“The soldier is not a photographic machine. He is not a camera. He registers, so to speak, only those few items that he is predisposed to register and not a single thing more. Do you understand this? So I am saying to you that after a battle each soldier will have different stories to tell, vastly different stories, and that when a war is ended it is as if there have been a million wars, or as many wars as there were soldiers.”
In Tim O’Brien’s novel The Things They Carried (which I highly recommend) , the matter of truth is discussed and the idea of a true story that never happens. He says, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” This is how O’Brien writes about the Vietnam War. This is how he delves into a soldier’s experience in Vietnam.
Going After Cacciato takes this idea even further, into a realm of magic realism war story. Cacciato is a nebulous sort of figure, a dumb, childish soldier who takes off one day after telling his squad that he’s leaving the war and he’s going to walk to Paris. The rest of the soldiers, led by a lieutenant laid low by dysentery, who has already seen more than one war, follows him. They tell each other this is their mission, that they will find Cacciato and bring him back. But the mission – and their motives – becomes murkier as they get further along, and further from war.
Can you walk from Vietnam to Paris? Sure, but that isn’t really what the story is about. There are several key players in this group of soldiers but the tale focuses primarily on Paul Berlin. Twenty years old when he is called up, he has not been in Vietnam long. He is afraid and confused. He doesn’t know why he’s here and he doesn’t know what the war is about. He clings to his father’s advice to “try and see some of the good.” He wonders what the Vietnamese people think of them, what he could see to them, how he might explain his own role in this war.
There is a lot in this story that is left to the reader to decide. O’Brien masterfully points us in the right direction. We are shown – without comment or exaggeration – the experience of soldiers in Vietnam. Deaths in tunnels, marches through the jungle, villages burning, beauty in a rice paddy. We are shown fantastical moments. A man in flight, a blind journey underground, an apartment by a river. It’s tempting to lay out what’s “real” and what’s not but I don’t think that’s the point of this story. It’s about experience and perception and how a person can deal with fear and horror.
“This is not a plea for placidness of mind or feebleness of spirit. It is a plea for the opposite: that, like your father, you would build fine houses; that, like your town, you would endure and grow and produce good things; that you would live well. For just as happiness is more than the absence of sadness, so is peace infinitely more than the absence of war.”