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.
Survival and Self-Preservation ThemeTracker
Survival and Self-Preservation Quotes in Going After Cacciato
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.
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.
"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."
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.
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.
"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."
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."
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.
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."
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.”
"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."