Going After Cacciato’s plot and style are occasionally fantastic and far-fetched, but what’s arguably more jarring about the novel is what O’Brien leaves out of the story. At least half a dozen times, O’Brien ends a chapter on a “cliffhanger”—a suspenseful, seemingly unresolvable climax—and then, in the next chapter, flashes forward to a time when the cliffhanger has been inexplicably resolved. Thus, it’s not described how the soldiers find their way out of the tunnel in Laos, or how they lose Cacciato in the hills of Vietnam. Many of the other “important” parts of Going After Cacciato are also deliberately omitted, such as the soldiers’ murder of their commander, Lieutenant Sidney Martin. It’s as if O’Brien is leaving out the parts of his novel that he knows we want to read most.
One major reason why O’Brien structures his novel in this unorthodox way is that he wants the structure of his book to mirror the feverish imagination of his protagonist, Paul Berlin. It’s never entirely clear if the events of the book are happening in the real world, or if they’re playing out, at least partly, in Berlin’s imagination as he stands at an observation post overlooking the sea. O’Brien reinforces this sense of disorientation by leaving out the resolutions to his cliffhangers: he implies that Berlin, the “author” of his own story, is making things up as he goes along, brushing over the snags and contradictions in the plot.
And yet there’s also a deeper, and arguably more important reason why O’Brien emphasizes the discontinuities in his novel: the influence of war. The Vietnam War was the first American war during which medical researchers uncovered evidence of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, in veterans. Even now, there are tens of thousands of American soldiers who suffer from the trauma of the events they witnessed during the war. One way that the human mind reacts to trauma is to repress the original experience. There are even cases in which victims of war or violence forget what they saw, and replace their memories with new, milder experiences. When read in this way, the discontinuities in Going After Cacciato function as a kind of psychological defense mechanism. Thus, Berlin and his fellow soldiers “forget” that they murdered Sidney Martin in much the same way that the text of the novel skips over this important event in the plot.
The problem with this form of repression is that it’s always impermanent. It’s impossible to truly and completely forget a traumatic experience—one can repress it for a time, but the memory will resurface with a vengeance later on. And even when the memory is supposedly suppressed, it remains a sinister presence in one’s mind, causing other psychological problems. This is apparent in the case of Sidney Martin’s death. It’s clear that Berlin and the other soldiers are responsible for Martin’s murder, but ironically, the fact that O’Brien offers no literal description of Martin’s death makes the event even more sinister in our imaginations.
For the most part, O’Brien doesn’t “fill in” the gaps in his novel with untruths—the gaps remain empty (perhaps so we notice them better). This is the case in the final two chapters of the novel, during which it’s revealed that Berlin may or may not be responsible for murdering Cacciato, his former friend. It’s left up to the reader to decide what happens, meaning that Berlin’s ultimate guilt in the mission is left agonizingly unclear, as is the question of whether Berlin is actually making up the entire story of Going After Cacciato to alleviate this guilt. Perhaps O’Brien (himself a soldier in Vietnam) leaves so much in his novel unresolved because he simply isn’t ready to talk about what he experienced as a soldier. In later works like The Things They Carried and In the Lake of the Woods, O’Brien deals with the theme of trauma while discussing the violence and chaos of Vietnam much more overtly. For the time being, however, the gaping discontinuities in his novel stand in for all the terror he and his fellow soldiers experienced.
Discontinuity and Trauma ThemeTracker
Discontinuity and Trauma Quotes in Going After Cacciato
Then they were falling. Paul Berlin felt it in his stomach. A tumbling sensation. There was time to snatch for Sarkin Aung Wan's hand, squeeze tight, and then they were falling. The road was gone and they were simply falling, all of them, Oscar and Eddie and Doc, the old lieutenant, the buffalo and the cart and the old women, everything, tumbling down a hole in the road to Paris.
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.
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."
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.
"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."
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."
"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—"
"Yes," the lieutenant said. "Maybe so."