In the novel Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien, Paul Berlin’s war experience follows three elaborate storylines in order to explore the effect war has on a soldier. The storyline focusing on the fantastical pursuit of Cacciato reveals many moments in which conventional ideas of fantasy are challenged by external pressures for different reasons. Many conflicting aspects of Berlin’s character are portrayed throughout the different storylines revealing disparities between Berlin’s view of himself in reality and Berlin’s view of himself in his fantasy. Difficulties throughout his imagined journey are present in order to add realism to his fantasy and are also symbolic of the stresses he is experiencing from warfare and for fantasizing fleeing. He also creates a war story through his fantasy that depicts him as heroic, and the obstacles present are necessary to illustrate his bravery.
Paul Berlin’s journey to Paris depicts moments of internal conflict about his imagined desertion that show his struggle to allow fantasy to coexist with expectations and reality. When most aspects of his reality are far from perfect, a flawless fantasy strays much too far from his actual truth which causes him feel guilty about his fantasy and bad about his life. He acknowledges his guilty feelings while he spends time with his imagined love interest Sarkin Aung Wan. O’Brien writes: “…there were times when we was struck with an odd sense of guilt… the whole made-up world seemed to dissolve” (O’Brien 172). Moments that were too perfect left Berlin feeling guilty and needing a justification for his fantasies while also threatening to “dissolve” them. His subconscious either creates obstacles to add realism or jerks him from his imaginative state. Without obstacles, picturesque moments with Sarkin would have no connection to reality and cause him to slip from his fantasy. Sarkin Aung Wan is involved in his feelings of guilt since he is aware that he is tricking himself into believing he has companionship. Fantasy and reality in this case are too starkly different to coexist, and since he can only control his fantasy, he must add harsh aspects from his reality. Moreso, the deeper he falls into his fantasy, the more he experiences direct characterizations of his guilt in addition to the guilt he feels from Sarkin. The colonel in his fantasy pressures him to admit he ran without honor and reveals that Berlin’s imagined journey is not immune to intense feelings of shame. O’Brien shows Berlin’s dishonor through the colonel by writing: “ ‘… this so-called mission… tell me it is fiction. Tell me it is a made-up story. Tell me it is an alibi to cover cowardice.’ And they said it loudly” (O’Brien 276). Emotional distress is present in his fantasy because it is an inescapable effect of his harsh reality. His inability to cope with stress and guilt in his real war experience causes him to create this fantasy, but his feeling of cowardliness overpowers his grip on his own imagination.
Berlin’s acute awareness of the plausibility of dying is not absent in his imagination, and since violence is so omnipresent in his reality he cannot form a fantasy without it. The novel even begins with his reflection of many of his comrades dying: “It was a bad time. Billy Boy Watkins was dead, and so was Frenchie Tucker… Buff was dead. Ready Mix was dead. They were all among the dead” (O’Brien 13). So many casualties causes death to seem imminent and makes Berlin has many moments in his fantasy that run parallel to the violence in his reality. Since his truth is formed based on his perceptions and experiences, he cannot create a false truth without drawing from a traumatic and gruesome history. He draws on these violent experiences to give his fantasies substance and also alters them in order to cope. In his fantasies, the water buffalo is representative of the soldier Buff. Two events, one in reality, and one in fantasy, are both similarly horrific. The death of the water buffalo is described as: “Gobs of flesh jumped off the beast…” (O’Brien 50). Another vivid description of Buff’s flesh being discarded is described as: “He watched as Cacciato… heaved Buff’s face into the tall, crisp grass” (O’Brien 285). The symbolic water buffalo appears as a representation of Buff’s death because Berlin struggles too much to consciously cope with trauma and also does not have many positive war experiences to base his fantasy off of. When thinking about Buff’s death in specific, Berlin repeats the phrase “life after death” and criticizes the thought as “dumb” and “stupid” (O’Brien 285). Since Berlin cannot mentally contemplate the impact and aftermath of death in his reality, and since he also cannot escape the contemplation, he is forced to create a dehumanized and more naive version of Buff in the form of an animal. For his fantasy to exist in the context of war, he must draw from his past experiences in battle to create structure. Berlin tries to convince himself that he has a history in an Observation Post chapter by beginning it with “He did have a history” and ending it with “Sure, he had a history” (O’Brien 180). The history he describes in this chapter has no solid examples or descriptions of his time at war, which exemplifies that the only substance he has to base his fantasy off of is from the violent experience O’Brien has been describing and that Berlin refuses to acknowledge. Since he is forced to create a fantasy based on his experience in reality, he alters some violent events to use as substance for his imaginative way of coping.
Berlin’s fear of not being brave enough is a significant influence in the storyline of his created fantasy. Overcoming hardships allow him the opportunity to appear heroic in his war story. Berlin’s journey was full of hindrances that added a sense of realism to his fantasy and gave him many opportunities to act with bravery. Sarkin’s character often tells Berlin what he really wants to hear by calling him brave and urging him to make difficult decisions. She says to him: “You have come far. The journey to this table has been dangerous. You have taken many risks. You have been brave beyond your wildest expectations…” (O’Brien 320). Since Sarkin describes his fantasy as “dangerous” and full of “risks”, it is clear that some obstacles have served the purpose of being challenges meant for Berlin to overcome. Grueling physical and emotional challenges throughout his journey play into the expectation of masculinity in warfare. Experiencing and beating these challenges cause Paul Berlin to feel tough and heroic. After being attacked by imagined monks, Sarkin says to him: “I tried to warn you, Spec Four, but, no, such a hero” (O’Brien 122). Similar to her admiration of his bravery, Sarkin is an embodiment of the validation Berlin desires. Her “warning” reveals that Berlin perceives determination and the ignorance of caution as heroic and impressive. In his fantasy, he is not only able to interpret his dangerous actions in a positive light, but create them to exaggerate what kind of soldier and man he believes he should be. Berlin is shown to imagine himself as a soldier who does not consider danger and who can handle physical consequences. These attributes strongly relate to a military social construct of masculinity. In order to become the masculine soldier he is expected to be, he uses obstacles that perpetuate his bravery and masculine stereotypes.
Paul Berlin’s war experience represents that trauma and stress are unavoidable, specifically when one is exposed to extreme amounts of violence. Even in the deepest depths of a vivid fantasy, violence slowly deteriorates a soldier’s psyche and can destroy him or her from both the inside and the outside. There is no way for Berlin to express his struggles and pressures he faces as a soldier that will healthily relieve him from the pain he experiences. In the military, it is too difficult for soldiers to achieve expectations of masculinity and face violence fearlessly without suffering devastating mental effects. If the military can create a culture that encourages a holistic range emotions besides just those of bravery and heroism, soldiers like Paul Berlin will not have to create an unstable fantasy permeable to the horrors of warfare in order to feel brave and cope. An incentive for the military to do so is the encouragement that their soldiers will come out of warfare and also experience warfare in a more healthy way. If Paul Berlin is given societal permission to accept his emotions, then he will not be forced to cope with them in a fantasy.
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