The chapter begins, “it was a bad time.” A man named Billy Boy Watkins has died of fright in the middle of a battle, as have several others: Sidney Martin, Ready Mix, Bernie Lynn, and more. Some of the people who have survived the battle (which is, for the time being, not described or named) suffer from serious trauma, and some think that animals are attacking them. The soldiers—the narrator does not say which—travel from village to village, always finding the same things. In September, the soldiers experience the horrors of the monsoons, and violent storms leave everyone cold and sickly. Some of the soldiers compare the rain to that of their homes. One soldier, Oscar Johnson, says the rain reminds him of Detroit, and notes that rain provides the best background for “rape an’ lootin’.” In general, the soldiers find ways to joke about their pain: they joke about Billy Boy’s death, about the rain, and about their commander dying of dysentery.
In the opening paragraphs of the novel, O’Brien sets a tone of surreal, almost hallucinatory violence mixed with oppressive dullness. The soldiers are fighting a long, brutal war (the Vietnam War—a fact that won’t explicitly be acknowledged until halfway through the book). Survival isn’t only a matter of defending oneself from enemy soldiers—none are even mentioned in this section—but it’s equally a matter of preserving one’s sanity. The soldiers who survive must come up with “coping mechanisms” to make sense of the horror they’ve seen around them. One important coping mechanism, here and elsewhere in the book, is humor: the soldiers try to transform pain into comedy.
In October, one of the soldiers, a man named Cacciato, “left the war.” The other soldiers try to understand what this means, and where he’s gone. Lieutenant Corson, the leader of the soldiers, is so old and weak that he’s developed a bad case of dysentery. As a result, he barely realizes that Cacciato, one of his soldiers, has departed. A soldier named Doc Peret tells Corson that Cacciato has gone to Paris. Corson seems to understand what Doc is saying, since he repeats the word “Paris,” pronouncing it “Paree.”
Although O’Brien has yet to explicitly state that we’re in Vietnam, he assumes that we know the general setting, and conveys the sense of confused, “blind leading the blind” chaos that we usually associate with the Vietnam War. The notion of a lieutenant who barely knows where he is, and certainly isn’t up to leading his men, implies that there is no order or structure here—everyone is equally terrified, and equally helpless.
Corson calls Cacciato’s friend, Paul Berlin, to discuss Cacciato’s disappearance. Corson asks Berlin if it’s true that Cacciato has gone to Paris, and Berlin replies that it is. Cacciato, he adds, is a fool—a simple-minded idiot who can’t accomplish anything on his own. Cacciato learned that Paris is about 8,000 miles away from where the soldiers are stationed, and has decided to walk there. He plans to walk through Laos, then Burma, and on through the Middle East until he arrives in Paris. As Lieutenant Corson listens, he only comments that Cacciato is going AWOL (a military term meaning “absent without leave”). Corson asks Berlin about Cacciato’s squad—which consists of Berlin, Doc, Eddie Lazzutti, Stink, Oscar, and Harold Murphy. Corson tells Berlin that this squad, squad three, is going after Cacciato.
In this scene—basically the exposition for the plot of the entire novel—we recognize that Cacciato’s plan to travel from Vietnam to Paris is absurd. And yet even here, before we know much about the soldiers in the squad, it’s implied that the soldiers are strangely envious of Cacciato—just like Cacciato, they want to leave the horrors of Vietnam behind. The notion of a journey from Vietnam to Paris suggests a transition from war to peace (historically, Paris is the city in which nations pursue peace accords—the Revolutionary War, the Vietnam War, and World War I were all officially settled in the city). In this way, Cacciato’s decision to walk to Paris suggests his longing for peace—the same thing any soldier in Vietnam would want.
Squad three proceeds to hunt down Cacciato. They make their way through the mountains and forests. Before too long, Paul Berlin spots Cacciato in the distance. He can see that Cacciato is tired and lonely-looking. The figure in the distance is clearly Cacciato—Berlin and his friends can tell, because Cacciato has a large, round figure, and looks strangely young, as if he hasn’t yet achieved manhood. As he watches, Berlin recalls Cacciato looking through an old atlas, plotting out his walk to Paris.
Cacciato will remain a mystery to us throughout this novel, and O’Brien conveys his otherworldliness early on. Cacciato seems like a spirit or a vision, rather than a flesh-and-blood human being. He’s described as seeming unusually young—an impression that goes along with his seemingly innocent, oblivious desire to simply run away from violence and seek peace.
Although the third squad sees Cacciato far ahead, they haven’t caught him yet. They climb through high mountains. Eventually, they reach a spot where Cacciato has spent the night. There, they notice that Cacciato has left behind the atlas he’d been looking through before he deserted the army. Although most of the atlas has been burnt, Corson notices that Cacciato has drawn a red line across the pages of the map. The red line extends off the page, into foreign territory. Corson can’t believe that Cacciato would try to make such a dangerous journey.
Cacciato plays the part of a will-o-the wisp—a mysterious spirit, luring others through dangerous territory. In pursuing Cacciato, Corson and his troops are placing their own lives in danger. No explanation is given for why it’s so important to track down Cacciato—but this echoes the feeling that many soldiers had about the Vietnam War itself. It was never really made clear to them just why they were fighting and dying in foreign jungles.
As Corson studies the pages of Cacciato’s atlas, Doc suggests that they let Cacciato go ahead, rather than endanger their own lives by trying to track him down. Doc insists that eventually Cacciato will see how foolish his plan is, and turn back. After much thought, however, Lieutenant Corson disagrees with Doc, and he orders his men to continue searching for Cacciato.
Once again, no explanation is offered for why Corson insists upon continuing to hunt Cacciato. Corson is portrayed as weary and ill, almost in a trance-like state, and he latches onto this seemingly meaningless quest as a way to keep a sense of purpose.
The soldiers continue chasing Cacciato through the mountains. By this point, Cacciato is well aware that he’s being followed—as he climbs up the mountain, he looks back and sees his former squad. Lieutenant Corson mutters, “I’m a sick, sick man,” as he and his soldiers proceed. It begins to rain, very hard. Despite the sound of thunder, Oscar shouts to Cacciato. Cacciato turns, and seems to shout something back, but nobody can hear him. Paul Berlin pulls a pair of binoculars out of his bag and points them at Cacciato. Berlin realizes that Cacciato is miming a chicken, flapping his arms like wings. Berlin reports that Cacciato is mouthing a word: “Goodbye.” The soldiers then witness Cacciato “flying” through the air. He’s clearly just learning how to fly, but he’s flying nonetheless.
It’s interesting to consider the fact that, while the troops are constantly criticizing Cacciato for being a fool and an idiot, they never attack Corson for his mental limitations, even though they would appear to be much more dangerous. (It’s not exactly clear if Cacciato is supposed to be mentally handicapped, or if the other soldiers are calling him an idiot because they resent him.) Cacciato suddenly learning to “fly” is the first surprising introduction of the fantastical into the narrative. The tone overall is disjointed and almost surreal, but this scene introduces a real element of the impossible. Cacciato now seems even more like an otherworldly figure, and the novel seems more like “magical realism.”
Night falls on the mountains, and the soldiers make camp. Lieutenant Corson vomits from dysentery, but continues to lead the men. He uses his radio to tell his commanders that he and his men are in “pursuit of the enemy.” Late that night—around 4 AM—the soldiers, unable to sleep, sit around talking about Cacciato. Paul Berlin tells Doc Peret that he hopes Cacciato keeps moving and escapes from the army for good.
As the soldiers proceed through Vietnam, the truth becomes more and more apparent: the soldiers want Cacciato to escape from his duties as a soldier. In part, this is because the soldiers sympathize with Cacciato, but it’s also because they themselves want to escape Vietnam.
The night proceeds, and Paul Berlin finds himself thinking about Cacciato. He imagines Cacciato being murdered: his skull exploding, throwing blood everywhere. Then, he imagines “a miracle”—Cacciato succeeding in walking to Paris. Berlin turns to Doc, and mentions that Cacciato “did some pretty brave things.” Doc nods, and mentions some of these acts of “bravery”—Cacciato “shot that kid,” and saved a woman from a bunker.
It’s important to note that as the novel progresses, O’Brien will further blur the distinction between Berlin’s imagination and the real world. For the time being, however, the distinction seems clear: the images of Cacciato’s skull exploding are confined to Berlin’s own consciousness. The symbol of Paris comes up again and again, connected to the idea of just how possible it would be for Cacciato to walk there. Paris seems like an impossible ideal, but it is important for Berlin to keep that dream alive.
The next day, the squad marches through the “unpolluted country” beyond the mountains. Paul Berlin secretly enjoys the silent, steady marching—it’s certainly preferable to his usual duties as a soldier. As he walks, he wonders if it might not be possible that Cacciato could make it to Paris—perhaps there’s a one in a million chance. The squad loses sight of Cacciato, and they don’t even find areas where he’s been resting. Then, after nearly five days of marching, the squad finds some of Cacciato’s possessions: a vest, a bayonet, an ID card, and an ammo pouch. The soldiers can’t understand why Cacciato would leave these things behind—he’s alerted his pursuers to his location, making it easier for them to track him down. Stink Harris mutters that Cacciato is “a rockhead.” As the search proceeds, the soldiers approach enemy territory. Eventually, they’re only a few miles from “the border.” If Cacciato crosses this border, the soldiers agree, “It’s bye-bye Cacciato.”
The details of the soldiers’ pursuit of Cacciato have the elements of a fairy tale: Cacciato seems to be leaving pieces of evidence in his path, like breadcrumbs in the Hansel and Gretel story. This “fairy tale” tone goes along with the fundamental absurdity of the premise of Cacciato’s “mission”—it would be, after all, nearly impossible for a soldier to travel from Vietnam to Paris at all, much less without being caught for desertion. At this point in the novel, it’s not yet clear how far Cacciato’s journey will go on: the Vietnamese border is the first of the many barriers to travel that Cacciato and the soldiers will have to face. Part of the novel is this Odyssey-like journey to reach an idealized destination, but O’Brien complicates this structure greatly, as we will see.
After six days of pursuit, the squad sees Cacciato walking ahead in the distance. Cacciato looks surprisingly calm and casual—in fact, he looks like a civilian. Lieutenant Corson orders Stink to a fire a shot in Cacciato’s general direction—the goal being to scare Cacciato, not to kill him. Stink fires, but Cacciato continues to look calm.
Again and again, O’Brien describes Cacciato as being strangely, eerily calm. This again adds to the sense of Cacciato as otherworldly or superhuman—a kind of dream figure the soldiers are pursuing. All these seemingly fantastical elements ultimately point towards the revelation, at the novel’s end, that this whole journey towards Paris is playing out in Berlin’s traumatized imagination.
The soldiers march toward Cacciato. Suddenly, Stink Harris looks down: he’s “tripped” a wire. Quickly, the soldiers jump to the ground, knowing that there will be an enormous explosion. Paul Berlin crouches on the ground, closing his eyes and waiting for the inevitable “Boom.” But no explosion comes. Instead, there is a hissing sound, and Lieutenant Corson shouts that the squad has triggered a smoke bomb. Bright red smoke engulfs the soldiers. They can’t see anything. Nevertheless, all seven soldiers manage to crawl to safety, gasping and coughing. As Lieutenant Corson crawls away, he mutters, “Had us, could’ve had us all, he could’ve.”
The fact that the bomb is a smoke bomb, rather than a land mine, is, it should be noted, an incredible coincidence. The soldiers are lucky to be alive—the first of many “close shaves” they’ll encounter in the novel. O’Brien reminds us that the soldiers are very lucky to have gotten as far as they’ve gone—fantastically lucky, as it will turn out. The confusion and fear of the smoke bomb is also like a microcosm for the world of the Vietnam War itself.
A few hours later, Oscar Johnson is returning to the squad, carrying a white flag. Johnson has gone to meet with Cacciato, in order to negotiate the terms of Cacciato’s surrender. Johnson has told Cacciato the truth: Cacciato has intentionally endangered the lives of his fellow soldiers, a crime for which he could easily be court-marshaled in the United States. As such, he should surrender, rather than make his situation any worse. Cacciato, Johnson reports, has refused to surrender. He cheerfully apologized for the smoke, and asked Johnson how the squad is “holding up.” Johnson asks Lieutenant Corson, “Why not let him go, sir?” Corson only replies that he needs “rest.”
In this section, O’Brien introduces the legalistic side of duty and desertion. According to this perspective, Cacciato is a criminal because he’s refused to fight on behalf of his government, and has disobeyed his commanding officers, Corson and Johnson. And yet these crimes seem hilarious petty when compared to the crimes of the Vietnam War itself—what’s desertion next to the My Lai massacre? (See Background Info.) Moreover, Corson seems increasingly unstable, throwing any and all of his orders—including the order that Cacciato remain a soldier—into question.
That night, Paul Berlin dreams about Cacciato walking through the country. He still wants to believe that Cacciato could succeed in his plan to walk to Paris. “Yes, it could be done,” he tells himself. Suddenly, it begins to rain.
Berlin becomes increasingly adamant in his belief that Cacciato can make it to Paris. He seemingly does so because he needs something to believe in—something to inspire him to survive.
The next morning, the rain has subsided. Berlin wakes up and sees a small fire in the distance—Cacciato is cooking himself breakfast. Lieutenant Corson wakes up and announces, “let’s do it.” Eddie, Oscar, and Harold Murphy proceed towards Cacciato, while Corson and the other soldiers stay behind, “to block a retreat.” They plan to arrest Cacciato. It is still very dark, and Berlin fires a bright green flare into the sky. Back with Corson, Doc imagines that the soldiers are celebrating the New Year—1968, the Year of the Pig.
For not the last time in the novel, O’Brien ends a section with a “cliffhanger.” He toys with our sense of anticipation throughout the novel, calling into question how “realistic” any of the events in the book really are. The hallucinatory description of this scene, in hindsight, seemingly echoes Berlin’s trauma—this is the night on which he (presumably) shot Cacciato.