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 wonders what eventually became of Cacciato. Doc tries to convince him that excessive bile in his system has infected his brain and affected his sense of reality.