Novel * Tim O’Brien * Vietnam Surrealism * 1978
An apocalypse is only as good as its afterwards. The more profound the aftermath, the more important the event. The plague that decimated Europe in the 1300’s was an apocalyptic event. The post-apocalypse featured a total restructure of society as the survivors were forced to reorganize and refill vacant niches left by vast swaths of the dead. World War I was another such apocalypse, although in this instance the aftermath was more of a pause before the greater apocalyptic event began a scant twenty years later. The common element of what most people consider an apocalypse is, unfortunately, widespread death and destruction. Pestilence, wars, natural disasters on a vast scale. Nonviolent events do not tend to have the same social effect. Those with money and power have the obvious advantage in keeping that money and power unless they are caught up in a disaster of apocalyptic scale. A plague, a world war, an errant comet. Not every apocalypse is equal in scope, however, and an event can cause changes and shifts in society without utterly remaking it.
The Vietnam War was such an event, at least from the American point of view. I’m not Vietnamese, and therefore can’t speak to that experience. It seems fairly obvious that the war was an apocalyptic event for Vietnamese society, the disaster occurred on their soil and mostly killed their people, and their society was fundamentally changed in the aftermath. However, the book I’m talking about here isn’t really concerned for the Vietnamese. Going After Cacciato is about a group of American soldiers fighting in a foreign war they care little about. The book was written by a veteran, and therefore the experience is a distinctly American one. Therefore, when I talk about the war as, for lack of a better term, a ‘minor’ apocalypse, I am referring to its effects upon American society. For the most part, those effects are not seen within the context of this novel, as Going After Cacciato is concerned with events which happen (and also events which do not happen) in Vietnam.
It can be difficult, reading this novel, to keep track of what is real and what is fantasy. Of course, the entire novel is fiction, so already the idea of reality is blurred. Going After Cacciato is not the typical Vietnam story. It’s not like you open up the cover and “Fortunate Son” and “All Along the Watchtower” start blaring and helicopters and screaming and Charlie, up in the trees. It is arguably the least cliché Vietnam story I’ve ever read. The novel doesn’t start off that way, as the first chapter is a hyper-realistic description of how horrible and truly fucked up conditions were for soldiers over there. Death and misery and boredom and, you know, warfare. Soon enough the plot kicks in, and we learn that Cacciato, who is known to be a real dummy by the rest of the men, has taken off. His plan is to escape the war by walking from Vietnam to Paris. I’m not here to judge a dude after only a couple pages, but the other soldiers seem to be right. You can’t walk from Vietnam to Paris. What a dummy.
Tim O’Brien is an excellent writer. You probably don’t need me to tell you this. I’m pretty sure I read The Things They Carried in school, and perhaps you’ve read that as well. Going After Cacciato won the National Book Award. His style is clear and tight, yet the prose has a breeziness to it that, say, Hemingway lacks. As the soldiers follow Cacciato, to prevent his desertion, the story has every appearance of being a real thing happening in the world. The story of Cacciato is intercut with flashback scenes, in which we learn the fate of those killed during the war. After a certain point, it becomes difficult to discern what is real and what is not since every scene is written in the same clear, concise manner. Okay, I need to talk about story now.
If this novel has a particular viewpoint, it is that of a young solider named Paul Berlin. He’s kind of dull, never really seems to do or say much, and is a bit of a coward. Not offensively so, but it’s an issue he grapples with the entire novel. If I could get a little English-teachery for a moment, I would go so far to say that Paul Berlin’s perception of his own cowardice is the central theme of the novel. Such a statement has the effect of making the novel sound incredibly dull, which it is not. As I’ve mentioned, the book is an ingenious mish-mash of truth and lies and make-believe. Going After Cacciato is clearly fiction, this company did not exist, there was no Paul Berlin, and a dope named Cacciato didn’t try to desert and walk to Paris. Within the confines of the story, however, all those things happen. At the same time, there are some things which do not happen. Or rather, they happen within the confines of Paul Berlin’s imagination, and are presented as truth.
The war, from Berlin’s perspective, is as blurred and incoherent as an imaginary trek to Paris. He finds himself in Vietnam because he lacked focus in school and lacked the conviction of a career (I feel you, homie). So, he ends up dropping out and getting drafted. Training can best be described as lax, and once he’s eventually assigned to a unit, he still has no real idea of what is happening or why. This is the common American’s perspective of this war. Why? No, really, why? It’s difficult to fight for honor, or a common cause, or for any other reason other than to not die, if those in charge of the war effort don’t know themselves. This was a clear lesson that should have been learned after World War I, which suffered from the same problems of disillusionment, confusion, and bureaucratic ineptitude. We are a terminally short-sighted species, however, and Paul Berlin finds himself sweating in a jungle getting shot at and being bored for no real reason.
Soon, people around Berlin start to die. If their deaths have anything in common, it’s that they’re pointless and disheartening. When Berlin first arrives to the war, his commanding officer is a by-the-book lieutenant. His policy is to send a man down into any enemy tunnels they find before blowing them up, because that is what the regulations state. This leads to the senseless and preventable deaths of two soldiers. When it becomes clear that this lieutenant will not change his mind, the soldiers change his mind for him with an “accident.” The new lieutenant is an older, war-weary man who just blows the tunnels up and moves on. In my head he is played by Ernest Borgnine. He is very popular with the men. Berlin observes all this, and passively involves himself, which weighs on him, and then manifests in curious ways.
There is a certain disassociation with reality that happens throughout the novel. This is most clearly seen in the non-linear approach of the narration, and the fact that it takes a while to figure out what is ‘real’ and what is a flashback, and what is conjecture and fantasy. One morning, the company doofus Cacciato gets up and takes off. The company follows him to the border. They attempt to flush him out to capture him and take him back to the war. Here the narrative continues, but when it does the story is taking place within Paul Berlin’s imagination. What if they really could walk to Paris? Would that not be a truly heroic tale? To have the courage of character to leave a pointless, destructive, unjust war and make a better future for themselves? Berlin extrapolates actions from the characters of those in his company, and “the road to Paris” chapters follow what could be, if only the men had the fortitude to follow Cacciato into the unknown.
In the end, back in “reality,” the men opt to not follow Cacciato. Desertion is also a form of cowardice, of course, and one that comes with obvious consequences should one be caught. Of course, evading those consequences would also be a hallmark of bravery, seen from a certain point of view. Paul Berlin, who seems to be very concerned of what his father will think of him, eventually decides that he lacks the fortitude and/or stupidity of Cacciato. You can’t walk to Paris from Vietnam! You don’t even have a visa for Cambodia, let alone all the other countries you’d have to travel through. There’s no magic ageless girlfriend willing to egg you on toward a quiet, Parisian lifestyle of cafés and cigarettes. So it’s back to the jungle and the bugs and the mud and the bullets and thoughts of what could have been.