Tim O’Brien’s purpose in writing Going after Cacciato resides solely inside the head of Tim O’Brien. What we can logically surmise on the basis of O’Brien’s own experiences in the Vietnam War, and by his subsequent body of work, is that this 1978 surrealistic treatment of that highly contentious war – a war that ended with the sight of Americans being evacuated from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) and over 58,000 American soldiers killed in combat – was an early exercise in exorcising the demons with which O’Brien and thousands of others returned home following the completion of their tours of duty. Going after Cacciato begins with the sentence “It was a bad time,” and O’Brien’s narrator proceeds to list the casualties:
“Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in the tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead. The rain fed fungus that grew in the men’s boots and socks, and their socks rotted, and their feet turned white and soft, so that the skin could be scraped off with a fingernail, and Stink Harris woke up screaming one night with a leech on his tongue.”
Now, Going after Cacciato is a work of fiction. We don’t know how much of what O’Brien describes in this novel accurately reflects things he witnessed or heard about during or after his tour in Vietnam. His subsequent novel – actually, a collection of short stories tied together by the common thread of the author’s experiences in the war -- The Things They Carried, is a carefully crafted series of vignettes that he makes very clear may or may not be true. What we do surmise, however, is that these stories are based in fact if not constituting facts themselves. The war in Vietnam was hardly the first conflict to involve cases of what is today called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); on the contrary, all wars throughout history have had very serious effects on the mental or emotional state of those who fought in them. Vietnam, however, stood out for most Americans, and for most American soldiers, as a uniquely complicated and emotionally devastating conflict, and O’Brien’s writings reflect that phenomenon. Certainly, Erick Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front remains an important study on the effects of war on those sent to fight them, in this case, World War I, as does Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 with respect to World War II, but Vietnam remains a particularly troubling period in American history for that war’s uncertain purpose (to many), its association with unseen enemies lurking in dense jungles, and the almost surrealistic element of the intricate network of tunnels dug by the Viet Cong guerrillas who tormented American and South Vietnamese troops. Indeed, it is those tunnels that provide Going after Cacciato one of its more troubling developments, specifically, the shooting of the aforementioned Lieutenant Martin by his troops. Such actions, known as “fragging,” were not common, but they did occur among American troops frustrated by the deadly results of questionable decisions by their superiors.
The thread that runs through Going after Cacciato, of course, involves the search for this fellow soldier who seems to have simply walked away from the war and headed for Paris. Private Cacciato is never seen; his is a presence that drives the plot, but we’re never actually certain he exists. His squad-mates certainly held him, if he existed, in relatively low esteem:
“Some of the jokes were about Cacciato. Dumb as a bullet, Stink said. Dumb as a month-old oyster fart, said Harold Murphy”; “Open-faced, naïve and plump . . .”
Cacciato, however, is a plot device. Of course, no soldier deployed to Vietnam just walked off his post and made his way to Paris. O’Brien’s novel, as noted, is a surrealistic exercise in attempting to make some kind of sense about the violence and opaqueness that was characteristic of much of the combat in that war. In the end, Going after Cacciato was probably written as a cathartic exercise in dealing emotionally with the effects of a high divisive war fought under the most unusual of conditions. Private Cacciato exists to represent the personification of what many of the soldiers with whom O’Brien served dreamt they could do: lay down their M-16 and just walk away. I guess, you had to be there.