Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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.

Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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 individual men finding it unthinkable to say “no” in such a way. So Cacciato, always seen in the distance (like a wishing-star or a mirage), becomes the image of possibilities for Paul Berlin, the obedient soldier.

Although O’Brien has discussed in other writings what exactly it is that holds an individual to military service in a war that person believes is wrong, the obedient soldiers in “Going After Cacciato” are largely silent about their motivations. It is through the lieutenant’s long hesitations before acting that readers understand that he, too, is in conflict. It is through the men’s continuing to follow Cacciato up the long trail in the rain that readers understand which side in the conflict masters them. As Stink puts it, “Can’t hump away from a war, isn’t that right sir? The dummy has got to learn you can’t just hump your way out of a war.”