first up on the back cover of the book: “To call Going After Cacciato a novel about war is like calling Moby-Dick a novel about whales.”
i’d like to officially eyeroll this guy (an NYT reviewer*). it is a novel about war, and a really damned good one. a kind of strange war, where only our guys get killed (one exception, passed over pretty quickly). plenty of our guys get greased, but somehow the book seems to think it is impolite to talk about the ones our guys kill.
anyway. that aside.
i kept thinking of Slaughterhouse-Five as i read this book. not that this book is funny in the way vonnegut’s is, but that the fracturing of time is equally disorienting. the distance in the narrator’s tone. the lack of emotion. the insistence on facts. perhaps this is the only way someone who has experienced war can convey the experience; perhaps there are some things just so radioactive they cannot be approached. no matter; Going After Cacciato will knock you off your feet anyway.
Going After Cacciato elucidates some of the best questions asked about the US involvement in Vietnam–why were we there, really? what good did it do? was it a moral war? is there such a thing?–but it does so from a grunt’s-eye view. for a grunt, the first thing is to survive. the entire moral calculus hangs on that thread. reconciling the two is perhaps impossible. but this book won’t let you walk away without having at least tried to do so.
now, having said that… WARNING–editorializing is next!
is anybody else out there tired of war books? i also kept thinking as i read this book that war is a game those in power play with the lives of those not in power, for toys that will probably benefit only those in power (noted, this is a very post-vietnam attitude). and vietnam was a conscripted war, for sure. not that you couldn’t still Just Say No (and o’brien covers this admirably as well, what with Cacciato having run away from the war). but!!!
sometimes war novels seem like convoluted justifications for doing something that people enjoy–war, killing, etc. like, we know it’s bad to kill other people, and really bad to die, but we can’t stop because… it’s just so much fun. sort of like smoking and drinking and drugs, you gotta know it’s bad for you, but it’s just such a pleasure to do anyway. **
if people didn’t enjoy it, they wouldn’t do it. there’s all the grand narratives of honor and glory, and service, and self-sacrifice, and fighting for survival against the odds. it’s pretty compelling shit, ya?
so i pretty much wish that rather than having really great war novels, we’d just quit killing each other and find all those qualities in less harmful activities. like child-rearing. it’s got all those qualities (except for the glory part)–why don’t we honor that instead?
* anyway if you actually read the reviewer’s review, ya, it’s all about war.
* this is where vonnegut kicks butt on o’brien, by the way–Slaughterhouse-Five faced that truth, and Going After Cacciato didn’t.