Portrait of an Anti-hero

by Kenneth Champeon, Oct 22, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Myanmar / Laos / India / Ho Chi Minh City / Vientiane / New Delhi / Yangon


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Review of Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, Broadway Books, 1999.

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Sometimes it can be slim pickings indeed for a movie buff living in Thailand. Your average Thai hamlet may have what Thais lovably refer to as a "VDO" shop, but movies with "soundtrack", i.e. English soundtrack and Thai subtitles, can be as scarce as they are obscure. It was for this reason that I recently saw a delightful little propaganda film called The Green Berets, starring John Wayne. Apparently, the film was created in the early days of the Vietnam War, before anti-war sentiment was strong. Except for one naive anti-war journalist, the Americans are of Omaha Beach stock, generous delivery boys of all that is right and true (medicine for the sick, employment for the peasants, bombs for the Commies.) The film's musical score often resembles jaunty samplings from a Leave It to Beaver episode.

What is particularly jarring about the film is that few of the Vietnamese characters look Vietnamese, but Japanese or Chinese. Understandable, given that the boat people would wash up on American shores only a decade or so later. But when you look at the appalling proportion of Hollywood offerings dedicated to the U.S. military's foreign adventures, you have to wonder just how many of the so-called Russians, Somalis, Arabs, and Serbs are what they pretend to be. No matter. Hollywood has never been about the dissemination of truth.

There is disagreement over which Vietnam War film is the most accurate, because soldiers' experiences differed so widely. Odd, then, that there appears to be some consensus over the best novel, Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato, recipient of the 1979 National Book Award. Odder still is that the novel should be set not wholly in Vietnam, but also in a host of international cities.

Here's why. The soldier Cacciato one day decides that he is going to desert. With little fanfare or compunction, he starts walking to Paris. Desertion not to be borne, his fellow soldiers set out to track him down. Soon they find themselves in Laos, then Burma, then India - and the further they get from the theatre, the less inclined they are to return. When it occurs to them that they are now deserters too, they refer idly to their original mission: going after Cacciato.

That this story could be the definitive fictional account of American involvement in Vietnam shows how half-hearted was this involvement from the get-go. The Korean War had ended in an ominous stalemate - or, rather, it never officially ended: tens of thousands of American soldiers are still stationed on or near the DMZ. So there was no particular reason to believe that Vietnam would prove better, and one good reason to believe that it would prove worse. Korea was partitioned at the end of WWII, with the Russians plunging in from the north, the Americans from the south. The DMZ was - and is - purely a Cold War artifact. But the partition of Vietnam was between the nationalists of the Viet Minh and everybody else. That the nationalists also happened to be Communist, and that they gladly accepted materiel from the Communist bloc, did not fundamentally alter the fact that their war was not so much Cold War as Revolutionary War. George Washington was often compared to Ho Chi Minh, but not to North Korea's bizarre "Dear Leader."

Americans fed on their own revolutionary past were now playing a part similar to that of the Redcoats. The analogy was not lost on them, and their moral purpose was sapped. Morality aside, the purpose of the war not clearly defined: Was it to rid Vietnam as a whole of Communists? If so, how could this be achieved in Vietnam when it had failed in America? "So here we are," grumbles a soldier in O'Brien's novel, "nothing to order, no substance. Aimless, that's what it is: a bunch of kids trying to pin the tail on the Asian donkey. But no fuckin tail. No fuckin donkey." Crass, but spot on.

One of the novel's more surreal scenes describes Cacciato's company tumbling into a tunnel network. There they encounter Li Van Hgoc, a jovial soul offering them victuals and brandy. They chat about the war. Hgoc offers his analysis of why the Americans cannot win:

"'The soldier is but the representative of the land. The land is your true enemy.' He paused. 'There is an ancient ideograph - the word Xa. It means-' He looked to Sarkin Aung Wan for help. 'Community,' she said. 'It means community, and soil, and home.' .... 'So the land mines-' 'The land defending itself.' 'The tunnels.' 'Obvious, isn't it?' 'The hedges and the paddies.' 'Yes,' the officer said. 'The land's own slough. More brandy?'"

At last the courtesies cease, and Hgoc proposes that the Americans are technically speaking his prisoners. The numerically superior Americans scoff. Referring to their shared status as conscripts, Hgoc then plays ingeniously on the word prisoner. "We are prisoners, all of us," he says.

Like Catch-22, Going After Cacciato revels in the insanity of military bureaucracy. When Paul Berlin first comes to Vietnam, he and some other newbies are supposed to receive an orientation lecture from a certain corporal. For a full hour, the corporal says nothing to them - he merely stares at the sea. When the time's up, he says, "That completes your first lecture on how to survive this shit. I hope you paid attention." O'Brien also points out just how bloated the bureaucracy had become and also how luxurious were the American bases: "The ratio of support to combat personnel was twelve to one."

One respect in which O'Brien's depiction succeeds is that its Asian characters are not merely stage props (like the faceless VC in The Green Berets.) Hgoc and the refugee Sarkin Aung Wan are more articulate and cultivated than the Americans are. O'Brien successfully treads the fine line between portraying his characters' prejudices and frustrations and sanctioning or glorifying them.

The novel's only fault is common to all novels written since the invention of the typewriter. It is too long, too redundant, too conversational, too - what's the word? -- American. Which is to say, big but somewhat empty and homogeneous, like America itself. Once upon a time, this style of writing was fresh and invigorating, but it just gets staler and duller as more and more Beatniks die. Harsh words indeed for a National Book, but then again, how many National Books can you name (as opposed to, say, Nobel Prize Winners)?

Still, the novel is an impressive chronicle of the war, the land where it was fought, the mindset of those who fought it, and especially of those who thought it not worth fighting. It is no less true for being a truism, that if all soldiers were Cacciatos, all war would swiftly end.

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