All of O’Brien’s books touch on the Vietnam War, if only peripherally. However, Going After Cacciato, The Things They Carried, and In the Lake of the Woods, along with the memoir If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, are deeply concerned with the experience of the war. O’Brien uses the Vietnam War as a means to explore courage, memory, truth, and the art of storytelling in these books.
Courage, and its reverse, cowardice, are important themes throughout O’Brien’s work. In both his memoir and his stories such as “On the Rainy River” from The Things They Carried, O’Brien reaches the conclusion that he found himself in the infantry not because he was brave but rather because he lacked the courage to go to Canada in order not to have to participate in what he believed was an immoral war. In Going After Cacciato, the central event of the book is Paul Berlin’s collapse from fear as his unit rushes Cacciato’s position. Unable to control his bladder, Berlin finds his response to fear to be both shameful and humiliating. Although he dreams of the Silver Star, he experiences himself as cowardly. The Silver Star figures as a central image in a series of stories in The Things They Carried as well: “Speaking of Courage,” “Notes,” and “In the Field” all relate the events surrounding the death of a particularly beloved character, Kiowa, in a sewage field. For character Norman Bowker, this event is the central one of his life. He believes that a failure of courage causes Kiowa’s death and also costs him his chance at a Silver Star. In a particularly metafictional story, “Notes,” the narrator (who also is named Tim O’Brien) considers the event, noting that Bowker “did not freeze up or lose the Silver Star for valor. That part of the story is my own.” These closing lines reveal some of the most difficult and interesting parts of the novel: Does O’Brien imply here that he was a coward? Does he imply that, as a writer, he created the situation and thus all parts of the story are his own?
O’Brien also uses memory (and most particularly traumatic memory) as an important theme in his work. In Going After Cacciato, Paul Berlin’s memories and imagination serve to structure the entire novel. Likewise, The Things They Carried uses as a device the memories of narrator Tim O’Brien (as distinct from writer Tim O’Brien) some twenty years after the close of the war. In both of these books, O’Brien uses a few central events, generally the death of comrades, and then circles around them, retelling the story with increasing detail. By so doing, he leads the reader on a journey of discovery, one in which the story becomes clearer as it goes along. The journey becomes increasingly circuitous, however, with his later books. In In the Lake of the Woods, for example, O’Brien appears to be leading the reader to a resolution of the central mystery of Kathy Wade’s disappearance. However, resolution is not to be had in this ambiguous, self-reflexive novel that uses all of the conventions of the mystery story but none of the expected outcomes.
Finally, and perhaps most important, O’Brien explores the way stories are told throughout his work. In Going After Cacciato, he demonstrates how the mind sifts through the jetsam and flotsam of past experience and past knowledge to piece together a coherent narrative. In stories such as “How to Tell a True War Story” from The Things They Carried, he demonstrates the way truth always seems to be just around the next story, if only the words are right. Finally, in In the Lake of the Woods he explores the whole notion of revision, how memories can be erased, rewritten, and revised to produce a narration with which one can live. Tellingly, O’Brien himself revises his stories. There are subtle differences between the early versions of the stories of The Things They Carried when they appeared in magazines and the later versions when they were collected in the book. He also has revised Going After Cacciato between editions of the book. It is small wonder, then, that the subject of revision itself surfaces in stories such as “Notes,” “How to Tell a True War Story,” and in his novels, particularly In the Lake of the Woods. The chapters called “Hypothesis” in this novel are, after all, revision after revision of what could have happened, what might have happened, what did happen, and what did not happen.
Going After Cacciato
First published: 1978; revised, 1989
Type of work: Novel
An army private reflects on and imagines a journey to Paris as he stands sentry duty in Vietnam.
Going After Cacciato, O’Brien’s third published book, was a breakthrough for the writer. He returned to his experiences in Vietnam, first developed in his 1973 memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, for his material; however, Going After Cacciato is a very different book from the earlier one in content, style, theme, and organization. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award, the book was widely regarded at its publication as the finest work of the Vietnam War experience.
O’Brien organizes the book into three threads that weave together a fully realized novel. One thread is the story of Spec Four Paul Berlin’s experiences over the previous six months during his tour of duty in Vietnam. The sixteen chapters constituting this thread are not arranged chronologically. At the heart of these chapters are the deaths of several of Berlin’s companions, the desertion of Cacciato, and Berlin’s responses to both. Another strand forms ten chapters of the novel, each titled “The Observation Post.” These chapters are set in...
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In many ways, Vietnam has exerted on the American imagination an effect similar to the one that World War I had on the British - a fact that perhaps helps to account for the frequent references in Vietnam novels to such writers as Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. In both wars, a fundamental sense of innocence - that peculiar amalgam of optimism and confidence - was destroyed; and in both cases, the existing national mythology was assailed and broke down. After Vietnam - the first war that the United States lost, its longest and probably its most morally ambiguous - Americans could no longer think of themselves as they had before. They could no longer think of themselves as omnipotent missionaries, capable of saving the world; and the literature that has emerged from the war reflects that change.
Indeed, that time-honored theme of American innocence - addressed by such novelists as Henry James and Mark Twain - assumes a special prominence in fiction about Vietnam. In such novels as Graham Greene's ''The Quiet American'' and Jack Fuller's ''Fragments,'' the dangers and potentially destructive power of that innocence are revealed; in other novels that recount a soldier's coming of age, its loss - along with the loss of youth and youthful idealism - is chronicled and mourned. Many of these coming-of-age novels are fairly typical Bildungromans . They relate the story of a young man, usually identifiable with the author, whose progress from idealism to disillusionment echoes the changes that America itself underwent in the 60's.
With Vietnam, however, the classic scenario of a boy going off to war and returning home a man (if he returns at all) suffers a dark revision. There are few opportunities for old-fashioned heroics - or any of the other conventional tests of manhood - in the cynical landscape of Vietnam. In Vietnam, simple physical and psychological survival is difficult enough. In Rob Riggan's ''Free Fire Zone,'' in Ward Just's ''Stringer,'' in Ed Dodge's ''Dau,'' the hero does not mature in any conventional sense; he emerges from war emotionally damaged, if not mad. In Stephen Wright's ''Meditations in Green,'' the protagonist becomes a heroin addict; and in Gustav Hasford's ''The Short-Timers,'' he kills one of his earliest Vietnam friends .
Urgent in tone, autobiographical in content, many of these novels seem to have provided their authors with an emotional catharsis. This need to testify to what one has witnessed and somehow to make sense of it through words, however, would often have been better served by a memoir. A flaw shared by many Vietnam novels, in fact, is that they do not become works of imagination; rather they retain the predictable shape and close-up, grainy texture of personal history. In novel after novel, a variation of the following true-to-life sequence occurs: the naive or gung-ho hero's initiation into military life at boot camp; his arrival in Southeast Asia; his encounters with suffering, pain and death; his attempts to escape the realities of war by drinking, whoring and fantasizing; and his return to an indifferent America.
Why do so many authors pattern their books so closely on their own experience in the war? The obvious reason is that many of these works are first novels, a form in which the autobiographical impulse is pronounced. Another reason has to do with the problem of finding alternative narrative strategies for dealing with a war that tends to defy standard literary methods. In the first place, Vietnam simply does not lend itself to the political, engage novel typified by, say, Andre Malraux's ''Man's Fate.'' Not only are Americans nonideological by nature, the ambiguities of this war inhibit the drawing of easy political morals.
Another traditional approach to writing about war - the story of male camaraderie, which narrates the adventures of a disparate group of buddies - also seems unsuited to Vietnam. Instead of serving for the duration, most soldiers went there for a one-year term, and in often being transferred from company to company had little opportunity to make close friendships. Perhaps as a result, many war accounts - especially those by former infantrymen - tend to have poorly defined supporting casts. Aside from the hero, most of the characters are either vague, interchangeable nonentities, distinguished by nicknames or nervous habits, or stereotypes straight from Central Casting. Take, for instance, James Webb's highly acclaimed novel, ''Fields of Fire.'' The book demonstrates its author's eye for detail and forceful command of language, but its Marine heroes, who represent a cross section of American society, are little more than blurry sitcom personalities: a small-town kid from Kentucky, a Harvard philosopher, a savvy, streetwise black - the kind of crew also found in, say, Steven Phillip Smith's ''American Boys'' and Charles Durden's ''No Bugles, No Drums.''
Among the few books to feature a convincing cast is John Del Vecchio's ''The 13th Valley,'' which follows the day-by-day progress of a platoon through a two-week operation. While flawed by the characters' relentless philosophizing - they are constantly talking about the meaning of the war and the universe - the book does succeed through Mr. Del Vecchio's gift for characterization and description, and through his use, as an armature for the book, of a military operation, probably more typical of World War II than Vietnam. Not only is the operation ''clean'' - there were no civilians involved - it possesses the semblance of a beginning, middle and end.
For the most part, Vietnam was not a war of conventional battles and historic campaigns. From the soldier's point of view, it had a strangely episodic quality: ambushes and fire-fights, interspersed with long periods of monotonous waiting, melted into a kind of existential haze; it was frequently difficult, if not impossible, to tell which side was winning or falling behind, losing ground or winning.
''It was an incoherent experience in many respects,'' says Philip Caputo, the author of ''A Rumor of War'' and ''Del Corso's Gallery.'' ''With previous conflicts, the events themselves formed the broad structure for the narrative of the novel. A novelist seeking to portray the experience could take his characters on a literal level from A to B to C, and the reader could observe what changes everyone underwent as they passed through these events toward some identifiable end.Trying to impose the sort of narrative thread you find in 'The Naked and the Dead,' 'The Thin Red Line' or 'For Whom the Bell Tolls' was literally impossible with Vietnam. It was a question of a square peg in a round hole.'' In Mr. Caputo's case, these difficulties caused him to abandon an early novel based on his experiences in the war. His eventual decision to write ''A Rumor of War'' as a memoir proved a shrewd one, for the book gains resonance from the readers' knowledge that the events portrayed are real.
Other writers, intent on producing a novel but unable to find a persuasive narrative line, often ended up relating a picaresque sequence of violent events. Such authors as James Webb presumably hope that the sheer accumulation of closely observed details will communicate the ugliness of the war and give the reader a vivid sense of what it was like on the front lines. All too often, though, the one emotion shared by reader and hero is the sort of emotional numbness that comes from witnessing too many terrible events. When unmediated by an authorial vision, the parade of grim descriptions - the cut-off ears, the eviscerated corpses, the wounded children, the bombed-out villages - simply become an abstraction, a litany of horror that, in the end, has all the emotional impact of the statistics we once heard each night on the news.
The extensive coverage of Vietnam, in fact, helps underline just how inadequate naturalism and documentary realism are as narrative strategies for dealing with the war. Having already been exposed to an overwhelming supply of images and facts, we tend to hope that fiction will provide us with a truth that eluded the cameras and neat columns of wire copy. At the same time, the Vietnam war - which so defies reason and the rules of causality - also resists such traditional prerogatives of fiction as interpretation. For instance, books like Winston Groom's ''Better Times Than These'' - which attempts to explicate the meaning of the war through an old-fashioned story that ends in a court-martial - seem all too tidy and contrived; something of the heightened weirdness of Vietnam escapes the neat mechanisms of their plots.
According to journalists and soldiers stationed there, Vietnam possessed a surrealism worthy of Louis-Ferdinand Celine - a day-to-day surrealism that distinguished it from previous conflicts. The moral and political uncertainties of American involvement, the intense savagery of the jungle fighting, the heavy use of drugs and the extraordinary bureaucratic confusions of military life there - all produced what Robert Stone calls ''a real hall of mirrors.''
''The war carried with it the most awful sense of absurdity and futility,'' he says. ''To realize that the whole thing was absolutely cockeyed, that it was an enormous, breathtaking mistake, was alarming to begin with, and then you realized there was nothing much you could do about it - except try to exist within it. Everyone was passing the buck. Everyone was putting everybody else on - kidding themselves and lying to one another. Generals were lying to Washington, and Washington was lying to the press. And for the guys on the line, the nature of the war didn't afford the satisfaction of taking enemy ground, so to keep morale up, the brass made the body count a measure of success. That really shocked the G.I.'s, and it reinforced that whole nightmare feeling.
''The moral slipperiness and double-crossing in Vietnam bent everybody's head out of shape. It gave you the sense that everything was scrambled. And this kind of stoned despair created its own idiom, its own language. There was a distinctly 'in-country' way of talking, an 'in-country' sense of humor - like you were on another planet. It was a very spacey way of talking, a profoundly cynical attitude toward everything.''
To convey this feeling remains perhaps the biggest challenge facing the novelist writing about Vietnam. Some authors, like Nicholas Proffitt (''Gardens of Stone''), attempt to recreate the dislocation by constructing complicated narratives, filled with flashbacks and flashforwards that jar the reader's sense of time; others, like Rob Riggan, employ italicized stream-of- consciousness sequences in an attempt to approximate the war's blurring of appearance and reality. More often than not, however, the result of these efforts is not artistically ordered disorder but plain confusion.
In fact, only a handful of books satisfyingly represents the peculiar psychological atmosphere of Vietnam and at the same time function as fully fashioned literary works. In ''Going After Cacciato'' - the title refers to a soldier's dream in which he and his platoon pursue a deserter named Cacciato across a continent and all the way to Paris - Tim O'Brien created an extraordinary Garcia Marquez-like fable that in capturing the hallucinatory mood of the war opened out into an eloquent meditation on the need of human beings to dream. His first book, ''If I Die in a Combat Zone,'' had been a fairly conventional memoir about his experiences in Vietnam, and, having gotten that out of his system, he says he was no longer interested in ''holding a mirror up to the reality of the war''; he was interested, rather, in exploring the emotions it elicited and the possibilities of what might have happened.
In the case of ''Cacciato,'' Mr. O'Brien's clean, lyrical prose counterpoints the fantastical elements of his story. And other writers, with less surreal stories to tell, have tried to set up a similar tension between the terrible events they are describing and the dispassionate objectivity of their prose. In his slim novel, ''The Short- Timers,'' for instance, Gustav Hasford discovered an economical and unsentimental idiom that, by means of understatement, made the progressive brutalization of his hero seem all the more horrific.
An alternative to this low-key approach is for the writer to attempt to find a language that approximates, in its exuberance and anger, the bizarre complexities of Vietnam - the ''in-country'' sensibility mentioned by Robert Stone. This, of course, is a high-risk proposition that has resulted in all sorts of self-indulgent pyrotechnics on the part of lesser writers. Michael Herr's ''Dispatches,'' however, succeeds so brilliantly in this respect that it has the effect of making the measured lucidity of Hemingway's prose seem strangely anachronistic. In fact, Mr. Herr's voice - hyped-up, nervous, willfully subjective, by turns furious and rhapsodic - seems perfectly commensurate with the chaos of his subject, and it infuses what is ostensibly a work of nonfiction with a novel's sense of drama and style.
A self-conscious and highly wrought - in fact, sometimes overwrought - style also holds Stephen Wright's ''Meditations in Green'' together. His language, too, is manic and expressionistic; the form of his novel, suggestive of the fragmented nature of the war. Told in cinematic ''takes'' of different lengths that cut back and forth in time, ''Meditations'' relates the story of an intelligence adviser who becomes a drug addict, and in doing so it creates an allegory of a society in disrepair.
''Some idea of ourselves came apart over there,'' says Mr. Wright, ''and I believe that when a society is coming apart, individuals also feel that inside themselves. So while any war has incredible stress, with Vietnam you had this added thing - of values coming apart. What it comes down to is an incredible tenuousness of identity and a feeling of total ignorance of what the future is - your future and your country's future. It was a feeling that made every moment extremely anxiety-ridden, even those that had nothing to do with combat.
''It was a struggle to find a form for writing about Vietnam. If you had been there earlier - I didn't get over till '69 - you could write about an innocent going off to war and learning certain lessons. I couldn't really do that because by the time I went the war had been going on for a while. It had been on television, and we were already sort of cynical by the time we got there. In earlier years, people went over, fired up by Kennedy rhetoric; they went to help the Vietnamese people fight for freedom and democracy. Those of us who went later - we were just sort of sucked up into the machine, and the point was to survive.
''What I tried to do was simply put down the experience as well as I could. You couldn't take a definite moral outlook, so instead of holding up signs as to what's proper and what isn't, I tried to leave it up to the reader to decide. I tried to convey the specific feel of Vietnam with the texture of the language. There was a kind of dislocation I tried to get in there - a constant nervousness and jumpiness.''
What Mr. Wright is saying about narrative strategies, applies, of course, not only to novels about Vietnam but to what has been taking place in much of serious American fiction. The war, after all, was very much a part an entire era - an era informed by social and political upheavals, by drugs and music, by the adversary stance of a generation - and it is not surprising that writers who came of age during the 60's should share certain stylistic and thematic concerns. In this respect, the finest Vietnam novels must be seen not so much in relation to other war fiction but in relation to other contemporary writing.
A fragmented approach to storytelling, a reluctance on the author's part either to interpret events or speculate about characters' motivations, a tendency to see everything in the present tense, as though the past and future were impossible to connect - these techniques, which recur with startling frequency in Vietnam novels, are the same that have begun to filter down from the postmodernist masters of the nouveau roman to mainstream American fiction. In addition, many of the recurrent themes that one finds in Vietnam novels, as well as the attitudes purveyed by their central characters - alienation, cynicism, a tendency to see life as a series of disconnected episodes - echo those found in the work of such writers as Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Mary Robison.
As Philip Caputo sees it, many of these currents in contemporary fiction stem, directly or indirectly, from the war. ''That chaotic and violent era has formed the values, the ideas, even the literary values of a new generation of America writers,'' he said in a speech delivered at a seminar in Key West, Fla. ''It colors their emotions and haunts their imaginations, a legacy that will not let them go.'' Robert Stone, too, believes that ''most writers under 45 were in some way conditioned by their reactions to the war.'' ''It was this great counterforce to all the claims of America to be the country it imagined itself to be,'' he says. ''And I think that if you feel your job is to render this country and society today, you've got to come to terms with it.'' It was this very conviction, in fact, that led Mr. Stone himself to go to Vietnam in the late 60's as a journalist; seeing the war firsthand, he recalls, enabled him to start ''Dog Soldiers,'' his second book.
While Vietnam functions as a setting for only half of ''Dog Soldiers'' and is little more than an echo in ''A Flag for Sunrise,'' the war remains a pivotal reference point for Mr. Stone and his characters. ''In a way I want to get away from trotting it out as a whole metaphor in all my work,'' he says. ''I feel exploitative, and I'm afraid if I keep using it, I'll vulgarize my feelings about it. And yet, I always come back to it because it's such a central fact. When I'm writing a character like Holloway (in ''A Flag for Sunrise'') I'm always tempted to wonder, where was this guy during Vietnam?'' Indeed, as the war is absorbed into our national consciousness, it will doubtless come to play a larger subliminal role in fiction only indirectly concerned with Vietnam. As in Jayne Anne Phillips's forthcoming novel, ''Machine Dreams,'' it will become less of a combat situation, to be recreated with earnest detail, and more of a backdrop against which passions - both national and personal - were played out; less a magnet for easy moralizing and more of a sounding board for ideas we hold about ourselves.
As for fiction about the war, much remains to be written. There is still a myopic focus to many of the current novels set in Vietnam, and even such fine achievements as ''Going After Cacciato'' and ''Meditations in Green'' remain curiously hermetic works - reflections of an individual experience. A large novel that embraces the entire scene, that deals with the military and political complexities of the war, its consequences in public and private lives, as well as its reverberations at home - that novel has yet to be written.
''The war itself was a nasty, brutish, unepic thing,'' Mr. Caputo says, ''but as you look back, it wasn't an event separate from what was going on in America. It was one vast experience - and no experience since the Civil War has affected the life of the nation like that. It qualifies, in that sense, as a historical epic, and that deserves to be written. Of course, Tolstoy wrote about Napoleon's invasion some 60 years after it happened, and it may be that that kind of perspective on Vietnam can come only with the passage of time.''BContinue reading the main story