Skip to main content

A Close Look and Summary of Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien

Soldiers in Vietnam

US Marines fighting in Hu

US Marines fighting in Hu


Post-traumatic stress disorder is a common disease among war veterans. Sometimes it is hard for soldiers to separate reality from war after something as life threatening and difficult as a combat zone. Sometimes soldiers can cope with the stress by looking back and reflecting on what happened, or possibly by mentally covering it up. Paul Berlin inGoing After Cacciatoby Tim O’Brien dealt with the stress and realities of what actually happened in the war by dreaming up a fantasy that softened the harsh realities of war. Looking at the third “fantasy” narrative of the book and the second “war stories” part of the book will show just how Berlin dealt with the war and the mental processes he used. The fantasies he created to help him deal with the war and how he would be seen back home, the time sequence he remembered and dealt with the facts in, and exactly how all of this helped him cope and sort out what he had seen will prove just how tough Berlin is just by looking at evidence from the book. Paul Berlin may have seen himself as someone who was weak and inferior in his own mind, but to go through something like that and still be able to tell the “war stories” is proof enough that he is stronger, mentally, than any normal man.

Dreaming of War - Summaries of Thought

Allegories were used by the author in the fantasy narrative to show how Berlin’s thoughts and feelings played into his own fantasy, perhaps without him even realizing it. One of the major tools used in Berlin’s mind were the tunnels on the road to Paris. The murder of the Lieutenant was something very difficult to deal with. Especially for someone caught in the middle of a war, trying to figure out what is right and wrong to do, not only morally, but in simple decisions as well. Berlin didn’t understand fully what had happened; was it a pointless murder or was it for the benefit of everyone? One quote from the book helped him deal with this. “So you see…things may be viewed from many angles. From down below, or from inside out, you often discover entirely new meanings.” (O’Brien 91). This was said by Li Van Hgoc to Berlin in the tunnel fortress right after he looked out of a periscope to witness men above the ground. This scenario was created by Berlin so he could understand to look at a situation from many different sides, to help him deal with what he needs to emotionally and mentally.

One more important allegory is the VW Microbus and the American girl. This is how Paul is thinking how the will be seen once they get back to America. The conversations they have show how he thinks they will feel towards him. They leave the girl before she can leave him and this is all just how he is working out in his head how America will work when they get back. Sarkin is also a figment of the little girl with hoop earrings they found after they raided a village. She represents his sorrow for how they have treated the people of Vietnam, and he makes up for it by falling in love with her and taking her to Paris with him.

The next important thing to look at in the book is what happens between Sarkin and Berlin in Paris. Because this fantasy is starting to run short, due to the sun coming up in reality, and because Paul is finally sorting out most of his thoughts, he realizes he needs to cut his romantic ties with Sarkin and finish his job. He decides to leave Sarkin and finally capture Cacciato. The conference room is where everything he has finally needed to sort out is laid out for him. Sarkin is the voice of leaving the war and desertion. Berlin’s own voice is his necessity to stay and fight because that is his orders. He decides to go with his own voice, capture Cacciato, and go home. He is a soldier and he is just doing his duty.

The disorder of the “war stories” gives meaning to how he feels about everything. The fantasy has a very rigid structure and order, as this is how he is dealing with everything he remembers. The real memories, however, are completely out of order and not complete. This shows how he doesn’t want to deal head on with the deaths and memories exactly as they happened. The murder of the Lieutenant is completely left out of his memories, due to the fact that this was something he really did not want to confront. The real war stories begin with the most recent memories of Cacciato going AWOL. This part is the easiest for him to process and deal with because it is the most recent, and one of the most baffling. He bases all of his ideas and rhetorical questions in the fantasy around this. Why would someone desert? Is it morally or socially justifiable to leave a war? Should you stay and fight just to do your job? These are the questions he asks and eventually solves throughout the course of his fantasy, which is why he started at the end. He then looks back into the beginning of his stay in Vietnam. He is trying to answer why and how he got to where he is now, which was previously brought up by the first memory. After that he begins to remember deaths. He begins with Bernie Lynn and Frenchie Tucker. This was a very important part in his story, as it happened in the tunnels, the one place he does not want to deal with directly, as tunnels are where the Lieutenant was murdered as well. This is how he begins to scrape the surface of the tough memories. He then remembers burning an entire village. He began with a simple easy memory because it is just that, then moved on to harder and more difficult to understand the reasoning behind choices he had to witness or make himself. He remembers when Bernie was shot. This was a very important scene, because it is when they are all arguing, and almost disobeying direct orders from their lieutenant. These are the scratches on the surface of his coming to terms with the murder they had committed. He starts to feel like he is getting too close to touching on what really happened, so he moves on to something easier to remember. The pickup basketball games and how calm it was and the skittishness it caused were all easy to remember. He continues his pattern of remembering easy to cope with things and slowly moving to harder things by remember the boat, next he remembered details about the men, then the rejection of calling home, and then the ominous climb up the mountain. He got too close again. He can’t touch on that subject quite yet. He remembers something really easy like when Cacciato gave him gum. Finally he has to face it. He starts off by remembering Sidney and Lieutenant being in an argument about SOP. Then, in chapter thirty-five, he comes so close to dealing with what happened. He couldn’t even face it completely. He remembers the grenade and talking to Cacciato, but that is all the closer he can get to it. This was the peak of his memories. There was a strict order in how he actually told us the facts. He would start out simply, build up and get close to the murder he had to deal with, and then back away from it. After he gets as close as he possibly can without completely losing it, he slowly backs away from it and just tells how things were slowly getting easier. This structure helped him deal with what he had seen and done in the war more than anything else could have. It is an integral part of the story to be told in this order. Remembering things is a difficult process when they are so traumatic you never want to recover them from the cage of your mind. He slowly breaks down the barriers in his own mind and then gets as close as he can to the difficult bits, and this shows he is a strong man mentally because he fought through it in his mind.

Berlin's Fantasy - Coping with the War

The fantasy that Berlin had created in his mind helped him cope with everything he had seen in war. The war is very hard to deal with for anyone, let alone someone with an inferiority complex and who sees death all around them. The fantasy helped him sort out what had actually happened in his life so far, and let him have a little mental relief, as opposed to dealing with the stress and hardships directly. The fantasy really helped him deal with everything that was on his mind. Not only did it help with what had happened in reality, such as the murder of the Lieutenant, the killing of civilians, and the indifference shown to the beauty of the country but to the thoughts on his mind about everything in general. The allegories used greatly helped him deal the questions he had on his mind, like how people back home would see him back home and is what Cacciato right and what should he do himself. It also helped him deal with what he had seen. The fantasy shows that as the night goes on, he deals with what happened easier and easier, because the fantasy gets more fantastic. This tactic shows that he is having more fun with his thoughts and ideas rather than strictly dealing with what happened. He is having a little bit of fun to ease the stress on his mind, but still using all of his ability to not lose his mind.

Berlin dealt with the war a little differently than some might have, but he did deal with it. He came to terms with what he had seen and done, and with what will happen in the future. He didn’t run away from the war or from his own emotions. He stayed and fought it out, both in the field and in his mind. Berlin may have thought that he was inferior and not important or strong, but the way he used allegories in his fantasy to portray how real things happened showed that he was mentally strong. The order in which he remembered the facts was also an indicator that it was difficult for him, but he made it through. Finally, the entire fantasy he had was proof that he was a strong man for coping with what he had seen and what he was going to see. These three things brought together in this book prove that he is stronger mentally, physically, and emotionally than he really thinks he is. O’Brien, being a veteran himself, knows how difficult it can be to deal with these mental stresses and possibly even used these mental tactics himself to deal with everything the war had done to him.

Scroll to Continue

The Book


Ted on April 30, 2017:

Great analysis

rick harrison on April 12, 2017:

thanks best I can do is 2 dollars

bgrandys on April 07, 2017:

thanks finally found something helpful that is free and don't need a subscription to read.

Jessica on December 11, 2011:

Great analysis!

Related Articles