Going After Cacciato, by Tim O'Brien, is a book that presents many problems in understanding. Simply trying to figure out what is real and what is fantasy and where they combine can be quite a strain on the reader. Yet even more clouded and ambiguous are the larger moral questions raised in this book. There are many so-called "war crimes" or atrocities in this book, ranging from killing a water buffalo to fragging the commanding officer. Yet they are dealt with in an almost offhanded way. They seem to become simply the moral landscape upon which a greater drama is played-- i.e. the drama of running away from war, seeking peace in Paris. This journey after Cacciato turns into a morality play, the road Westward metaphor. As Dennis Vannatta explains, "The desire to flee may have begun as a reaction to fear, but by the time the squad has reached Paris, Paul has nurtured and cultivated it until it has become a political, moral, and philosophical statement" (245). But what about the atrocities going on all the time? How could they be ignored in the face of this larger drama? As Milton J. Bates puts it, although Going After Cacciato is "not atrocity-based in the manner of much Vietnam War autobiography and fiction, [it does] record incidents in which Vietnamese civilians are beaten or killed and have their livestock and homes destroyed" (270). This book has an almost offhanded-like way of dealing with these My Lai-like atrocities. Why? What's going on here?
Well, one thing that one must take into consideration is the author's aim. As quoted by Timothy J. Lomperis at a conference, O'Brien has said, "'For me, the purpose of writing fiction is to explore moral quandaries. The best fiction is almost always the fiction which has a character having to make a difficult moral choice'" (52). This certainly comes out in the fragging incident, when the squad kills Lieutenant Sidney Martin. But there's something more. Another time, O'Brien was quoted as saying, "My concerns have to do with the abstractions: ... How does one do right in an evil situation?" (Bates 263). That is the big question, of course, that this novel deals with. See, the point that O'Brien is making is not that war is an evil situation. He's trying to take that for granted and move beyond. Now that you've got this evil situation, what do you do?
Where is the good? In the observation post, Paul Berlin "remembered what his father had said on their last night along the Des Moines River. 'You'll see some terrible stuff, I guess. That's how it goes. But try to look for the good things, too. They'll be there if you look. So watch for them'" (O'Brien 58). So he does look for the good things. That's beauty being born out of despair, if you will. He enjoys watching the sunrise. And Bates refers to Paul Berlin helping treat a young Vietnamese girl and having sensitive feelings towards her (270). This is almost as if to say that war brings out the best as well as the worst in us. Some may argue that it's almost worth it. ("Almost" being the key word-- for clearly the good in a war does not outweigh or even equal the bad.)
Here's where purpose gets involved. Most believe that there is a greater good. Some reason for fighting the war. Politics. Ideology. The things Paul Berlin thinks of when he's on the train rolling through Germany and he looks out and sees the smokestacks of industry, the colleges, civilization, and for that brief moment he thinks he knows what the war is all about (O'Brien 247). But he knows that's not really why he's fighting. (Or isn't fighting.) It goes back to that haunting scene in the bar in Tehran. When Captain Rhallon is arguing with Doc Peret that it is purpose that keeps a soldier going, that it's purpose for which a war is fought, and that individual soldiers have faith that their role as pawns will fulfill that higher purpose, even if they cannot see it from their position, Doc responds,
What Doc is trying to say here is that politics and ideology have nothing to do with how a war is fought or what keeps the soldier going. (He later goes on to explain wars are won or lost based on production of matriel and that most soldiers don't run because of fear and self-respect.) Politics, ideology, these play no role in war, except, perhaps, in recruiting slogans.
The point is that war is not the best in us. It doesn't bring it out. It just brings out the worst, with atrocities. We don't keep wars going because of ideology; we do it because there is something inherent in human nature that likes to destroy, to do evil. (Like in the play "Still Life.") One of the things Vannatta wrote relates to this. He said, "As much as it is a novel about war, Going After Cacciato is a novel about the struggle and eventual failure to impose order on the flux of experience" (244). Paul Berlin tries to make sense out of it all by dreaming and imagining a journey with definite chronological and geographical proceedings and with definite goals, but it all just breaks down in the end. There is no order--war is a post-modernist collage of chaos with nightmarish implications.
You see, the folks back home like to believe there is an order in war. A sense of right and wrong. Some things are allowed, some things are not. That's why civilian leaders on the home front wanted to court-martial Lieutenant Calley. But My Lai was just part of the war, not some isolated incident. War has no rules. No time outs. No penalties for fouls. If you can't accept that, then you can't accept war, because that's what war is.
This is what O'Brien is saying. Going back to that scene in the Tehran bar, Doc Peret explains to Captain Rhallon,
And this brings us back to the morality question. How do we deal with these atrocities? Bates brings up an important issue. He says:
And if so, he's guilty of these horrible war crimes. He's in this evil situation and there just seems to be no good he can do to counter-balance it. If the only way to prevent needless deaths is to murder your commanding officer, what kind of morality is that? Trading murder for murder? Morality is not a scale. There is no right answer. No matter what you do in a war, it's wrong.
So returning to the original question which O'Brien had asked, "How does one do right in an evil situation?" the answer is nothing except walk away. Turn your back on it. That's what Vannatta meant when he called Paul Berlin's journey to Paris, "a political, moral, and philosophical statement" (245). Maybe evil cannot be defeated, but you can at least turn your back on it.
Going After Cacciato raises these moral questions, but a discerning reader can cut through the moral ambiguities and attempt to find answers. The answers are not in reality, and the struggle to determine what's real and what's fantasy is a futile one. It does not matter. It's all imagination. Because that's where answers to real problems lie. When we are stuck in reality and refuse to let our imagination transcend our experience, we'll never solve problems. It is imagination that holds the key. As Northrop Frey, quoted in Bates, says, "The fundamental job of the imagination ... is to produce out of the society we live in, a vision of the society we want to live in" (278).
And that's what art and literature are all about. We imagine a better world, and if we can dream it, we can do it. Imagination is for self-improvement. In the surrealistic vision of the Paris Peace Conference towards the end of the book, Sarkin Aung Wan says to Paul, "Spec Four Paul Berlin, I urge you to act. Having dreamed a marvelous dream, I urge you to step boldly into it, to join your dream and to live it" (O'Brien 284). Thoughts lead to actions. But dreaming is also doing. The act of imagination can sometimes have more power than any technological weapon. It is imaginations that stop wars.
It is art fulfilling its role in society. It is art that brings the moral issues. It is art that makes us human.