Waking up from the American Dream in Going after Cacciato (Tim O'Brien) What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns. Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle Can patter out their hasty orisons. (from Anthem for Doomed Youth, Wilfred Owen) Sassoon's epitaph "All Soldiers are dreamers" at the beginning of the novel functions as a signpost signaling the shape the novel will take. It does not merely deal with brutal horror, it is imagination. Reality and dream, fact and imagination are interwoven. The choice of Siegfried Sassoon suggests the Great War, the English experience of war, which can be compared to the American Vietnam experience, for it had the same impact: total disorientation and national trauma because of lost values. This novel then deals, in story and structure, with the war experience, but also with the US society's influence on that war through the ordinary soldier. The common grunt raised the question how to act properly in this horrible situation, in which he even did not know whether his presence was morally justified or not. Yet he concluded that, although he knew this war was just as insane as any other war, he should not run away from his duty. He stayed in the war, because of his personal obligations to society. Not out of idealism, but merely because his people expected him to. In novels dealing with Vietnam we often see veterans coming back into the American society (like in Caputo's Indian Country), but here we are confronted with the country itself. The novel Going after Cacciato deals with the journey to Paris an American soldier fantasizes about. It is November 1968 and Spec. Four Paul Berlin is in his observation tower in Quang Ngai, Vietnam, by the South China Sea, performing his tour of duty, which lasts 365 days for the common grunt, the foot soldier he is. He feels he has come to Nam in another way than soldiers had gone to the Second World War and to Korea. His lieutenant, Lt Corson had been in Korea, and he was looking back to it with nostalgia: "In Korea, by God, the people liked us. Know what I mean? They liked us. Respect, that's what it was. And it was a decent war (...) The trouble's this: Nobody likes nobody. (p. 134) New were the blindness of war, the inertia, drugs were taking over, the creation of the new word "fragging", i.e. killing a superiour officer It all illustrated this war was supposed to be different from those wars in which Paul Berlin's ancestors had fought, with in their mind the American dream. However, Vietnam was not different at all. Soldiers who enthousiastically started their participation in Vietnam, were as quickly traumatized by the killings, as any other soldiers. A war like any other war. Stories that began and ended without transition. No developing drama or
tension or direction. No order. (p.255) When Paul realizes this, the main question for him is how to determine his own place in it. As he does not know an anwer, the possibility, or rather the necessity of dreaming something else in the face of horror, is brought to Vietnam. He starts to think about Cacciato. This bloke fishes in the world's Great Lake Country where everybody says there is no fish. He dutifully goes through all the motions and all of a sudden het gets out, and Paul is intrigued. Paul's squad is sent to go after Cacciato. They are following the unmarked character and find him more and more almost a holy character, less defined as they go along. Finding him a friendly leader almost, they follow him. From soldier among soldiers, he develops into a friendly symbolical figure pointing the way. The seductiveness of Cacciato leads them on. He sheds his war implements. He is that annoying, different, seperate chap who bounces the ball, who nobody can trace and think of, who does not really exist, he has not even got a first name! Cacciato, that just fulfills. Going after Cacciato means "going after a dream", following that dream, but it can also mean...
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