Cacciato by Tim O'Brien [...] meaning of war in the book, and how war affects the soldiers. O'Brien sees the Vietnam War experience as one that lasted far longer than the actual fighting, and he shows just how devastating war can be to the men and women who experience it. This book is more than a testament against war, however. It is also an engrossing look into the minds and experiences of soldiers, and how they manage to block out the horrors of war by dreaming, fantasizing, and looking inward so they can ignore the realities of war that surround them.
This novel centers around just one imaginary day in the life of Paul Berlin, a soldier in Vietnam on a bizarre mission. In his dreamlike imagination, he and his comrades are trailing a deserter named Cacciato, who is bent on reaching Paris for the Paris peace talks by walking across Asia and Europe. Ultimately, this engrossing and yet strange book relies on the past, present, and imagined future to paint a picture of how war affects the men who fight it far longer than their fighting days. The book won a National Book Award in 1978, and many critics feel it is the finest novel ever written about the Vietnam War.
Reality is blurred in this novel, and the author purposely constructed the novel around themes of dreams and fantasy so the reader would find it difficult to discern what is real and what is illusion. This seems to mirror the experiences of the soldiers, who often must fantasize about home and family so they do not remember the horror and reality of war that constantly surrounds them. For example, Berlin often thinks of his family back home in Iowa, particularly his father, who is a builder. He thinks of the neat and orderly houses his father builds, with their definite angles and walls, and contrasts them with his experience in Vietnam, which is anything but neat and orderly. One critic notes,
Berlin (the narrator) and O'Brien have nothing against well-built houses; they simply feel the profound disjunction between those carpentered houses (with floor plans replete with 45- and 90-degree angles, squares, rectangles, isosceles triangles, and reassuring perpendicular relationships) and what was happening to their eroding epistemology in "America's longest war" (Ringnalda 92).
O'Brien writes of personal war experiences, and he shows what the men must endure, not only from the enemy, but from their own leadership. He portrays lieutenants as brash or bound to discipline no matter what, and he continually shows that the leaders cared more about the mission than the men did. He writes,
He hoped that someday the men would come to understand this; that effectiveness requires an emphasis on mission over men, and that in war it is necessary to make hard sacrifices. He hoped the men would someday understand why it was required that they search tunnels before blowing them, and why they must march to the mountains without rest. He hoped for this understanding, but he did not worry about it. He did not coddle the men or seek their friendship (O'Brien 163).
Yet, the ultimate question is what was the real mission in Vietnam? Paul Berlin cannot figure it out, and it seems most of the leaders cannot figure it out, either. It is O'Brien's intention to show that this was an unjust and unwanted war that served no purpose in the end. One critic writes, "shortly after this novel was published, he [O'Brien] said that his main concern in it was 'to have readers care about what's right and wrong and about the difficulty of doing right, the difficulty of saying no to a war'" (Froelich 182). The author also shows that the war affected the men so much that they were never the same when they came home - they could never be the same again. They endured, but they changed, and not for the better. The first two pages of the novel list those characters who died, and O'Brien does this for a reason, too. He wants the reader to immediately understand the real cost of war, and that some of these characters will not be going home, just as many of the soldiers in Vietnam never returned home. The novel is a fantasy, but a fantasy based on the stark reality of war, and so, while it is dreamlike, humorous, and even entertaining, it is still distressing. O'Brien does not make light of war, he makes light of the characters in war, and how they cope with the conditions and the reality that they may not wake up tomorrow.
Probably one of the most interesting facets of the novel is how the author portrays Vietnam and its' people. For the most part, the soldiers are removed from the country and its' people, and the country is mostly portrayed as a landscape that the soldiers must endure and conquer to survive. The author talks about the jungle, the rain, the seashore, and the land, but rarely shows the soldiers really interacting with the people. Mostly they simply refer to them as "dinks" and dismiss them. Even Sarkin Aung Wan is not fully developed, and she is imaginary, just as Li Van Hgoc is. They may represent the real people of Vietnam, but the soldiers never really experience them, and so, they do not understand the people, the culture, or the reason they are really there. This is quite similar to the way many Americans at home viewed the country. They did not know much about it, or why the country was involved in the war there. O'Brien writes, "Not knowing the language, they did not know the people. They did not know what the people loved or respected or feared or hated" (O'Brien 263). The people of Vietnam were a mystery to Paul Berlin, and they were a mystery to most Americans. This indicates how removed the men were from the war they were fighting, and gives another indication of the misunderstandings and prejudices that fuel war in the first place.
Reality is an uneasy concept in this novel, and somewhere in his subconscious, Berlin realizes that if the men find Cacciato in his dreams, then he will have to face reality. Berlin even notes, "If we catch him, then it's back to the realms of reality'" (O'Brien 114), and clearly, anything is preferable to the realities of Vietnam. Throughout the novel, even with the chapter headings, it is often difficult to tell what is reality and what is illusion. It must have been the same for the men who fought in Vietnam, as their tours of duty continued, it was more and more difficult to remember any life but life in the camps and in the jungles, and life back home seemed so far away that it must be an illusion. O'Brien reinforces this belief later in the novel when Berlin thinks, "And later, he pretended, it would be morning and there would not be a war" (O'Brien 210). In showing the soldiers' imaginary trip toward Paris, O'Brien graphically illustrates the tedium of war followed by sudden bursts of intense fear and activity. It is no wonder that these men had to retreat into their minds and their fantasies to stay sane, the world around them was totally insane, and they had no other way of coping. Some soldiers resorted to drugs and alcohol, and many resorted to daydreams, fantasies, and illusions. The world turned upside down for them, and their dreams were their way of surviving in a situation that would try just about any man or woman. That is one of the reasons O'Brien mixes up time, reality, and dreams in this novel. It points out the unreality of war and the awful…