A Post-Structuralism Investigation of the Mysterious Fate of Stink Harris

In Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien, one abundantly clear theme is disjunction. Much of the text is fragmented, split up and moving between locations, characters, and time periods. Coupled with what often seems like magical realism, this paints a rather indistinct picture of many events. One in particular being the departure of Stink Harris. When the group arrives in Greece on the boat, Stink Harris’ fate after he leaps off the ship is made unclear by alternative textual interpretations of the situation.

Excited by their prospects upon arrival to Piraeus, the hope-filled group is crushed after noting the multitude of customs officers waiting for them. As turning around and giving up increasingly seems like the only option, Doc Peret makes the comment “‘So close.’ Doc sighed. ‘And yet so close.’”(O’Brien 257). This statement, botching the common saying ‘So close yet so far’, which appears to not able to properly represent the situation that it seems the group is in, is strange. Doc’s comment, instead of representing the fact there is no hope, may be the last ray of light glimmering inside the mind of the group members, making them feel as though they are still close enough to drift away into Greece. Since this statement proves true, and the group does manage to slip away and escape, the way this comment can be perceived as raising suspicion as to what became the real fate of Stink Harris by implying there is in fact still a possibility of the group completing the mission, and a prelude to the idea there just might be hope for Stink Harris to do so as well.

As the boat approaches shore, scrambling, the group racks their brains to find an answer for them to all walk free in Greece without being captured. After shutting down many impractical ideas, the general consensus is that it’s time to throw in the towel. All the while, Stinks’ brain has confidently formulated a plan. In response to a group member’s suggestion of surrender, Stink decides “Bullshit it is! Disguises…That’s it! Dress ourselves up like women!.”(258). Though at first glance it seems as though Stink is delusional, holding on to anything he can wrap is mind around, and the suggestion seems ridiculous. However, this is not just an idea, it’s a plan. Disguises are in fact a legitimate answer to the customs issue they are facing, and one the rest of the group had not thought of. This plot reveals Stink Harris may be far more intelligent and capable than people think. This alternative view of Stink as surprisingly quick witted makes what he does next open to analysis. This alternate plan for disguises may blind us from what Stink could have really been cooking up in own head. Stink could be showing himself as either a naive fanatic, jumping as a last resort in desperation, or a calculated planner timing every move he makes, depending on your point of view and how you read the scene.

After declaring he is bailing ship, Stink is appalled with the rest of the group’s’ decision to stay aboard. He wonders “What’s wrong with you guys?”(258). Stink seemed to be driven drunk with adrenaline, completely driven by pure survival instinct with consequences out of his mind. Although that seems the clear answer, Stink’s comment may be driven by an actual questioning. He may have completely thought out the plan, really wondering why the others are not willing to go free, like he will be. Interpretations of Stinks innermost thoughts cause us to wonder if Stink could have been irresponsible, throwing his life away in a foolish move, or rather, if he was employing a rather ingenious plan in the spur of the moment.

As the cargo ship sailed away, the group watches Stink’s figure in the water. After some time, “Then the wake was gone. So was Stink Harris”(259). Although drowning seems the obvious explanation, the text makes his final fate unclear. Stink, the man who formulated all of the answers in his head, has disappeared from sight. The text simply states he was gone, possibly meaning out of the group’s lives. He never reappears or returns to the group again. This could mean Stink, with all of his ideas of disguise, and plan to get to shore, may have made it to his final destination after all. Because this scene can be seen as either a horrifying, abrupt death and end to Stink Harris, or as a miraculous, well formulated escape, we may never know his true fate, and we are left to question if he made it to safety or simply perished. The scene is a quintessential synecdoche for the novel. Just like what happened to Stink Harris in the end, much of Going After Cacciato is especially open for various interpretations, depending on your own personal view of events.

Redefining Courage in a Fantasy: An Analysis of Going After Cacciato

The reality of war unfortunately creates an oppressive system that causes soldiers to struggle with internal conflict and individual thought. In the book Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien, Paul Berlin’s thoughts and emotions are presented fluidly in the observation post as he accepts ideas of leaving the war as a means of embracing courage. Although war is often known for violence and gore, Berlin’s thoughts at the observation post show his probable battle with masculinity and courage.

Within O’Brien’s narrative, the culture that war fosters amplifies American values of pride and honor into masculine behavior. This creates an internally oppressive system in which soldiers associate fighting for their country with suppressing their emotions and rejecting fear. Paul Berlin’s character development of becoming brave and desiring peace is prevalent encourages that he is having a plausible war experience. His contemplation of leaving the war is seen as: “That was the crazy thing about it – for all the difficulties, for all the hard times and stupidity and errors, for all that, it could truly be done” (O’Brien 48). Although fantasy and reality struggle to coexist in war, Berlin has found a realistic balance in considering and accepting the possibility that leaving “could truly be done”. His use of controlled fantasy to deal with trauma exemplifies his credible war experience. His realization of rationalizing peace is realistic since it does not go without intense feelings of fear and deep introspection that eventually leads to courage. The emotional standards of war such as bravery and loyalty are what show the plausibility of Berlin’s thought process and restrict him from embracing fantasy.

War puts such immense pressure on Berlin to express masculinity that his idealized version of himself as a soldier cannot even exist in reality. True expressions of bravery for Berlin either must be redefined to fit into the mold of reality, or completely fictionalized in his mind. This reality is exemplified when Berlin leaves his fellow soldiers that he is supposed to be guarding and goes down the ladder of the post. O’Brien writes: “It was his bravest moment” (O’Brien 62). This is an accurate example of war culture since it took bravery for Berlin to stray away from a group he was supposed to sacrifice his individuality for. In reflection, he can identify this as his bravest moment, since he is able to remove himself from the narrative of an idealized soldier and redefine the confines of bravery enforced by American culture. As his mental state deteriorates, the shift in his concept of true bravery is seen clearly through the arc of his fantasy.

When Berlin leaves the group and begins to explore the idea of leaving the war, his emotional state is described as: “Excited by the possibilities, but still in control” (O’Brien 63). In a sharp contrast to O’Brien’s descriptions of Berlin’s journey to Paris, Berlin is shown here by being in control of his fantasies with a real grasp on time, location, and his being. He is seeing leaving war as brave, and has not yet experienced the guilt that eventually destroys him. Furthermore, beyond attempting to balance fantasy and reality, he also grapples with his masculinity which shows he is aware and reacting to the reality of war expectations. O’Brien writes: “…that somewhere inside each man is a biological center for the exercise of courage” (O’Brien 81). Berlin believes that masculinity and courage are interdependent, a concept strongly encouraged by the military. His acute awareness of military and social standards demonstrate the credibility of the scenes. What is dangerous here for Berlin, is that courage has been explicitly defined by American culture. When he tries to redefine courage for himself, even his fantasies cannot withstand what has been ingrained in him for so long. Reality constantly threatens the stability of his fantasies where his concepts and viewpoints do not fit into what he has been conditioned to believe.

War creates a dangerous circumstance for fantasy and reality to coexist, especially because of expectations of masculinity and courage. War deters individual thought and imagination which actually causes the going against of a group think mindset to be one of the bravest things a soldier can do. Embracing individuality in United States’s troops has been struck down from sexuality to gender and claims of false loyalty are being used against those who strive for true self expression. This oppression forces soldiers to rely on fantasy to relieve their trauma which is dangerous and an ineffective way to properly treat PTSD. Paul Berlin has been forced to exist in a devastating reality in which the courage expected of him is impossible to achieve, and even in his fantasies cannot be redefined.

Inescapable Violence

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.