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Tim O’Brien: Going After Cacciato

O’Brien has insisted that this is not really a war novel. After all, it ends in Paris. But, of course, he is being somewhat disingenuous. It is probably the best Vietnam War novel. Indeed, it starts off with a list of the recent dead, followed by an account some of the unpleasant consequences of being a soldier. It tells the story of a soldier called Cacciato (Italian for hunted) who, one day, decides he is going to walk away from the War the eighty-six hundred miles to Paris. But, as the title tells us, the story is not so much about Cacciato but about the Third Squad, Cacciato’s squad, that is ordered by Lieutenant Corson to go after Cacciato. They follow him and while they often see him in the distance, and see the remains of what he has dropped, they do not catch up with him or find him, and return to camp, though not without loss. However, after they return to camp, Paul Berlin, one of the squad and the one through whose eyes we have been following Cacciato, is standing guard on an observation tower near the sea. He imagines what might have happened if they had followed Cacciato all the way to Paris. His imaginings are by no means realistic but often fantastic. However, we do get the realistic side of the war. Two of his comrades are killed in a Vietcong tunnel and others die. We even see death elsewhere, including a man executed in Tehran. Cacciato is often seen in the distance, his white face shining, and it has been suggested that he is a Christ figure, leading them to the City of Light. Whether the characters – from the fragged Lieutenant Martin to the Burmese refugee Sarkin Aung Wan – are real or fantastic, O’Brien’s tale works very well and is, to my mind, the best Vietnam War novel.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Delacorte/Seymour Lawrence