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.
Vietnam and the Chaos of War Theme Icon

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.

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Vietnam and the Chaos of War Quotes in Going After Cacciato

Below you will find the important quotes in Going After Cacciato related to the theme of Vietnam and the Chaos of War.
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.


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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

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?

Related Characters: Eddie Lazzutti (speaker)
Page Number: 101
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, O'Brien portrays the complexities of war, which include times of drudgery and even play. The American troops in Vietnam are bored; they're not sure if they'll ever see real combat. A soldier named Eddie--a friend of Paul Berlin's--builds a makeshift basketball court, using a woman's basket. The image of a "ripped" wicker basket foreshadows the barbaric crimes that Eddie and his peers will commit in the near future: although Eddie is relaxed and even bored here, O'Brien foreshadows that there's violence in his future.

The passage also shows soldiers again trying to survive, not in the sense of fighting, but in the sense of preserving their sanity. In no small part, the challenge of Vietnam is to remain sane in spite of all the traumatic events the soldiers witness. Basketball games are just one of the ways that the soldiers try to mitigate their fear and anxiety.

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

"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.

"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 39 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Stink Harris
Page Number: 261
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Paul and the troops begin their active duty in Vietnam. Right away, they're sent into Quang Ngai, a town that's rumored to be housing Vietcong soldiers. As the soldiers quickly realize, the people of the town can't be trusted easily. O'Brien never reveals if, in fact, the townspeople are friendly to the U.S. soldiers or not--the scene is narrated from the perspective of the troops, who have been trained to fear the people of Vietnam, and partly for good reason.

O'Brien doesn't excuse the evident racism of the soldiers--here, for instance, Stink treats the Vietnamese civilians like animals, who don't even have a proper language. So whether or not Stink is right to fear the Vietnamese (and it's certainly possible that they're working with the Vietcong, as some civilians were during the Vietnam War), we should recognize that he's not making an effort to know the civilians--he assumes they're animals and treats them as such. (It's worth remembering that the only Vietnamese civilians in the novel are portrayed as helpful, loving people.)

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.