Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Going After Cacciato, like any number of war novels, takes as one of its themes the question of courage. What is it to be courageous in the face of dangerous circumstances? Paul’s long meditations often return to this idea.
Perhaps even more central to the novel, however, is the theme of control, a theme that subsumes and defines courage itself. Indeed, courage in war requires self-control of body, senses, and emotions. Only through the strictest self-control can a soldier withstand the fear that an attack inevitably brings.
O’Brien develops the theme of control by juxtaposing examples of people or events under strict control with examples of the out of control. For Paul, control is a large issue. His thoughts circle and return again and again to his own loss of self-control. At the moment of confrontation with Cacciato, a situation that should be tightly controlled, Paul loses control in the most noticeable way: He urinates in his pants.
Paul’s personal need for and loss of control parallel the larger war effort. The military structure depends on the strictest observance of military command and standard operating procedures. Sidney Martin, by his insistence on searching the tunnels, violates standard operating procedures, leaving his men desperate and out of control. Consequently, they choose to kill Martin in an effort to regain control of their own lives.
In a final example of control and loss of...
(The entire section is 379 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Tim O’Brien’s story was selected for inclusion in The Best American Short Stories, 1977, won the Pushcart Prize, and grew into the novel Going After Cacciato (1978), a National Book Award winner. It illustrates the Vietnam draftee’s terrible ambivalence about the war—the passionate desire to be someplace else, balanced against the impossibility of leaving. O’Brien writes about this conflict in several of his works. In “On the Rainy River,” the protagonist of The Things They Carried (1990) debates whether to report for induction or to flee to Canada. The draftee in The Nuclear Age (1985) actually does flee. In If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Send Me Home (1973), the main character complies with the draft but then considers deserting from advanced infantry training. In “Going After Cacciato,” one side of the issue is embodied in the deserter Cacciato, and the other in the obedient soldiers.
Cacciato is a fool. His simplemindedness frees him to think simple, direct thoughts and take simple, direct actions. His foolishness liberates him from the weight of duty, propriety, inertia, and expectation that chains the more mature soldiers to the war. When he wants to be elsewhere, he simply goes. His going is a radical act that threatens the whole conceptual structure of the war, because he enacts the possibility of saying “no.” The entire war mentality, as seen by O’Brien, depends on...
(The entire section is 389 words.)