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 control, O’Brien offers Paul’s imagination and memory. Paul repeatedly attempts to order the events of the past six months chronologically in an effort to bring his memory under control. The horrors of the war, however, refuse to lend themselves to such ordering. Paul turns instead to creating an imaginary past for himself. On the fantasy trek to Paris, Paul is able to control each detail and to avoid the memories of his own self-perceived failure.
Likewise, as the writer of the novel, O’Brien is able to control the way the story is told. He creates characters and kills them, and he allows his characters to have memories and imaginations, all under his own control. The control over his material stands in stark contrast the lack of control O’Brien exerted over his own life as an infantryman in the Vietnam War.