Control and its Loss. Dealing with the Trauma of Vietnam War in Tim O’Brien’s "Going After Cacciato"

Term Paper, 2015

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents


I. The Structure of the Novel
1. Plot Threads
2. Switching Perspectives

II. Major Themes
1. Courage and Morality
2. Theme of Control and its Loss

III. How Narrative Technique and the Theme of Control represent the Theme of Trauma in War




In film and in literature there are narratives that are portrayed in a special way. Their events seem to be told in the wrong order. The first contact with this kind of narrative technique can evoke an unsatisfied feeling, because a non-chronological order of happenings in the first chapters of a book can lead to incomprehension. The novels Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien and Catch 22 by Joseph Heller, we dealt with in the seminar “Between the Lines: American War Novels”, are narrated with this complex technique. They are called nonlinear narratives. I decided to write a paper about how Tim O’Brien accomplished to portray the trauma of war with his novel Going after Cacciato. This is one of six novels he published, dealing with Vietnam War.

In the second chapter I start to divide the novel into its three parts that could function as stories on their own and I analyse the narrative communication and its function within these parts. The third chapter deals with the major themes of the novel. The theme of control and its loss is discussed in a subchapter, because it is a central one and can be associated with the special narrative technique. In chapter four I analyse how structure and narrative communication assemble the content and main themes in Going After Cacciato harmonious. It creates the feeling of reading about traumatic experiences at Vietnam War. The novel contains a mythical, fictional story within the story and therefore distinct ambiguities that are discussed in this chapter.

I. The Structure of the Novel

1. Plot Threads

A widespread saying is “The coin always has two sides“. Referring to the structure of the novel Going After Cacciato it means that there are different narrative perspectives and levels. The main protagonist Paul Berlin is a soldier in the middle of an active tour of duty in the Vietnam War. The reader gets to know him as somebody who needs hope and dreams and may even need some adventure. Nevertheless, he is confronted with the fundamental difference between ‘adventure’ and the brutal violence and terrors of war. The first page of the novel immediately provides an insight into the horrors of war: the death of soldiers and hard conditions, the soldiers have to suffer from.

However, this novel is not a chronologically ordered, fictional story about Vietnam War. The structure can be described as a nonlinear narrative. Kori Morgan writes: “In nonlinear narratives, the story is about more than just a beginning, middle and end. Often, the order of the events is rearranged or deconstructed in a way that reflects the central character's psychological state or the story's theme.“[1]

A simplified explanation can be done by dividing the novel into three interwoven threads. First, there are ten chapters titled “Observation Post“. In this chapters Paul Berlin sits in a tower near the South China Sea. He is on guard duty. There is nothing else to do and nothing to see. Therefore he starts to occupy himself with thinking about the experiences he made, since he began his tour of duty. He thinks about present circumstances, things he wishes could happen and what might have happened before. This first threat is very important to the sense in the context of the nonlinear narrative, because the entire novel is set in this place. Paul never really leaves the guard tower. This fact proves the unorganised approach to time and setting of a nonlinear structure, indicating the psychological process of the narrator’s memory.

The second thread is about the experiences Paul Berlin made in Vietnam within the last six month. There are eighteen chapters that have a unique title, except the first and the last one, in which the reader gets to know Paul’s war experiences, right up to the moment Cacciato deserts his squad. They are not ordered chronologically, because each one is a flashback of Paul’s memory, happening while he is sitting in the guard tower. This non-chronological order of the story within the story, is another evidence for a nonlinear narrative.

The remaining sixteen chapters describe a fictitious journey Paul is daydreaming, while doing his guard duty. Each of these chapters include the word “Paris” as part of its title. His mind invents a mythical story about his squad chasing after Cacciato, the deserting soldier. In this interwoven story they want to bring him back to the army to get punished for desertion, even if this chase takes them the long way from Vietnam to Paris, France. Paul creates this dream by using his personal experiences, memories, things that had any influence on his life such as, for example, movies, books, things he had seen or heard about. One example is the allusion to the novel Alice in Wonderland in chapter ten “A Hole in the Road to Paris”. This influence of life experiences and memories of Paul Berlin leads to another feature that is related to analysis of fiction – the narrator and the questions: Who is telling the story?

2. Switching Perspectives

On the first sight the story is told from a third person narrator, who has a limited point of view through the protagonist’s eyes. However, recent theorists found many disadvantages with the term ‘point of view’. It does not distinct between the ‘voice’ and the ‘perspective’ of fictional texts, meaning ‘Who sees?’ and ‘Who speaks?’[2] This chapter will analyse the narrative technique and explain different types of perspectives that are used within the three threads.

Mats Tegmark analyses the narrative communication of Going after Cacciato and other Vietnam narratives of Tim O’Brien in his book In the Shoes of a Soldier. Narrative Communication describes the ways a speaker or an author is addressing an audience or readers. Referring to analysing novels: How does the author communicate with the reader?

Analysing the novel’s structure Tegmark says that the novel has two different narrative levels. He distinguishes between “the frame-story level (the observation-post chapters)” and “the object stories (the Paris and war chapters)”.[3] As I mentioned before, the first and the last chapter play a different role. They function as a frame for the whole novel, describing Berlin’s squad going after the deserter Cacciato in the first chapter, and returning without success in the last chapter. (Tegmark, 188) However, these two chapters are narrated at the object-story level, because the narrator tells about his memories, like in the war chapters. (Tegmark, 187) Furthermore he distinguishes different levels of communication between the implied author and the reader and different forms of narrating and different perspectives.

At the frame-story level the reader gets information through two perspectives. The first is given through a narrator, who functions like a “focalizer”, as Tegmark calls it. (136) The narrator’s function is comparable to an anonymous reporter, who does not comment on any happening. A second perspective is offered to the reader by the protagonist Paul Berlin himself who imparts emotions. Both Perspectives can switch fast, as shown in the following quote.

He smiled. It would made a fine war story. Oh, there would be some skeptics. He could already hear them: What about money? Money for hotels and food and train tickets? What about passports? All the practical things – visas and clothing and immunization cards? Desertion, wasn’t that what it boiled down to? Didn’t it end in jail, the stockade? What about the law? Illegal entry, no documents, no military orders, no permits for all the weaponry? What about police and customs agents?

He stared inland.

(O’Brien, 123, emphasis added)

In the first and the last sentences the reader takes up the perspective of the narrator functioning as a monitor. In the second sentence the perspective changes to the narrator, who gives information about the thoughts of Paul Berlin, as if Berlin himself would tell the story. In other parts of the observation-post chapters, in which the narrator uses this perspective, the reader gets information about sensory impressions, thoughts, feelings and memories, as shown in the next quote: “Billy Boy was first. And then ... then who? Then a long blank time along the Song Tra Bong, yes, and then Rudy Chassler, who broke the quiet.”[4] In other scenes of the observation-post chapters in which the narrator uses the first monitoring perspective he presents the setting and Berlin’s motions and gives general information. “Leaning against the wall of sandbags, he lit another of Doc’s cigarettes.” (82), “He turned off the scope’s power. He replaced the lens cap, returned the machine to its aluminium carrying case, then opened a can of pears. He ate slowly.” (211)

The Paris chapters are narrated from different kind of perspectives as well. Tegmark describes it as a “visualizer’s” perspective with a “direct access to the mind of a protagonist who perceives and reacts to the events being visualized.”[5] That means “focalization” is used every time the perspective shifts into the mind of Paul Berlin. The reader already knows that Paul Berlin, the “focalizer” of the frame-story level, sits in the tower and creates an imaginary journey, where he and his squad follow Cacciato all the way to Paris. That means the imagined story takes place in Berlin’s consciousness. Tegmark describes the distinction between “focalizer” and “visualizer” as: “the former determines the focus within the story; the latter determines the whole story itself.” (136) The quote indicates that Berlin himself has the power to decide what happens in the Paris chapters. Paul Berlin functioning as “visualizer” is the narrator and the protagonist of his own story. In his mind he creates two important characters for his fantasy trek, Sarkin Aung Wan and Captain Fahyi Rhallon, who play an important role in the novel. Additional Berlin imagines characters of the “real” world, those remembered in the war chapters and those who are present in the background in the observation-post chapters. He creates mental dialogues between these characters among themselves and between them and himself. Functioning as a narrator, Berlin, who is sitting in the observation tower, also creates landscapes and settings for his fantasy story. All of these facts are a simple but strong statement for the power of imagination.[6]

Having presented the perspectives of observation-post chapters and the Paris-chapters, I will now turn to the second series of stories that are visualized. The chapters about the war experiences are on the same level as the fantasy story about the trip to Paris. Berlin is on guard duty in the tower for six hours and tries to remember his war experiences of the past six month. These stories are “representations of events that have supposedly taken place in Berlin’s physical reality; it is his memories that are being visualized.” (165) He mainly remembers traumatising happenings, like the death of comrades and unsettling dialogues with assertions like: “You know what bad is? Bad is evil. Bad is what happened to Uhlander. I don’t wanna scare the bejasus out of you – that’s not what I want – but, shit, you guys are gonna die.” (O’Brien, 46) Therefore, the basic difference to the Paris-chapters is the psychological aspect in the content. The Paris chapters deal with adventures on the way to a peaceful country, whereas the war chapters deal with events of terror. A second big difference is the chronological order of the series themselves. The Paris chapters are narrated and structured like a contiguous story, whereas the war stories are not narrated in chronological order. Every single war chapter is a piece of Pauls remembered experiences. They are linked together by associations. Tegmark says that there were three types of narrative perspectives that could be found within these chapters. First there is a covert narrator, meaning the stories are told very objectively, without any comments or characterisations of any characters. The narrator functions as a presenter of the story. Second, there is Paul Berlin himself narrating with the function of a “visualizer” who adds some commentary on the happenings. And third, there is the protagonist Paul Berlin functioning as a “focalizer” again who has the possibility to get into the mind of the protagonist. (Tegmark, 166) To make the differences revisable I now give one example for each of the narrative perspectives that can be found in the war chapters.

The first example is a quote from chapter nine, representing the covert narrator. There is no comment on the situation and no presentation of emotions.

Nystrom was not yet crying. Frenchie lay uncovered at the mouth of the tunnel. He was dead and nobody looked at him. He was dirty. His T-shirt was pulled up under the arm pits, which was how they’d finally dragged him out. His belly was fat and white and unsucked in.

(O’Brien, 69)

The second example shows how the protagonist’s impressions and thoughts are presented by the narrating perspective of the “focalizer”.

Cacciato was opening a can of peaches. The peach smell was sweet. Eyes closed, Paul Berlin pretended he was at the bottom of chlorinated pool. Pressing silence on his ears, breathing through a snorkel, fuzzy green images swimming in his head. He tried not to think.

(O’Brien, 264)

The last quote is an example for the narrating perspective of a “visualizer”. The major distinction to the perspective of the covert narrator is to present to the reader how it was like, whereas the covert narrator clearly shows what happens. The “visualizer’s” perspective is frequently used in chapter 37, ‘How the Land Was’.

Village-owned and village-run, the farms were worked not as private enterprise but as enterprise of community; the land was planted and tented by the people who lived in the villages, and the harvest was placed in huge clay jugs, some of larger villages.


II. Major Themes

1. Courage and Morality

In most cases war novels, like the novels we discussed in the seminar, deal with the theme of courage. In dangerous, life-threatening situations like the combat missions, soldiers in the Vietnam War had to struggle with, courage can be crucial for life or death for many comrades, or the success of a mission. The protagonist Paul Berlin often thinks about his fears and courage as a very important issue for him. He wishes to win the Silver Star medal. This is a very special honour for military forces of the US, for extraordinary bravery in the field. The following quote is an extract from chapter twelve. Paul Berlin is on guard duty in the observation tower. He has much time to think about his life, wishes, memories and to create a story in his fantasy.

Yes, the issue was courage. It always had been, even as a kid. Things scared him. He couldn’t help it. Noise scared him, dark scared him. Tunnels scared him: the time he almost won the Silver Star for valor. But the real issue was courage. It had nothing to do with the Silver Star. . . Oh, he would’ve liked winning it, true, but that wasn’t the issue. He would’ve liked showing the medal to his father, the heavy feel of it, looking his father in the eye to show he had been brave, but even that wasn’t the real issue. The real issue was the power of will to defeat fear. (O’ Brien, 82-83)

His wish to be courageous and fearless is present in all of the three threads. The flashback chapters, describing his war experiences show him anxiously with no piece of valour, whereas in the fantasy chapters, he envisions himself as brave. One of the two bravest moments that can be found in the novel, but don’t arise from his fantasy, is the moment when Berlin refuses the command of Lieutenant Sidney Martin to search the tunnels in chapter 34. The other brave moment takes place, when he leaves the observation tower without permission in chapter eight. “It was his bravest moment. Calmly, unafraid, he turned and walked to the sea.” (67)

A comprehensive view to the theme of courage can be made with the help of the main story within the novel. Paul Berlin and his squad chase Cacciato, a deserter who runs away from war. From a military view he is not courageous and his desertion is an act of cowardice. From a moral view to the act of war it could be seen as courageous to decide not to fight and not to kill other human beings. A quote from Paul Berlin’s thoughts in the observation tower emphasises this argument. “Why had Cacciato left the war? Was it courage or ignorance, or both?” (34) This argument leads to the second big theme in Going After Cacciato – Morality.

Morality and courage are central elements in many other war novels, where acts of war are described. Therefore, the main question is a philosophical one: What is the right act in an evil, violent or traumatic situation, like military interventions? Jonathan I. Chisdes, a professional film critic and author, states these questions in his essay Moral Questions in Tim O’Briens Going after Cacciato: How to do right in an evil situation. He said that this were the questions Tim O’Brian dealt with in this novel. O’Brien himself was sent to Vietnam for a tour of duty from 1969 to 1970 and experienced the evil situation of war. In Going After Cacciato he does not describe violent, traumatic happenings in detail. He assumes that war is bad and lists situations that could possibly have happened at Vietnam War, although the reader knows that it is a fictional story. The first chapter is a good example for this listing. The novel starts with the following lines:

It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker. Billy Boy had died of fright, scared to death on the field of battle, and Frenchie Tucker had been shot through the nose. Bernie Lynn and Lieutenant Sidney Martin had died in tunnels. Pederson was dead and Rudy Chassler was dead. Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead. […] When it was not raining, a low mist moved across the paddies, blending the elements into a single gray element, and the war was cold and pasty and rotten. (9)

Nevertheless, many people think about reasons and purposes of wars. Are there political, religious or ideological reasons to justify atrocities? To kill deliberately other human beings is an atrocity. There is no matter of justification of murder. Murder should not justify another murder. It is a question of morality to justify or not to justify own or other’s peoples atrocities. There is a scene in the novel that tries to explain the moral aspect in the sense of war. Doc Peret, the squad's medical aide, speaks to Captain Fahyi Rhallon, who is one of the Savak, the Iranian military intelligence service, and explains what war means to him.

The point is that war is war no matter how it’s perceived. War has its own reality. War kills and maims and rips up the land and makes orphans and widows. These are the things of war. Any war. So when I say that there’s nothing new to tell about Nam, I’m saying it was just a war like every war. Politics be damned. Sociology be damned. It pisses me of to hear everybody say how special Nam is, how it’s a big aberration in the history of American wars -- how for the soldier it’s somehow different from Korea or World War Two. Follow me? I’m saying that the feel of war is the same in Nam or Okinawa – the emotions are the same, the same fundamental stuff is seen and remembered. That’s what I’m saying.´ ´And what about the purpose?´ the captain said. ´Purpose? Same-same. The purposes are always the same. (190)

The discussion goes on over a few pages. They debate about the moral purpose of fighting nations of World War Two. Doc Peret has the opinion that the Germans and the Japanese fought well with a bad purpose. Captain Fahyi Rhallon replies to that argument that they lost in the end, because of the “absence of moral purpose”. After that Doc Peret argues that it was not about to win or justice or purposes, it was about the feeling of the soldiers who fought because they wanted to stay alive. In the end of the discussion the Iranian captain says that soldiers thought of running away when they were facing death, but purpose, self-respect and fear of a bad reputation would keep them from running away. (O’ Brien, 191-193)


[1] The Literary Term 'Nonlinear Narrative',

[2] Hawthorn, Jeremy. Studying the Novel: An Introduction. 1985. New York: Arnold, 1997, p.76

[3] Tegmark, Mats. In the Shoes of a Soldier: Communication in Tim O’Briens Vietnam Narratives. 1998. Stockholm: Uppsala, 1998, p.135

[4] O’Brien, Tim. Going After Cacciato. 1978. London: Flamingo, 1988 p. 199

[5] Tegmark, Mats. In the Shoes of a Soldier: Communication in Tim O’Briens Vietnam Narratives. 1998. Stockholm: Uppsala, 1998, p. 143

[6] Tegmark, Mats. In the Shoes of a Soldier: Communication in Tim O’Briens Vietnam Narratives. 1998. Stockholm: Uppsala, 1998, p.148, 157, 164

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Control and its Loss. Dealing with the Trauma of Vietnam War in Tim O’Brien’s "Going After Cacciato"
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
Seminar Literaturwissenschaft
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Tim O’Brien, Going After Cacciato, Trauma of war
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Mario Zschornack (Author), 2015, Control and its Loss. Dealing with the Trauma of Vietnam War in Tim O’Brien’s "Going After Cacciato", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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