Going After Cacciato: Important quotes with page numbers
“Soldiers are dreamers” (Epigraph)
. Before the first chapter, O’Brien establishes that this will be a different kind of war novel. We think of soldiers as fighters, heroes, survivors—dreamers wouldn’t be the first word that comes to mind, but it is in fact Paul’s dream that will drive much of the book.
“Paul Berlin, whose only goal was to live long enough to establish goals worth living for still longer, stood high in the tower by the sea, the night soft all around him, and wondered, not for the first time, about the immense powers of his own imagination. A truly awesome notion. Not a dream, an idea.
An idea to develop, to tinker with and build and sustain, to draw out as an artist draws out his visions” (Chapter 2, page 26-27)
. Paul’s life is unformed, but his imagination is fully developed and will be the thing that sustains him throughout the war. He believes that the trip to Paris is more than just a dream, that it’s an idea—the distinction being that an idea is plausible, that a plan can be made to carry it out. Paul’s ambitions in life are modest, and though his dreams are fanciful, he believes they can be fulfilled.
“‘No bridges,’ the lieutenant finally said…‘I guess that’s one good thing. No bridges to burn behind me. ’” (Chapter 3, page 33)
. This statement marks the point at which the trip to Paris turns from something realistic into pure fantasy as they cross the border into Laos. It also reflects Lieutenant Corson’s character—his military career is basically at an end, and his glory days are behind him. He can afford to take chances, like telling his superiors that Cacciato is missing in action instead of telling them he went AWOL.
“In the morning the fifty new men were marched to a wooden set of bleachers facing the sea. A small, sad-faced corporal…sat down in the sand. He turned away and gazed out to the sea. He did not speak…They sat in the bleachers for a full hour…‘All right,’ he said softly. ‘That completes your first lecture on how to survive this shit. I hope you paid attention’” (Chapter 4, page 37)
. This is one of the moments in the realistic chapters that doesn’t seem very likely, suggesting that Paul is an unreliable narrator. However, it might also suggest the absurdity of war and the impossibility of survival. It prepares the reader for the important role that Paul’s inner life will play in the novel, while also establishing the sea as a symbol of comfort and safety.
“He would go to Europe. That’s what he would do. Spend some time in Fort Dodge and then take off for a tour of Europe. He would learn French. Learn French, then take off for Paris, and when he got there he would drink red wine in Cacciato’s honor…It could be done” (Chapter 5, page 48)
. Paul is considering what he might do when the war is over. He begins by contemplating going back home and working with his father; a trip to Europe is his grandest dream. Such a journey seems impossible in the midst of the war and imagining the trip to capture Cacciato could be a way to realize this dream sooner.
“Sadly, moving only her head, the girl gestured in the direction of the dead water buffalo. ‘My aunts raised him from a tiny baby. Their own breasts. And now poor Nguyen—’” (Chapter 6, page 52)
. Sarkin’s explanation that her aunts nursed Nguyen sets up the buffalo as a childfigure. Stink’s murder of her thus points to the killing of Vietnamese children, the collateral damage of war. Sarkin asks them if they’ll pay reparations, urging the soldiers to take responsibility for their actions. They dismiss this idea; however, Stink is the only soldier who isn’t uncomfortable with the aunts’ grief.
“Smoking quietly, he 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’” (Chapter 8, page 63)
. Paul’s father’s advice is what he clings to throughout the war. He looks for the good all around him, and when he cannot find enough of it, he imagines more. This could be the real inspiration for the trip to Paris.
“When it was night they talked about Jim Pederson. It was always better to talk about it” (Chapter 11, page 79)
. During the day, the soldiers’ reactions to the atrocities around them range from stoic to flippant to angry—sorrow or sincerity rarely makes an appearance. These lines, however, suggest that these reactions might be defense mechanisms and the nature of the conversation may change at night. At the very least, it shows that the soldiers are able to comfort each other in some manner.
“The real issue was the power of will to defeat fear. A matter of figuring out how to do it…There was a Silver Star twinkling somewhere inside him” (Chapter 12, page 81)
. The symbolic nature of the Silver Star is made clear in this quotation.
Paul struggles with how to overcome his fear and be courageous, and he thinks of it in terms of finding the Silver Star within him.
“He had never seen the living enemy. He had seen Cacciato’s shot-dead VC boy. He had seen what bombing could do. He had seen the dead. But never had he seen the living enemy. And he had never seen the tunnels” (Chapter 13, page 85)
. Modern warfare creates distance between enemies; soldiers no longer fight face to face. Paul imagines what the enemy solder might be like and he is able to fulfill his curiosity through meeting Van on the road to Paris. Paul is also able to do the thing he both longs to do and dreads: go into the tunnels.
“We are prisoners, all of us. POWs” (Chapter 15, page 96)
. Van puts himself on the same side as the American soldiers—they are all trapped in the tunnel and trapped in the war. None of them wanted to sign up, but they all did or were forced to do so, and now they have to fight the war. Though they’re on opposing sides, their relationship with the war is the same.
“When Rudy Chassler hit the mine, the noise was muffled, almost fragile, but it was a relief for all of them” (Chapter 16, page 110)
. The men constantly expect something terrible to happen.
When a period of quiet occurs, it’s pleasant at first, but it quickly becomes more and more stressful as they anticipate the end of peace. Though Rudy’s death is tragic, it brings an end to their tense anticipation.
“Paul Berlin countered with sympathy. He smiled. He composed himself, fixed a smile of understanding, neighborly goodwill. I’m with you, he was saying. I don’t like this either. I hate it. We do what we do” (Chapter 21, page 139)
. While Doc fires a gun into the ceiling of the train as a mob approaches them, Paul tries to make them understand that they are all on the same side.
They don’t stop, however, which upsets Paul. He doesn’t want to be seen as the enemy even as he searches and violates the people on the train.
“‘In Korea, by God, the people liked us…Respect, that’s what it was. And it was a decent war. Regular battle lines, no backstabbing crapage You won some, you lost some, but what the heck, it was a war…In Nam there’s no respect for anything. No heart. Nobody’s got his heart in it, you know? Doves on their helmets. Faking ambushes. That’s the real difference. No heart” (Chapter 23, page 150)
. Lieutenant Corson laments the nature of the Vietnam War, in which the
Vietnamese practiced guerilla warfare instead of adhering to traditional rules of war. For Corson, this makes Vietnam substantively worse than other wars, which is one side of a philosophical argument. It’s also a marker of his character’s age and world-weariness.
“[H]e considered war a means to ends, with potential for both good and bad, but his interest was in effectiveness and not goodness. A soldier’s interest is in means, not ends” (Chapter 25, page 163)
. Lieutenant Sidney Martin isn’t interested in the moral questions of war that other characters discuss.
He is only concerned with strict adherence to protocol and ensuring that he executes the war in the most efficient way possible. This overrides his concern for the lives of individual soldiers.
“He imagined a courtroom. A judge in a powdered white wig, his own father, all the Fort Dodge townsfolk sitting in solemn-faced rows. He could hear snickers and hoots as the indictments were read. Shame, downcast eyes. He could feel himself sweating as he tried to explain that it wasn’t cowardice or simple desertion” (Chapter 26, page 172)
. Paul imagines having to go before a judge to explain the trip to Paris. This is one of many scenes of judgment, where characters cast blame on Paul for his actions. These imaginings clearly stem from Paul’s feelings of guilt.
“‘You are young,’ he said. ‘Come to me when you have had time to make a real history for yourself. I cannot tell unmade histories’” (Chapter 27, page 179)
. The mayor who tells Lieutenant Corson’s history is unwilling to tell Paul’s; he says that Paul is too young to have a real history. In the next chapter, Paul thinks about his past and argues that he does have a history, but his memories make it clear how much he still has to do in life: buying a car, getting a girlfriend, choosing a career. Yet since Paul may die any day, he naturally wants to feel that he has really lived.
“‘War has its own reality. War kills and maims and rips up the land and makes orphans and widows. These are the things of war. Any war. So when I say that there’s nothing new to tell about Nam, I’m saying it was just a war like every war. Politics be damned. Sociology be damned. It pisses me off to hear everybody say how special Nam is, how it’s a big aberration in the history of American wars—how for the solider it’s somehow different from Korea or World War Two. Follow me?
I’m saying that the feel of war is the same in Nam or Okinawa—the emotions are the same, the same fundamental stuff is seen and remembered’” (Chapter 29, page 197)
. Doc disagrees with Lieutenant Corson’s opinion (and the opinion of many historians)[/trx_quote] that the Vietnam War is different and substantively worse than other wars because of its lack of legitimate purpose. He believes that all wars are the same for the soldiers who have to fight them, that the same horrors that exist regardless of the larger purpose are what matter.
“‘It wasn’t so bad,’ he would tell his father. ‘I was a man. I saw it the first day, the very first day at the war, I saw all of it from the start, I learned it, and it wasn’t so bad, and later on, later on it got better, later on, once I learned the tricks, later on it wasn’t so bad’” (Chapter 31, page 217)
. As Paul tries to absorb Billy Boy Watkins’ death, he copes by imagining telling his father that it wasn’t so bad—as proof of his bravery. He frequently imagines having these sorts of conversations with his father, whose opinion is very important to Paul. And it likely helps Paul to cope to imagine that he will make it out of the war and be able to talk about it from the safety of his home.
“Paul Berlin’s motives, as shapeless as water, washed through his imagination: a briny, sodden pressure that weighted him like gravity, layers of inclination pressing him deeper and deeper. His brain had the bends. Things were out of control. Gone haywire. You could run, but you couldn’t outrun the consequences of running. Not even in imagination” (Chapter 33, page 226)
. The men are about to be executed in Tehran, and Paul wonders how his imagination has led to this, as if it’s something apart from him. His guilt seems to have taken over. He fears the possible consequences for his actions in the war, and so those consequences appear in his imaginings.
“A little girl with gold hoops in her ears and ugly scabs on her brow—did she feel, as he did, goodness and warmth and poignancy when he helped Doc dab iodine on her sores? Beyond that, though, did the girl like him? Lord knows, he had no villainy in his heart, no motive but kindness. He wanted health for her, and happiness. Did she know this? Did she sense his compassion? When she smiled, was it more than a token?
And…and what did she want? ” (Chapter 39, page 262)
. Paul remembers a Vietnamese girl that he helped Doc treat; imagines being able to talk to her after the war and hopes that she’ll understand and like him. He wants to be seen as an individual, apart from the other soldiers or the war in general. He doesn’t want to be thought poorly of for things that he had to do in the war.
“Sometimes there were jokes, cynical and weary, but there was no serious discussion. No beliefs. They fought the war, but no one took sides” (Chapter 39, page 270)
. The soldiers don’t discuss politics—the reason they’re fighting and whether or not it’s just. They discuss the events on the ground but nothing more. Since they don’t have a choice about whether or not to fight, they probably don’t want to consider whether fighting is the right thing to do.
“Already he anticipated the textures of things familiar: decency, cleanliness, high literacy and low mortality, the pursuit of learning in heated schools, science, art, industry bearing fruit through smokestacks. Wasn’t this the purpose? The goal? Some vision of virtue? Weren’t these the valued things? Wasn’t freedom worth pursuing? If civilization had meaning, weren’t these the reasons?
Hadn’t wars been fought for these very promises? Even in Vietnam— wasn’t the intent to restrain forces of incivility? The intent. Wasn’t it to impede tyranny, aggression, repression? To promote some vision of goodness? Oh, something had gone terribly wrong. But the aims, the purposes, the ends— weren’t these fully virtuous and proper? ” (Chapter 40, page 277)
. Paul resolves his philosophical disagreement with Doc here, concluding that the positive things in civilization justify the violence of war. He acknowledges that something was wrong with the war, but the intent was sound; the end result desired was the preservation of something Paul believes in, so he thinks that this justifies the means.
“What remained was simple event. The facts, the physical things. A war like any war. No new messages. Stories that began and ended without transition. No developing drama or tension or direction. No order” (Chapter 42; page 287)
, In the penultimate observation post chapter, Paul reflects that all that’s left from the war are seemingly disconnected stories. This is also a meta-description of the novel’s structure, which consists of war stories that are told out of order and without a larger context. This quote shows that the style is meant to reflect a soldier’s memories.
“‘We want a peace that endures. We want a peace we can be proud of. Even in imagination we must obey the logic of what we started. Even in imagination we must be true to our obligations, for, even in imagination, obligation cannot be outrun. Imagination, like reality, has its limits’” (Chapter 44; page 320-21)
. Paul concludes that he must fulfill his obligations as a soldier—that even in his imagination, he can’t stay in Paris with Sarkin and live a happy life as a civilian. To run away from his responsibilities would leave him feeling ashamed; he wouldn’t have a life to return to that he could be proud of.