Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Going After Cacciato, O’Brien’s third published book, was a breakthrough for the writer. He returned to his experiences in Vietnam, first developed in his 1973 memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, for his material; however, Going After Cacciato is a very different book from the earlier one in content, style, theme, and organization. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, the book was widely regarded at its publication as the finest work of the Vietnam War experience.
O’Brien organizes the book into three threads that weave together a fully realized novel. One thread is the story of Spec Four Paul Berlin’s experiences over the previous six months during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The sixteen chapters constituting this thread are not arranged chronologically. At the heart of these chapters are the deaths of several of Berlin’s companions, the desertion of Cacciato, and Berlin’s responses to both. Another strand forms ten chapters of the novel, each titled “The Observation Post.” These chapters are set in the present time, as Berlin stands guard duty overnight. The chapters are particularly important to the structure of the novel, because they provide for the reader Berlin’s musings and waking dreams of what has happened to him. He imagines both what has really happened and what might have happened. The remaining thread of twenty chapters concerns a journey to Paris as the group of...
(The entire section is 573 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Going After Cacciato is a novel about the Vietnam War, memory, and the imagination. The novel develops three distinct yet interwoven strands. The first is the story, told mostly in flashback, of Paul Berlin’s experiences in the U.S. Army in 1968, the height of the Vietnam War. The second strand consists of ten chapters, each entitled “The Observation Post.” In these chapters, Paul Berlin is on night watch at Quang Ngai. The “Observation Post” chapters are chronologically later than the chapters detailing Paul’s experiences. Throughout the night, he considers the nature of reality, “what happened, and what might have happened.” The third strand is concerned with an imaginary journey from Vietnam to Paris in pursuit of Cacciato, a soldier who is absent without leave (AWOL). Paul constructs this journey as he stands watch.
A number of critics describe Going After Cacciato as an example of Magical Realism, a style of writing that blends the fantastic with the realistic; O’Brien, however, has resisted the application of that label, insisting that daydreams are real.
The principle daydreamer in the novel is Paul, a young, frightened soldier who provides the point of view for all three strands of the novel. The reader is first introduced to Paul several pages into the novel, at the time of Cacciato’s decision to leave the squad and go AWOL. The squad begins chasing after Cacciato, the chapter ending just as the...
(The entire section is 675 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
The title alludes to a character who only exists as an off-stage presence throughout this story, which opens as two soldiers tell their weary lieutenant that Cacciato (an Italian word meaning “hunted”) has left and plans to walk from Vietnam to Paris. Although the officer is almost immobilized by dysentery, age, alcohol, and disbelieving incomprehension of Cacciato’s plan, military discipline triumphs over his inertia. He orders Cacciato’s squad to pursue the deserter. The seven men set off in the ceaseless rain toward the Laotian border to the west.
As the group crosses the flat rice paddies and begins its ascent into the mountains, Paul Berlin, the narrator, becomes fixed on the object of their pursuit. The squad consensus is that Cacciato is outstandingly dumb: childish, immature, stupid, and unrealistic. As Cacciato’s presence continues to hang just out of reach—a figure glimpsed on the trail above, a chocolate wrapper found on the trail, traces of a camping place—Berlin begins to feel pity and affection for him, and eventually a kind of wonder at Cacciato’s simple-minded and single-minded plan of escape.
Doc Peret, the nurturing member of the squad, reasonably and compassionately counsels his ill officer to let Cacciato go, to declare him missing in action and let his plan fall flat under the weight of its own foolishness. The lieutenant orders the men to persist, in spite of his weakness and distaste for the hunt. Stink...
(The entire section is 549 words.)
Chapters 1-2 Summary
In 1968 during the Vietnam War, an American platoon is dwindling due to deaths in action, disease, and accidents. But no loss is as strange as the desertion of Cacciato, who decides he is done with the war and is walking to Paris. Lieutenant Corson, lying in his bunk debilitated by dysentery, is dumbstruck when Doc Peret tells him the news. Cacciato had told Paul Berlin of his plan personally. The lieutenant comments that Cacciato is just plain “dumb” to think he can walk from Southeast Asia to Western Europe, but secretly Paul Berlin hopes he makes it. The lieutenant decides the Third Squad will go after and retrieve Cacciato.
The squad spends the first night of their quest at the base of a mountain, miserable in the rain and the fog. The next day, Paul Berlin spots Cacciato half a mile up the mountain, patiently walking up the steep incline. Berlin recalls Cacciato looking through old atlases and maps and asking questions about the terrain. The squad finds Cacciato’s deserted camp under a ledge and prepares to spend the night. Murphy asks the lieutenant if he is thinking of turning back, but their leader is not.
Cacciato reaches the top of the second mountain. The squad sets off a smoke bomb to let him know they are following him, but Cacciato just turns and waves. That night the lieutenant radios back to headquarters and reports that he is “tracking the enemy.” He refuses all offers of support and supplies. As the rain pours down, Berlin confesses to Doc that he hopes Cacciato makes it. He thinks about the war, which he views as a constant stream of murder. He remembers the men who have died and just wishes for it all to end. He believes that Cacciato, despite his going AWOL, is not a coward; he reflects on the people that Cacciato has killed so far in the war.
The squad keeps walking after Cacciato. They can never quite catch up with him but have him always in sight. On the trail, Stink trips a wire and the squad ducks down, waiting for the explosion, but only smoke is released. Oscar Johnson runs up ahead to talk to Cacciato but is unable to convince him to return. Johnson says Cacciato has no weapon except his rifle. He had carried his supplies in a body bag. They fire a flare and spot Cacciato up ahead as usual.
Afterward returning to base, Paul Berlin wonders how much of their adventure actually happened. Much was unbelievable if not impossible. He is not sure where it ended. He...
(The entire section is 462 words.)
Chapters 3-4 Summary
The Third Squad walks through jungle for days. After two days they find a trap Cacciato has escaped. There are a few empty ration cans and candy bar wrappers, along with his dog tags. The squad crosses over the last mountain and heads to the jungle in the valley below. They stop along a creek and soak their feet. Doc Peret shows the lieutenant on a map that in one more “klick” (kilometer) they will be in the neighboring country of Laos. The lieutenant answers the question of what they will do then by saying he does not know. Harold Murphy urges him to turn back. If they cross the border into Laos, they will officially be deserters. After resting a few more minutes, the men keep on walking. Paul Berlin struggles, hacking the foliage with his machete. Oscar Johnson says the lieutenant is about played out even though his dysentery is diminishing. There is no longer any sign of Cacciato.
For six days, the soldiers keep walking through jungle. Murphy is irate that they are wasting any more time on Cacciato; he believes they should go back to camp and officially declare Cacciato a deserter. The lieutenant falls in a stream and has to be carried out. As he recovers, the men take a vote on whether to keep walking or to turn back. The vote is to keep walking. In the morning, Harold Murphy is gone.
Paul Berlin flashes back to when he arrived at Chu Lai’s Combat Center in June. The camp borders the sea, and it is primitive and uncomfortable. He and the other newcomers do practice drills; they pitching fiberglass grenades and the officer tells them when they explode. They practice crawling through land mines, and Paul resents it when the officer declares him dead. Paul writes his father and tells him to look up where Chu Lai is because at the moment he feels lost. After seven days of training, the men are divided into three infantry brigades, which are then broken down further until the men are in squads. Paul remembers being in Indian Guides with his father and becoming lost. He was found, and eventually he became less sick of the camping experience. In the wooden latrine, Paul reads the scribbling of previous visitors. Many begin with, “I’m so short....” He adds his own: “I’m so short, I can’t see the forest for the trees.”
Paul is placed in the First Platoon of Alpha Company. The First Platoon leader dies and is replaced by Lieutenant Corson, whom the men love for taking no chances. When a chopper...
(The entire section is 453 words.)
Chapters 5-6 Summary
In November (following the squad’s search for Cacciato), Paul Berlin stands guard duty at midnight. He despairs at the incredible slowness of time. He checks his watch to make sure it is working; it is. Paul looks at Oscar’s raft and fantasizes about loading it up with supplies, using a poncho for a sail, and heading out across the Pacific Ocean to somewhere out at sea or perhaps even all the way home. He decides that counting will make the time move more quickly. He arrived on June 3, and it is now the end of November. He is not sure of the exact date because Vietnam lacks an autumn. He remembers Oscar’s birthday being in July. At first he thinks it was in August that Billy Boy Watkins died of fright, but he remembers it was in June. They had marched along the Song Tra Bog. In September, many of his comrades died, but he cannot remember the order.
Paul begins to think about the future. After the war is over, he plans on going home to Fort Dodge, arriving on the train wearing all his medals. His father would be quietly pleased and then take Paul out to the housing developments he is building to show his son all he accomplished while Paul was at war. The night moves on, and Paul contemplates going to Europe. He will go to Paris and experience all the things Cacciato had planned on doing. He would not go as a tourist but as a man who wanted to stay and to learn.
Back on the quest after Harold Murphy left them, the squad suddenly leaves the jungle and moves into an open, deer-filled plain. They spot of small swirl of smoke, and Stink believes it is a sign of Cacciato’s location. All of a sudden, they hear a squeal. Stink kneels down and begins to fire without aiming at two water buffalo yoked to a cart. Someone screams and one of the buffalo falls down, bleeding and dying. In the cart are two older women and a girl. Stink is ecstatic but the other men think it was a stupid thing to do. Paul learns from the girl that the dead buffalo had been raised by the women, who had fed it with their own breast milk. She asks Paul if the soldiers plan on paying for the dead animal, but Paul is vague. The girl says her name is Sarkin Aung Wan, a part-Chinese refugee whose parents are dead. She and her aunts are now returning home in the Far West. She tells Paul that the soldiers must take them there. Paul cannot get a specific village name from her, just the “Far West.” In the morning, Paul climbs into the cart with the girl and...
(The entire section is 481 words.)
Chapters 7-8 Summary
The cart carrying the three women with Paul Berlin continues on the road toward Paris, and the other soldiers follow along. They ride for ten hours a day, stopping only to water the buffalo. They see no villages, only the dusty road curving over the plain. The vegetation is dry before the coming rainy season. As the cart moves along the road, Paul and Sarkin Aung Wan bump against other—not so accidentally. Paul thinks about the girls in Quang Ngai, whose beauty was quickly eroded away by poverty. Sarkin Aung Wan asks Paul if he and the others are soldiers. When he replies that they are, Sarkin Aung Wan is discouraged to learn that the war has come this far west. Paul is not sure, but he believes the war is still going on, although Doc Peret thinks it is over. Sarkin Aung Wan sighs and states that they must go on.
At night, the two older women sob for their lost buffalo. They cannot be consoled, and in the morning they climb back on the cart facing backward, looking back to where the dead buffalo had been buried. The lieutenant tells Paul that they cannot keep on with the women. Paul is distressed to think of their being dumped along the road, but the lieutenant says only that war is a nasty thing. Sarkin Aung Wan assures him that she is strong, showing him her muscular legs and back. She promises that she will carry her own load and offers to be their guide, but Paul tells her that Cacciato is their guide. Soon, they find signs of Cacciato’s passing—a few M&Ms along a branch in the road. Then one night they capture Cacciato.
Back at the observation in November, following the quest to catch Cacciato, Paul continues to stand guard duty. His turn is over and he is to wake up Doc Peret to replace him, but he does not. He walks down to the sea, wades in, and relieves himself in the water. Walking back on shore, he marvels that the rickety observation platform is still standing. He climbs back up and resumes his post. He remembers his father telling him that he will see some terrible stuff, so he must make sure that he looks for good things too. He has done this, thinking what he might have seen on the road to Paris. He makes his report over the radio and then sits smoking a cigarette, thinking about the good things.
(The entire section is 421 words.)
Chapters 9-10 Summary
Bernie Lynn’s death is recalled. Frenchie Tucker had crawled into a tunnel and was shot by friendly fire. Bernie retrieved his body but was also shot. Frenchie lay on the ground with his T-shirt pulled up under his armpits from being dragged. He had been shot through the nose. Ben Nystrom is trying to call for someone to get the dead and wounded out by chopper. Doc gives Bernie some M&Ms; he lets the wounded man think they were medicine. Bernie says over and over again that he heard it, but he does not identify exactly what he heard. Doc tells him to lie still until the “medicine” takes effect. Bernie has been shot in the throat down into his chest. Doc is trying to make him as comfortable as possible without hope. Ben Nystrom is desperate to find the code book so he can send headquarters their coordinates to retrieve Bernie and Frenchie.
Doc tells Bernie that he is going home. He replaces the compress on Bernie’s wounded throat and tells Stink to stick the hypodermic needle into Bernie, but Stink refuses to do this because he is afraid of blood. Oscar tells Ben to forget the codes and send the coordinates. The ground shudders from the impact of incoming missiles. Bernie keeps repeating that he heard something go off with a bang. Doc gives him more M&Ms, which the men realize is a signal to them that Bernie is not going to make it.
Back on the road to Paris, Stink is upset that he could not hold Cacciato, who got away. He insists that he had a good hold on him but Cacciato bit his elbow, which Doc is now treating to avoid infection. Eddie suggests that Doc give Stink some M&Ms, like Bernie. Stink vows that the next time he gets hold of Cacciato, the man will “fry.” They move along the road and come upon a map with a warning: “Look out, there’s a hole in the road.” Lieutenant Corson explains that he has a new plan, to leave the road and take off through the jungle. The men are not looking forward to another hike through the thick undergrowth. Lieutenant Corson tells Paul once again that the women and girl will have to be left behind. When Paul explains this to Sarkin Aung Wan, she begins to cry. Suddenly the ground begins to shake. A huge crack appears in the road, and the women, men, buffalo, and cart all slide into the hole.
(The entire section is 428 words.)
Chapters 11-12 Summary
A flashback to Jim Pedersen's death is presented. He was killed in a rice paddy, where muck covered (and entered) everything. Doc Peret located Pedersen’s broken dog tags and, as was common practice, put them in the soldier’s mouth and taped it shut. The chopper comes and takes Pedersen’s body away.
The others do not talk about him at first. They check their equipment and walk to a hill half a kilometer away. They look down at the village called Hoi An. Using whatever they have at hand, the soldiers try to remove muck, but it seems to be everywhere. The lieutenant checks the coordinates of the village and calls them in, asking for a marking round. As the men wait for the barrage of missiles, Paul Berlin looks at the rice paddies stretching in all directions, with no sign of bird or animal life. Everything looks clean. He avoids thinking of Jim Pedersen and tries to get muck out of his mouth.
He hears a whining sound; the first barrage hits, but it misses the village. The lieutenant calls in the measurement for adjustment, and the village of Hoi An is bombarded with white phosphorus, which burns with a hot, white light. The heat causes the wind to blow as the men watch the total destruction of the village. They feel the heat even half a kilometer away. Liquid phosphorus flows through the village, catching everything on fire. Without malice, Paul Berlin quietly says, “Kill it.” The soldiers fire into the village, killing anything showing signs of life. In the end, the village is just a hole. That night, the men finally talk about Jim Pedersen.
Again, in his post-Cacciato guard duty, Paul ponders courage and how it affects behavior. Fearlessness was not an issue; how to act wisely in spite of fear was. The greater a man’s fear, the greater his potential for courage.
It is now fifteen minutes after two in the early morning. The others still sleep. Berlin wakes himself up with some physical training and walks around the observation post’s small platform. As he lights another cigarette, Paul decides he will quit smoking after the war. He thinks about things that frightened him as a child: noise, dark, and tunnels. He thinks about the time he almost won the Silver Star for valor. He would have liked to win it and show it to his father.
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Chapters 13-14 Summary
As they fall down the hole, Paul Berlin and Sarkin Aung Wan hold each other’s hands. There was time only to yell a warning and grab for his weapon before Paul started pinwheeling downward. Below he sees the buffalo, the cart, and the two women falling and disappearing. Sarkin Aung Wan smiles as she falls. Paul sees objects falling, then his fellow soldiers pass him. He wonders what happened to his march to Paris. He cannot control his bladder and wets his pants. Sarkin Aung Wan is amazed at how lovely it is. They land softly. Oscar Johnson lights a match; the tunnel is lined with red stone. They hear a high crazy giggling. It is Paul Berlin, and he cannot stop. Doc tries unsuccessfully to calm him.
The tunnel complex curves and empties into a large, lighted chamber. A small man in a green uniform with a pith helmet peers through a periscope, taking no notice of them. The lieutenant holds his rifle against his neck. The man turns and welcomes them, introducing himself as Major Li Van Hgoc, known as Van, of the 48th Vietcong Battalion. Ignoring the rifle, Van leads them into an adjoining chamber where a banquet table is set. He invites them to talk of war. Paul feels another sense of falling. This is the first living enemy he has faced. He asks Van how they hide, what motivates them, why the land is so scary. Van explains that the soldier is but the land's representative, so the land is the true enemy. After exploring the chambers, Van invites Paul to look through the periscope. Paul sees fuzzy forms of a man on his hands and knees, leaning partway down into the tunnel.
Paul observes his past, when French Tucker and Bernie Lynn got shot in the tunnel. First Lieutenant Sidney Martin said that someone had to go down, but no one volunteered. Oscar complains that, after all the fighting, it comes down to crawling down a hole after the enemy. Martin says this is what war is. Frenchie Tucker is pressured into going. A shot is heard, then silence. Bernie Lynn is sent against his will to retrieve Tucker. He is only partway in when another shot is heard; Bernie Lynn’s feet start to kick. They drag him out, and he is shot through the throat into his chest. Conscious, he can only say, “Holy Moses.”
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Chapters 15-16 Summary
In the tunnel, Li Van Hgoc explains that things may be viewed from many angles, just as the incident of the two men killed at the tunnel is different from the perspective seen through the periscope. He takes Paul into a chamber resembling a patio, complete with birds and butterflies. He escorts the lieutenant into the room. Corson is impressed but explains that it is time for the Americans to live. Van explains that they cannot; they are now prisoners of war. Corson explains that the American soldiers are armed; Van is not. Corson orders Stink to tie him up after pointing a rifle at Van. Van explains he is a prisoner of war, just as the Americans are. He tells them of his life, how he was a promising student in electronics when he was drafted.
Van ran but was arrested as a deserter. His sentence was to spend ten years in these tunnels. He knows no way out. Sarkin Aung Wan explains she can lead them out. As they fell in, now they must fall out. Corson invites Van, but Van refuses to try to escape his fate again. He has learned to accept the fact that the land cannot be beaten. Sarkin Aung Wan leads the men through the maze of tunnels. Paul Berlin fears they are all lost and wonders what had gone wrong.
The previous July, there was little to occupy the soldiers. Frenchie Tucker and Rudy Chassler play endless word games, while Oscar mends his hammock. Paul Berlin writes letters to his parents, telling them it is a nice quiet time with no casualties or noise. The men begin to kill time playing basketball. They go on a march through fourteen villages, taking the basketball with them.
Paul begins to feel uneasy, that the silence is an imposed peace with an end in sight. In the meantime, they play basketball. The men begin to bicker. Ben Nystrom asks Doc Peret about self-inflicted gunshot wounds, and where the best place is to have one. Ben begins crying and cannot stop. Stink and Bernie Lynn begin fighting. In August, the lieutenant said they would search a nearby village. If tunnels were found, they would be searched. Cacciato gets on everybody’s nerves bouncing the ball. Paul Berlin dreams about tunnels. The squad eventually reaches the village, and Rudy Chassler hits a mine, which brings relief from the silence.
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapters 17-18 Summary
Sarkin Aung Wan leads the soldiers westward through the tunnels. They wade through sewage, holding their noses against the smell. At last they come to a steel ladder bolted to stone. They exit the tunnels through a manhole cover, into the streets of Mandalay. Although the outer streets are dust and the shanties are mud, they soon reach concrete tenements and the market square, which is deserted. At last they reach the boulevard and see civilization. They take the trolley toward the city center. Paul Berlin is overjoyed to be among people in the bright city. The trolley takes them directly to the Hotel Minneapolis. It is very cheap, and they are immediately given rooms.
Sarkin Aung Wan and Paul Berlin share a room. Sarkin Aung Wan cleans Paul’s toenails, although he struggles against ticklishness. She wants him to take her to Paris and buy her something pretty. She calls him “Spec Four” and asks how long they must stay. He explains they will be here until they catch Cacciato. She asks what they will do to him if they find him. Paul tells her they will take him back to reality. The two caress and almost make love, but they do not.
They spend several days in Mandalay, always looking for Cacciato but also shopping. As the men sit in a café, Eddie asks what the plan is. Oscar suggests they look wherever there is liquor and women. Eddie responds that Cacciato does not drink, nor is he interested in women. The soldiers raise their glasses to toast and give several suggestions. Paul Berlin suggests they drink to Cacciato, and everyone indifferently agrees. Eddie asks what they will to do with Cacciato when they catch him. Corson dismisses the question.
Paul puzzles over where Cacciato is. He remembers Cacciato carrying a photo album containing pictures of all the places they had been in Vietnam, along with a few family pictures. One day, as he sits with Sarkin Aung Wan at an outdoor café, Paul spots Cacciato dressed as a monk. He takes after him, but Sarkin Aung Wan explains that it is the hour of prayer. Paul ignores her and bursts into the group of monks but is immediately overcome. When he comes to, Sarkin Aung Wan is hovering over him, licking his wounds. She tells Paul that Cacciato headed toward the train station, where the train would take him to Paris.
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Chapters 19-20 Summary
It is November after the “walk to Paris,” and Paul Berlin is still on guard duty at three in the morning. The Jolly Roger flag Eddie made is flying at half mast from the observation post. As hot as the days are, Paul is amazed at how cold the nights can be. He lights another cigarette. The war has taught him to smoke. He decides not to wake Stink for his guard duty. Tonight there will be no changing of the guard. Paul reflects that this time of night is the most dangerous, for it is now that observation posts are most often attacked. He tries to forget and think of other things, such as his trek to Paris. He thinks about life after the war and the stories he will tell. He wonders about Cacciato. What did he do about food and money, about crossing borders with no passport? Paul thinks these issues are trivial. They can be easily overcome. Money can be earned, or stolen. Passports can be forged. He wonders what Cacciato saw along the way. Paul is sure such a trip could truly be done.
The scene changes to earlier in the summer, before there were casualties. The squad is flying in a Chinook toward the combat zone. Paul wonders how it could be so cold in the helicopter. The gunners at the door fire below, aiming at returning gunfire. All the men occupy their time with nervous activity. The chopper is dropping swiftly, bouncing back and forth through the air. Paul has a bad feeling, thinking that the cold air does not feel right. The crew chief warns them that landing is in four minutes. As they fly lower, Paul hears different sounds, and the chopper banks hard. The chief warns them that the helicopter is hot and not to waste time when they land. One minute until landing, Harold Murphy falls over, unable to get back up. Holes open in the chopper’s hull, and long tears appear in the floor. The wind is making it difficult to function. They land, and the squad exits quickly. Pederson is hit first, shot in the legs. He lies back in the mud, now shot through the stomach, which he tries to hold in place. He is calm and the gunners fire around him. He fires at the elevating Chinook chopper. Paul still hears the firing of the guns.
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapters 21-22 Summary
On a December morning, Paul Berlin awakens on a train. The view is the same rice fields he has seen the last two hundred miles. Paul checks on the lieutenant, who is asleep. Paul covers him with a poncho liner, accidentally awakening him. Paul tells him they are almost to Chittagong, which strikes the lieutenant as odd.
He tells Paul about the first time he was busted in the army, for being in a fight in which he never participated. A Seebee named Jack Daniels took him to a bar; the lieutenant passed out drunk. Jack Daniels started a brawl, and both were arrested. The lieutenant vows to get back at him should he see him again. He tells Paul they have been kidnapped, that Cacciato is small potatoes. Paul does not argue, and the lieutenant goes to sleep.
Paul thinks kidnapping might be a good term for it; he was on this trip to get Sarkin Aung Wan to Paris. He thinks the lieutenant might be right about Cacciato. On the train, the soldiers are doing things to keep busy. Oscar suggests they search the second-class car for Cacciato. Reluctantly, Paul goes along and frisks the passengers. The trainmaster stops them, telling them they are shameful. He and some men advance toward the Americans. Doc shoots out the windows as a warning, but they still advance. The soldiers escape to the first-class car and lock the door. Oscar and Eddie come back and report they have found nothing except Cacciato’s empty AWOL bag.
Eddie Lazzutti is a singer but does not like music created for a cause. Oscar Johnson insists he was born and raised in urban Detroit, where he first learned the principles of diplomacy. Jim Pederson approaches any native wearing a cross or rosary and greets them. He says he wants to support Christianity in all forms. He even wrote to Billy Boy’s parents when he died of fright. Stink Harris cares for his weapon with precision. He introduced his sister to Bernie Lynn through letters, and the two began to correspond. Stink becomes irate when he finds a lewd picture of his sister in Bernie Lynn’s wallet. Lieutenant Corson believes in Mission, but not in any professional way, which is why the men love him. Doc Peret believes deeply in science. Most of the men are known by the name they choose to be called. Few know everyone’s real names.
(The entire section is 408 words.)
Chapters 23-24 Summary
Third Squad reaches Delhi, India, and checks into the Hotel Phoenix. There Lieutenant Corson falls madly in love. They arrived at noon, and Paul Berlin views it as the India he had always believed in. The lieutenant falls in love with the wife of the manager of the hotel, who introduces herself as Hamijolli Chand, known as Jolly. She is overjoyed at the arrival of Americans, telling them she had a premonition that today some Americans would come. She spent two years studying in America, becoming “corrupted,” as her husband said. She thinks that American television in one of the greatest things ever invented. It brings a society together.
The lieutenant is enthralled, calling her one classy lady. Later Jolly brings the soldiers a blood-rare roast beef, calling it “the sacred cow.” Because of the Hindu veneration of cows, the beef had to be smuggled in. Over dinner, she and the soldiers discuss many topics while the lieutenant becomes drunk in more ways than one. He tells Jolly of the differences between the Korean War, which was a war with a clear line of demarcation, and Vietnam, where nobody likes anyone else.
Later, the soldiers leave the garden as the lieutenant is sobbing over the loss of heart. In the morning, neither Jolly nor the lieutenant shows up for breakfast, which embarrasses the soldiers as they eat in front of Jolly’s husband. Paul Berlin writes cards home. When he comes back from mailing them, Sarkin Aung Wan has gone shopping and the others have gone on a bus tour. He somehow feels sad, thinking how young he is.
Back in August, after spending two months in the bush, the platoon goes to Chu Lai for the weekend. They swim, play mini-golf, drink, and write letters home. They discover a local outfit has hooked up a radio-telephone to America, and they can call home. Eddie is the first to call, coming back with a strained demeanor. He was overcome with emotion as he connected with his family. Paul Berlin is next and goes into the telephone booth, receiving instructions from the operator. He imagines the phone ringing in the kitchen, and thinks about what he can say during the time given to him. He listens as the connection is made, and he hears the phone ring. It keeps ringing; there is no one home.
(The entire section is 394 words.)
Chapters 25-26 Summary
The previous summer, the platoon’s first mission was to the mountains. Sidney Martin was the lieutenant, and he warned that there would be no malingering. He believed in “mission” above all else. The road was difficult, going straight up into the mountains. The dryness and heat make the march torturous.
The platoon of thirty-eight men is led by a thirteen-year-old native scout. All the men are tired and drag themselves along the road. Paul Berlin struggles to keep walking. He decides to stop, lie down along the road, and sip the Coke in his backpack. However, he can’t make his legs go along with this decision, so he keeps walking.
In Delhi, Cacciato does not show himself again, although the soldiers check every day at police headquarters. Eddie spends most of his time in the air-conditioned theater. The others find ways around the city to keep themselves amused. Paul Berlin passes his time with Sarkin Aung Wan. When it rains, they stay inside and watch from the lobby window. When the weather clears, they walk along the streets, holding hands and shopping. Sarkin Aung Wan tells Paul Berlin about her life in Cholon, where her father ran a restaurant. She asks him about life in Fort Dodge. She thinks it is a typical cow town in the Old West and asks if it is hard to walk in spurs. Paul jokes that there are many broken legs and ankles; next to gunshot wounds, it is the hospitals’ biggest business.
In the evenings, the two of them play cards and then go to their room. Paul pretends that they make love. They talk about Paris; Sarkin Aung Wan would like to open a beauty salon there. The men worry about Corson. He spends all his time with Jolly. Doc Peret says the lieutenant has transferred loyalties. Mostly it is a waiting game until one morning when Doc Peret shows Paul a picture of a train in the newspaper. He says the train is bound for Kabul in Afghanistan and predicts that this is where Cacciato is heading. They decide to get on the train and follow him. Trouble arises when the lieutenant says he is not going. He is done with the war and is staying in Delhi. However, that evening, when the lieutenant is passed out drunk, the men carry him to the train station.
(The entire section is 397 words.)
Chapters 27-28 Summary
Members of the Third Squad find themselves on one of the newer, faster trains bound for Afghanistan. They are the only passengers in the car. The lieutenant awakens, looks out to see mountains capped with snow, and proclaims that he has been kidnapped.
Paul Berlin observes the landscape and thinks it is like the “World’s Greatest Lake Country,” where they went on their first mission. After they climbed up into the mountains, Paul sat in a little depression, hiding during the one big battle of the war so far. All he could do was lie there, twitching and holding his breath. Then Lieutenant Sidney Martin stood up and yelled for them to advance. Ready Mix (no one ever knew his real name) was shot, but they kept advancing. The mountain was taken and they found the dead littered about, especially in bomb craters. They began to count the dead, but often all they could count was the heads. Paul cannot stop twitching. It begins to rain, and it rains for days. The craters fill with water, and it is then that Doc Peret names the area the “World’s Greatest Lake Country.” They find more tunnels, and Sidney Martin insists all the tunnels be searched for the dead.
On the train, the men play cards, sleep, and watch the countryside fly by. The train is stopped for the tracks to be mended. The lieutenant learns they are in Ovissil. They stay in the mayor’s stone house overnight. Outside, the snow begins to pile up. The mayor says he is a fortune teller. Paul asks to have his fortune told, but the mayor says he is too young; he must live a while longer to have a history worth telling. In the morning, the mayor sends them on their way with some food. Paul resentfully thinks that he does indeed have a history. His father built houses, and his mother buried alcohol in the garden. He had a childhood full of activity: Indian Guides, Sunday School, and Day Camp. He got good grades in school, though his teachers often wrote on his grade card that he was a daydreamer. He had a girlfriend in high school named Louise Wiertsma. He graduated from high school and went to junior college for a while. He spent his summers building houses with his father. At the age of twenty, Paul Berlin became a soldier. This was his history.
(The entire section is 406 words.)
Chapters 29-30 Summary
The men of Third Squad stop in Tehran, Iran, in December. There they celebrate Christmas by sneaking in to the Shah’s National memorial Gardens and chopping down a tree. They drink, trip the tree, try to sing some carols, and then smoke the last of Oscar’s marijuana. Sarkin Aung Wan goes to bed, and Eddie and Oscar play craps. Paul Berlin dismisses all this since they are in a land of “infidels” anyway. The lieutenant becomes sick again, the dysentery returning. More troublesome is that he sits wrapped in blankets, eating and saying nothing. Doc says this is very serious, a sign that he has brain fever. He says it is nostalgia, a homesickness for the war, and the only antidote is time.
The men wander Tehran as December becomes January. They walk into a city plaza to find a crowd gathering around a platform. There are chairs for military officers. A young man is brought in and placed on the platform. He is shaved, and Doc says they are about to see one of civilization’s grandest offerings: keeping the peace. Paul realizes he is about to witness a beheading. He notices a fly crawling on the young man’s nose and calls out for someone to brush it away. Soundlessly, the axe falls and the young man is dead, the fly still on his nose.
After the execution, Stink says he wants clams. They ask a police officer where they can find clams, and, not having their passports, they are arrested. At the police station, they are questioned by Captain Fahyi Rhallon, who had wanted to serve against the Kurds but was transferred to Internal Security instead. Doc tells Rhallon they are soldier tourists and not required to have passports. Rhallon is intrigued, especially when he learns that they are tracking Cacciato. Doc explains that the regulations covering their status were decided in Geneva. Rhallon apologizes, saying he has never heard of these rules but doubtless they are true. He understands that Cacciato is a deserter and explains that the young man who was beheaded was AWOL, the punishment for desertion being much less merciful. He releases the men with apologies and buys them a drink.
Back on his Observation Post, Paul waits for dawn. It is now four o’clock. He thinks about his military career so far and thinks of the day he witnessed the ultimate war story.
(The entire section is 404 words.)
Chapters 31-32 Summary
The platoon of thirty-two soldiers is on night march, silently crossing the meadow to the rice paddy. Lieutenant Sidney Martin signals the men to kneel and stay still. All they hear is their breathing and one of the men urinating. Some are excited, others afraid or exhausted.
Paul Berlin lies quietly, his forehead resting on his rifle. He pretends he is not in the war but home camping with his father. This is his first day, but in the morning he will be at the sea and try to forget, hoping the second day will not be so bad. He hears a voice next to him, but he is barely able to see the round face smiling beside him. The two crawl into the paddy, where the other soldiers are strung out. He looks at the stars, telling him that soon he will learn their names.
He tries not to think of Billy Boy Watkins, who died of fright. Doc Peret said it was a heart attack. Paul counts his steps to keep from thinking. His clothes have lost their newness from muck and slime. He vows he will not be part of the platoon, only play his part. They pass a village, and soon they are squatting in the wet grass. The same round, child-like face is next to him. He smells Doublemint gum on his breath. The boy talks about gum, giving him a piece but warning him to chew quietly. The boy whistles, forgetting they are supposed to be quiet until Paul tells him. The boy is surprised he has never chewed Black Jack gum; it is his favorite. They talk about Billy Boy’s death. Billy Boy had tripped a mine during a march. He saw his shoe was blown off, and then he noticed his foot was still in it. Doc Peret tells him that this is a “million dollar wound,” and he will get to go home. The war is over for him. Ignoring him, Billy Boy tries to tie his boot (and his foot) back onto his leg. Suddenly, a look of fear comes over him and he dies. They put him in a body bag and mark it with yellow smoke bomb so the chopper can pick him up.
Back at the Observation Post, it is now four thirty. Paul opens a can of pears, thinking how Billy Boy is now dead. It is merely a fact.
(The entire section is 405 words.)
Chapters 33-34 Summary
On the tenth of February, the men of Third Squad were arrested again. Taken from their boardinghouse, they were jailed for eight days in separate cells. Paul Berlin saw no one, his meals delivered through a sliding panel. He passed the time sleeping, but he was awakened and blindfolded while his neck was shaved. The blindfold removed, he was taken to another room where the other soldiers were handcuffed to a pillar. Captain Fahyi Rhallon comes in, apologizing. He tells them that their situation is very serious. They are charged with sabotage, along with several other crimes including desertion. This strikes Oscar Johnson as funny. The American Embassy in Tehran has no verification that they are traveling under official auspices; in fact, they have never heard of the Third Squad. There are no regulations of Geneva, 1965, as Oscar claimed on their previous arrest. They entered the country heavily armed without passports. Oscar explains again that they are not deserters but are going after a deserter, Cacciato. Rhallon says he will try to do something, but he is doubtful.
Back in his cell, Paul thinks of his past. He went to junior college for two years but had not gone on to the University of Iowa, though he thought about majoring in education. Instead, he went home and worked for his father, even though he is now eligible for the draft. When he is drafted, he is not surprised. His father tells him he will see some terrible stuff, but he should try to see some good things, too.
When the men are taken back into the larger room, Rhallon tells them that the verdict is the same, and they will be executed the next day. He says there is always hope for a pardon, since anything could happen. Another officer comes into the room, calling them a bunch of clowns.
Back in the “Lake Country,” Lieutenant Sidney Martin told them to search the tunnels before blowing them up. The men, however, refuse, and Martin writes down all their names. They know that somehow, Martin will use this against them. As Martin walks away, the men agree to just throw the grenades in. When Martin returns, they act as if they are done searching the tunnels. They throw four grenades into the tunnel before it collapses.
(The entire section is 385 words.)
Chapters 35-36 Summary
Paul Berlin goes to find Cacciato fishing in the Lake Country. Cacciato had tied a paperclip to a piece of string and baited it with bits of ham, casting it into a flooded crater. Paul tries to tell him there are no fish in there, but Cacciato keeps fishing, insisting he has had some nibbles on the line. Paul tells him that the others want him to touch the grenade as a sign of camaraderie in a plan to stand up to Lieutenant Sidney Martin’s insistence that all the tunnels be searched. Cacciato tells Paul that Martin is not all that bad and resists, so Paul grabs his hand and places it against the grenade. He returns and tells the others that Cacciato is in.
From their prison cells in Tehran, the men are taken at gunpoint, their necks having been shaved once again. They are locked in a large common cell. Paul falls asleep, dreaming of miracles. When he awakens, he sees Cacciato’s face appear at the window and thinks he is still asleep, dreaming, but Cacciato hands him an M16 rifle and whispers to him to go. There is an explosion, and the iron door is shattered.
The men grab their clothes and boots and take off running, followed by gunfire. They escape jail and go running through the streets and alleys of Tehran. Cacciato leads them to a getaway car. Oscar drives and races through the streets. Suddenly, the sky ignites with flairs and Paul Berlin realizes they have run into an ambush. The car is hit with a shot from a tank. Stink falls out of the car, barely hanging onto the door. The tanks keep firing, hitting the car. Stink is pulled into the car and they take off into open country.
All through the night, the escaped soldiers of Third Squad travel through the flat country of Iran. Paul Berlin thinks of how out of control his life has become. He thinks that what happened to Lieutenant Sidney Martin was a “very sad thing.” This is exactly what Cacciato had said the day after “it” happened. Martin was replaced by Lieutenant Corson. An hour before dawn, the soldiers drove into Ankara, Turkey. By late morning, they have reached the sea. Paul, who is now at the wheel, drives straight to the harbor. He points west across the sea, saying that it can be done.
(The entire section is 402 words.)
Chapters 37-38 Summary
Paul Berlin is well acquainted with the land in the same way a hunter studies his terrain. He knows the safe places and the dangerous spots. Quang Ngai is farm country, and the villages and paddies are part of the land. He finds nothing loathsome in the smell of the paddies, even though he is warned they are sources of disease. After the paddies, Paul thinks of the hedgerows, thick, unclipped, and tangled. They serve as a kind of clothing for the villages. The earth itself is red, likely because of high iron content, Doc Peret explains. Since the war is fought with feet and legs, Paul knows the trails well. They are obvious spots of ambush, with mines scattered along the sides. Paul wonders where the birds have gone, but Eddie asks him, “What birds?”
Paul was prepared for the poverty from the pictures on television. He is not horrified by it, but he does feel some guilt. That passes quickly. Quang Ngai starts at the sea, which is where Paul likes it best. Going beyond the paddies, inland, toward the mountains, lies Paris. He does not think beyond Paris.
When the men arrive at Ismir, Turkey, they book passage on a boat bound for Athens. Oscar Johnson made the arrangements with a shady deal in a tavern. Their passage is on an old freighter, accommodating up to thirty passengers. Rust is everywhere, but Oscar and Eddie organize a shuffleboard tournament. Doc spends his time reading, and Paul sits on a recliner, watching Mediterranean islands slip by.
The lieutenant’s health is improving thanks to the sun and Sarkin Aung Wan’s ministrations. She reminds him of his responsibilities as leader. She talks of Paris, but she keeps her own motives secret. As they approach Athens, Paul thinks of Cacciato’s claim that, if he could make it to Athens, the way to Paris would be easy. They reach Greece near midnight. They see a dozen policemen on the wharf, each holding a cardboard poster. They seem to be trying to match faces with pictures on the posters. Stink and Eddie realize these are Wanted posters, intended for them. The men lament that they are so close to their goal. Stink suggests they swim for shore. The others argue with the futility of this, but Stink strips down to his underwear, dives into the water, and takes off swimming.
(The entire section is 400 words.)
Chapters 39-40 Summary
Stink screams what he believes are Vietnamese commands to the villagers, ordering them to lie down. They just look at him, uncomprehending. He continues to scream, consulting the Vietnamese-English dictionary the other soldiers gave him for his birthday. They love watching him try to give orders, mixing up the two languages so they are unintelligible to either. Eventually, Stink fires his rifle and the villagers lie down and cover their heads. Stink tells Doc they obviously understand him fine, he just had to “punctuate” his sentences.
Because they do not know the language, the Americans do not understand the people. They do not know how they feel about the war or about American soldiers. Perhaps their facial expressions are the opposite of those of Westerners. Paul Berlin is plagued by these questions, wondering who these people actually are. Do they like him? A little girl with gold hoops in her ears intrigues him. Doc treats sores on her forehead with iodine. Paul wonders how she feels about this. He feels he has no enemies and would like the Vietnamese to know this. In one village, Oscar Johnson and Rudy Chassler shot down ten dogs just for the fun of it. He would like to explain that he is not one of these men. He does not know if the war is right or wrong, but he knows he must fight it out of allegiance to his country.
Paul is called before the promotion board and asked some ridiculous questions to determine if his rank should be increased. His answers are vague, but he is promoted anyway.
When the men land at Athens, they walk down the gangplank and past the police, who are not looking for them after all. After a couple of days touring Athens, they board a bus northward for Yugoslavia. As they progress through Eastern Europe, they encounter a girl from California driving a VW van. She gives them a ride and tells them how much she admires them for deserting the war. After listening to her talk on, Oscar holds his rifle to her head, ordering her to stop. Thinking they plan on raping her, the girl tells them she is willing, but they are simply tired of being praised for being deserters. They set her out on the road and drive on. They cross over into Germany and are soon in Luxembourg, next to France.
(The entire section is 400 words.)
Chapters 41-42 Summary
The battle ends at the ditch and continues like "dripping rain after a storm." In the ditch, Cacciato finds Buff, one of the platoon. They drag Buff from the ditch and lay his body in the grass, covering it with a poncho. Eddie calls for a helicopter to retrieve the corpse. Doc examines the body, removing the ammunition and searching the pockets. Eddie tells him he forgot to check the helmet, but Doc tells him to just cover him up.
Paul Berlin closes his eyes, trying to imagine himself at the bottom of a chlorinated pool. He thinks of Buff’s shirt sticking to his shoulders. Buff was short for “Water Buffalo” because he was overweight and stank when he sweated, which was often. Cacciato opens a can of peaches and eats them. Eddie says they found Buff on his knees with his face in his helmet, like an “Arab praying.” He keeps talking, even though everyone, especially Doc, is tired of listening to him. Paul tries to think of better things. Eddie keeps going on about Buff on his knees, praying like an Arab, and Paul tries to ignore it all. Eddie asks if they killed any of the enemy, but Buff is the only casualty on either side. They try to think of positive things to say about Buff and eventually talk about what a good shot he was. Harold Murphy is elected to inherit Buff’s big gun. They watch the chopper retrieve Buff’s body, unable to get truly sad. They see that Buff’s helmet is still in the ditch, but no one will retrieve it until Cacciato picks it up, cleaning it off. Oscar says that there is a lesson in this: Don’t get shot.
Back at his Observation Post on night guard duty, Paul Berlin thinks of the men who have been killed: Frenchie, Pederson, Rudy Chassler, Billy Boy Watkins, Bernie Lynn, Read Mix, Lieutenant Sidney Martin, and finally Buff. The deaths are all that Paul Berlin can remember about the war. The fighting itself, the marching, the villages, the jokes—all of this is blurred in his mind. All that remains are war stories and simple lessons, such as that dead men are heavy. He gazes down at the beach. It is now five o’clock, and dawn is beginning to break. He thinks of what might have been.
(The entire section is 398 words.)
Chapters 43-44 Summary
On April first, the men and Sarkin Aung Wan board the train for Paris. It is a four-hour ride from Luxembourg, but it has been a four-month march from Vietnam. Paul Berlin wants to yell when he sees Paris in the distance. He cleans off the window, but the passing villages still shows signs of the ravages left by the Second World War.
It is raining when they arrive in Paris. They all hug each other, exhilarated that they have at last reached their goal. They stay in a hotel not far from the Italian embassy. They leisurely search for Cacciato without any seriousness. Paul realizes he is in love. Sarkin Aung Wan wants to find an apartment. Staying in a hotel makes their stay in Paris seem temporary; an apartment will give them some permanence. They look at several, finally deciding on one in disrepair but very cheap. Paul is not sure of the bells from the nearby church.
When he returns to the hotel, Paul learns that Eisenhower has died. The lieutenant is overcome with grief, so the rest of the men let him be. Paul explains to Sarkin Aung Wan that he is no one, just some hero. He goes to the lieutenant’s room to tell him he is leaving the squad to live with Sarkin Aung Wan. Expecting the lieutenant to be upset, he is surprised when Corson is agreeable.
Paul and Sarkin Aung Wan buy some things for their apartment. When they return to their hotel, Oscar tells him to pack up quickly. The good times are over, and they have to check out of the hotel as fast as possible. They go to a park nearby and camp out. Paul just wants to go home. They discuss the possibility of going to Sweden, but Oscar rules that ought. The only chance they have is to capture Cacciato and take him to the American Embassy, thus giving credibility to their assertion of going after a real deserter. They finally catch him at the market. Paul is following at a distance. He follows him to his hotel and reports the address to Doc.
Later, Sarkin Aung Wan and Paul Berlin meet in a room, sitting at a table with microphones. They give their account of their journey. The lieutenant enters, shakes hand with Paul Berlin, takes Sarkin Aung Wan by the arm and leaves. Paul leaves by a separate exit.
(The entire section is 405 words.)
Chapters 45-46 Summary
At his Observation Post, Paul Berlin watches dawn break. Soon the other men will awaken and go on patrol. There is no prospect of battles, only a long, hot day. These are the facts. The war was still a war, and he was still a soldier. He had not deserted or run. It is now six o’clock. The facts are that several men are dead, but he has trouble relating the chronology and reality of other facts. It is a fact that one day, Cacciato left the war and went walking toward Paris. Third Squad went after him, following his trail into the mountains. They cornered him on a hill. They shot flares into the sky and moved in, but Paul shouted to Cacciato to go. This is the last known fact. The rest is only possibilities.
The lieutenant and Sarkin Aung Wan left, abandoning them in Paris. Paul fights back tears, the others commiserating. They find a note stating they are walking east, back to Vietnam. Doc does not believe it can be done. Oscar Johnson takes command. They stake out Cacciato’s room, plugging the exits and waiting for him to show himself. They find a dead-end alley below Cacciato’s hotel room. Oscar goes to the front door. They prepare to get Cacciato, with Paul leading the way. He enters Cacciato’s room and hears someone whimpering. He fires several shots and smells something burning. He loses control of his bladder.
He is in Vietnam, where he has always been, not on his fantasy quest after Cacciato. He is shaking, and Doc helps him lie on the grass. Corson leans over him, asking if he feels better. Paul apologizes for firing his rifle. He asks about Cacciato, but Doc just tells him it is over. Paul gets up and looks over the hillside, where he had expected them to catch Cacciato. He remembers the fear. The men talk about how close they came to catching him. They find the trail and begin backtracking. When they come down from the mountain, the lieutenant radios that Cacciato is missing in action. That night, they talk about the rumor that they will be stationed by the sea. They talk about the war, stating no one would believe their war story. Paul and the lieutenant talk about Cacciato and wonder whether he could possibly make it all the way to Paris. The odds are miserable, but he just might make it.
(The entire section is 411 words.)