rarely an easy process. There are even times when one must make a choice between saving one’s body and saving one’s sanity. In the final chapters of the novel, Paul Berlin chooses to leave Sarkin in Paris and remain with his fellow soldiers, hunting for Cacciato, despite the fact that doing so will place him in danger once again. As Berlin explains it, he chooses to remain a soldier because he couldn’t respect himself as a deserter. But the truth is that Berlin needs the other soldiers to maintain his sanity: he needs to be around the people who’ve experienced the same things he’s experienced. In these chapters, survival isn’t a clear-cut choice. It’s an agonizing decision, one to be weighed and fretted over for days and weeks and years. As is the case throughout O’Brien’s novel, the war allows no winning move for Paul and his friends.

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Survival and Self-Preservation Quotes in Going After Cacciato

Below you will find the important quotes in Going After Cacciato related to the theme of Survival and Self-Preservation.
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.


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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 13 Quotes

"The soldier is but the representative of the land. The land is your true enemy." He paused. "There is an ancient ideograph—the word Xa. It means—" He looked to Sarkin Aung Wan for help.
"Community," she said. "It means community, and soil, and home."
"Yes," nodded Li Van Hgoc. "Yes, but it also has other meanings: earth and sky and even sacredness. Xa, it has many implications. But at heart it means that a man's spirit is in the land, where his ancestors rest and where the rice grows. The land is your enemy."

Related Characters: Sarkin Aung Wan (speaker), Li Van Hgoc / Van (speaker)
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

Paul Berlin and his fellow troops--along with a Vietnamese woman named Sarkin, whom the soldiers have encountered during their mission--fall into a tunnel and stumble upon a Vietcong soldier named Li Van Hgoc. Because he tried to escape the Vietcong, we slowly realize, Hgoc has been forced to live in the tunnel, never to see the light of day.

Here, Hgoc makes the strange claim that a soldier is just a representative of his "land." In other words, soldiers on opposite sides of a war might not bear one another any hatred at all--they've merely been ordered to fight on behalf of their community, country, or city. Although Hgoc is trying to argue that soldiers are fighting against a country, not individual people, his argument has an ironic double-meaning. In a very practical sense, the American soldiers' own land is their enemy: powerful government officials have ordered them to fight against their will, risking their lives and mental health in the process. And on another level, Hgoc's claim speaks to the sense of futility behind the entire Vietnam War effort--there is no concrete enemy that can be defeated, but an entire "land" that works against the American soldiers on multiple levels.

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 22 Quotes

A few names were known in full, some in part, some not at all. No one cared. Except in clearly unreasonable cases, a soldier was generally called by the name he preferred, or by what he called himself, and no great effort was made to disentangle Christian names from surnames from nicknames. Stink Harris was known only as Stink Harris. If he had another name, no one knew it. Frenchie Tucker was Frenchie Tucker and nothing else. Some men came to the war with their names, others earned them. Buff won his name out of proven strength and patience and endurance. He had no first name and no last name, unless it was to call him Water Buffalo, a formality which was rare. Doc's name was so natural it went unnoticed; no one knew his first name and no one asked. What they were called was in some ways a measure of who they were, in other ways a measure of who they preferred to be. Cacciato, for example, was content to go by his family name; it was complete. Certain men carried no nicknames for the reverse of reasons that others did: because they refused them, because the nicknames did not stick, because no one cared.

Related Characters: Stink Harris , Cacciato , Doc Peret , Frenchie Tucker , Water Buffalo / Buff
Page Number: 145-146
Explanation and Analysis:

Here O'Brien describes the strange and fascinating culture surrounding nicknames in Vietnam. Almost every soldier has a nickname; furthermore, a soldiers' nickname is the only name he'll answer to, and the only name his peers are aware of. Thus, nobody knows who the "real" Water Buffalo is (outside of his Vietnam-self), and nobody seems to care.

The prevalence of nicknames among the soldiers suggests that everyone in the army has a second identity, distinct from their identity back in the U.S. Many of the soldiers treat the military as a "fresh start," so it makes sense that they would reject their old names along with their old lives. Furthermore, many of the soldiers will go on to "forget" their experiences in Vietnam, or pretend that they never happened--in a sense, they're rejecting their own names.

Cacciato's lack of a nickname might suggest his rare naivete and honesty. Unlike his peers, Cacciato seems to have nothing to hide--he's the same person in Vietnam that he was in the U.S.

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 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 36 Quotes

So now he ran. A miracle, he thought, and he closed his eyes and made it happen.
And then a getaway car—why not? It was a night of miracles, and he was a miracle man. So why not? Yes, a car. Cacciato pointed at it, shouted something, then disappeared.

Related Characters: Paul Berlin (speaker), Cacciato
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

In this dreamlike sequence of events, Paul and his fellow troops manage to break out of their prison cell in Tehran and make a run for it. No explanation is offered for how they're able to escape (they have a grenade, but it's not clear where they got it). After a certain point, O'Brien purposefully doesn't even try to make the scene seem realistic--for example, Paul seems to imagine a getaway car, and then sees one in real life. We're reminded that the entire episode--and the entire hunt for Cacciato--might be Paul's daydream in the first place, meaning that his "inventing" of a car is only one tiny part of the story he's dreamed up.

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.

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.