Going After Cacciato takes place during the height of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War. While there’s relatively little information about Vietnam in the novel—in fact, it takes more than a hundred pages before the word “Vietnam” is mentioned—it’s important to understand the background of this war, and Tim O’Brien’s experiences in it.
Between the late 1950s and the mid-1970s, the United States gave military and financial aid to its allies in South Vietnam, trying to prevent South Vietnam from falling under the control of Communist forces. The Communist soldiers were known as the Vietcong, and they were based in North Vietnam and were led by Ho Chi Minh. Under the presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon, the United States deployed hundreds of thousands of troops to Vietnam, and waged chemical warfare on the land of Vietnam itself by dropping millions of pounds of bombs and napalm into its forests. During this time, many in the United States came to oppose America’s involvement in Vietnam, protesting outside the White House and, in 1968, at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In 1968, news of the My Lai Massacre reached the United States, and it was shown that American troops massacred a village of unarmed civilians, including women and babies, and abused Vietnamese women before murdering them. In the late 60s, when the government instituted a military draft requiring all able-bodied men to sign up for military service in Vietnam, many Americans became “draft dodgers”—some people fled to Canada to avoid being sent to Vietnam, and many soldiers who fought in Vietnam “went AWOL” (absent without leave) rather than fight in the brutal war. A decade before he wrote Going After Cacciato, Tim O’Brien was himself a soldier in the Vietnam War, and he’s continued to write about Vietnam for the rest of his career as an author.
Going After Cacciato doesn’t offer up any grand statements about the war in Vietnam itself—in fact, the majority of its plot doesn’t take place in Vietnam at all. O’Brien also avoids directly discussing the most painful elements of American military involvement in Vietnam, such as the massacre of innocent women and children at My Lai. But this doesn’t mean that Going After Cacciato doesn’t take a moral or political stance against the war in Vietnam. On the contrary, O’Brien shows how the moral incoherence of America’s motives in the war in Vietnam “trickled down” to the soldiers in the war. As Doc, the friendly military doctor, argues, none of the soldiers in the war have a clear idea why their country is at war with the Vietcong. As a result, it’s almost impossible for a soldier to feel “right” about any of his actions. Indeed, O’Brien makes it clear that almost none of the soldiers’ missions have any clear benefits, either for themselves or for the “civilians” they’re supposed to be protecting. Battles always end with a stalemate, not a victory. Even the military’s high-ranking officers, such as Lieutenant Corson, are shown to be exhausted by the fighting. Although he doesn’t discuss My Lai directly (it’s a major aspect of his later novel, In the Lake of the Woods), O’Brien makes it clear that the war in Vietnam encouraged soldiers to be cruel and sadistic—we can see this in the nightmarish scene in which the soldier Stink empties his gun into a large, defenseless buffalo.
O’Brien’s diagnosis of the war in Vietnam itself—that it was an incredibly misguided, chaotically-run operation that endangered as many lives as it protected—isn’t exactly groundbreaking anymore. But when the novel appeared in 1978, the American mainstream hadn’t yet decided what to think of Vietnam. O’Brien’s novel, along with the creative work of such figures as Michael Herr and Oliver Stone, helped solidify American cultural opposition to the war.
Vietnam and the Chaos of War ThemeTracker
Vietnam and the Chaos of War Quotes in Going After Cacciato
"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."
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."
So in the hottest part of the afternoon, in a tiny hamlet called Thap Ro, they chose up teams according to squads. Eddie Lazzutti ripped the bottom out of a woman's wicker grain basket, shinnied up a tree, attached it with wire and slid down. No backboard, he said, but what the hell—it was still a war, wasn't it?
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.
"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.
"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."
"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."
Not knowing the language, they did not know the people. They did not know what the people loved or respected or feared or hated. They did not recognize hostility unless it was patent, unless it came in a form other than language; the complexities of tone and tongue were beyond them. Dinkese, Stink Harris called it: monkey chatter, bird talk. Not knowing the language, the men did not know whom to trust. Trust was lethal. They did not know false smiles from true smiles, or if in Quang Ngai a smile had the same meaning it had in the States.
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."