Ambiguity of War

Right now I’m reading Tim O’Brien’s 1978 novel Going after Cacciato, about a squad of American soldiers in Vietnam sent after an army deserter–a private named Cacciato, who decides to leave the squad and march all the way to Paris.

The novel won the National Book Award in 1979, and it’s easy to see why. Twenty-five years later the novel is still fresh, humming with vibrant writing and the power of imagination. And now in the midst of another war that some have compared to Vietnam, the novel seems more relevant than ever before.

I’m not saying Iraq is like Vietnam. But I’m not saying it’s not. There are some striking differences, but when I read the following paragraph from Going after Cacciato, I was left wondering how much of this description could apply to the United States’ current war. Here we step inside the soldiers’ minds, who have been patrolling for months in the Quang Ngai province of Vietnam:

bq. They did not know even the simple things: a sense of victory, or satisfaction, or necessary sacrifice. They did not know the feeling of taking a place and keeping it, securing a village and then raising the flag and calling it a victory. No sense of order or momentum. No front, no rear, no trenches laid out in neat parallels. No Patton rushing for the Rhine, no beachheads to storm and win and hold for the duration. They did not have targets. They did not have a cause. They did not know if it was a war of ideology or economics or hegemony or spite…. They did not know strategies. They did not know the terms of the war, its architecture, the rules of fair play. When they took prisoners, which was rare, they did not know the questions to ask, whether to release a suspect or beat on him. They did not know how to feel. Whether, when seeing a dead Vietnamese, to be happy or sad or relieved; whether, in times of quiet, to be apprehensive or content; whether to engage the enemy or elude him. They did not know how to feel when they saw villages burning. Revenge? Loss? Peace of mind or anguish? They did not know. They knew the old myths about Quang Ngai–tales passed down from old-timer to newcomer–but they did not know which stories to believe. Magic, mystery, ghosts and incense, whispers in the dark, strange tongues and strange smells, uncertainties never articulated in war stories, emotion squandered on ignorance. They did not know good from evil.

– Tim O’Brien, Going after Cacciato (New York: Delacorte, 1978) 272-273.