It is generally recognized that Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato (1978) is most likely
the best novel of the Vietnam war, albeit an unusual one in that it innovatively combines the
experiential realism of war with surrealism, primarily through the overactive imagination of the
protagonist, Spec Four Paul Berlin. The first chapter of this novel is of more than usual
importance. Designed to be a self-sufficient story (McCaffery 137) and often anthologized as
one, this chapter is crucial to the novel in that it not only introduces us to the characters and the
situation but also sets the tenor of the novel and reveals its author’s view of this war in relation to
which all else in the novel must be judged.
In chapter 1, the plot of the entire novel is defined: A very young soldier named Cacciato
deserts, intending to walk to Paris by land. As his squad follows under orders to capture him,
Paul Berlin begins his fascinating mind-journey of “going after Cacciato,” of escape from, and
later a reexamination of, the reality of war. But what is defined first, in the first two pages to be
exact, is this war’s reality and its cost to the young American soldiers involved. These pages list
for us those who have died, in action and otherwise, and those who have been maimed, at times
through self-injury, underscoring the urgency of the desire to live. These pages also vividly
delineate for us the daily miseries and sufferings of the Vietnam war, from rain and mud to disease
and rotting flesh, from monotony and fear to a profound sense of futility. As Paul Berlin narrates,
“It was a bad time” (O’Brien 1). And the young soldiers undergo all of this while being “led” by
an ill, alcoholic, misanthropic lieutenant who cannot even remember who among his young
charges is whom, or who is dead or alive. One thing that the book misses, however, is the same
suffering, perhaps even worse, that was imposed upon the Vietnamese people. This is typical of
novels from this time; they all exhibit a bold ethnocentricism (Lomperis 5).
However, the first chapter does contain one very powerful image of destruction from the
Vietnamese viewpoint, which helps to make this somber portrait of the Vietnam War more
complete. We are told that Berlin and his squad are taking refuge inside a nearly ruined Buddhist
…in shadows was the cross-legged Buddha, smiling from its elevated stone perch. The
pagoda was cold. Dank from a month of rain, the place smelled of clays and silicates and
dope and old incense. It was a single square room built like a pillbox with stone walls and
a flat ceiling that forced the men to stoop or kneel. Once it might have been a fine house
of worship, but now it was junk. Sandbags blocked the windows. Bits of broken pottery
lay under chipped pedestals. The buddha’s right arm was missing, but the smile was
intact. Head cocked, the statue seemed interested in the lieutenant’s long sigh. (O’Brien
In this otherwise very American novel, which focuses on the American soldiers’ experiences,
feelings, and minds (Lomperis 63), and in which Vietnam is presented primarily as merely a terrain
and a climate, this image of the pagoda seems to be symbolic of the country of Vietnam at this
time. Invaded, desecrated, nearly destroyed, it still endured, sustained by a culture and a
spirituality against which the war and the American warriors seem unimportant and small.
Some critics have thought that Going After Cacciato is “not an antiwar novel” (Vannatta
246; McCaffery 145), but surely they must be incorrect. If, as the common thread of thinking
among critics suggests, that this novel is preoccupied with memory and especially imagination,
then surely the overwhelming horror occupying the memories and imaginations of the American
warriors, and especially our protagonist, can only be understood as an antiwar statement. And if
at the end of the novel Paul Berlin finds he must return, resigned to the war reality, he makes clear
to us that he does so not because of “courage”(Bates 278) or principle but because, like his
creator, he cannot withstand the societal pressures of family and country and is afraid of the
isolation and hardship that opposition to them would impose (322-23)–an understandable but
hardly a pro-war stance.
As for O’Brien himself, he has frequently said that war is a complex affair, especially for
those who must face it directly, but his prevailing view has become increasingly explicit. For
instance, shortly after this novel was published, he said that his main concern in it was “to have
readers care about what’s right and wrong and about the difficulty of doing right, the difficulty of
saying no to war” (Schroeder 146). Several years later, speaking at the Asia Society conference
in 1985, he was even more forthright: “Wouldn’t all of us admit that a mistake was made in
Vietnam?… we misunderstood Vietnamese history…and we were shooting anyway” (Lomperis
73). Both the novel and the author condemn this war. And it is in this novel’s first, crucial
chapter that such views are most clearly embodied, molding all the rest.
Bates, Milton J. “Tim O’Brien’s Myth of Courage.” Modern Fiction Studies 33.2 (summer
Lomperis, Timothy J. “Reading the Wind”: The Literature of the Vietnam War. Durham: Duke
McCaffery, Larry. “Interview with Tim O’Brien.” Chicago Review 33.2 (1982):129-49.
Schroeder, Eric James. “Two Interviews: Talks with Tim O’Brien and Robert Stone.” Modern
Fiction Studies 30.1 (spring 1984): 135-64.
Vannatta, Dennis. “Theme and Structure in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato.” Modern
Fiction Studies 28.2 (summer 1982): 242-6.