The Nuclear Age: The Threat of Nuclear War and the Reactions of Modern Society to Those who are Aware of the Threat.
[(Essay Dated June 13, 2009) In this essay, T.D. analyzes the threat of nuclear war and modern society’s ignorance to the threat of impending doom.]

Nuclear weapons are some of the most fearful weapons that the modern world has ever seen. Dwarfing the technology and power seen in weapons of other ages that were thought of as immensely destructive, such as the catapult in the Middle Ages and the rifled musket during the Civil War, a nuclear weapon can wipe out a massive stretch of land and millions of lives when someone in power simply presses a button. From the days of World War II when Albert Einstein warned Franklin Roosevelt of the Nazi program to develop a nuclear weapon, the threat has been ever present. Through the Manhattan Project, the research of J. Robert Oppenheimer and countless others came to a head when the B-29 Bomber Enola Gay dropped the “Little Man” on Hiroshima, wiping out the city and countless lives. While in retrospect, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved countless American and Allied lives, the world saw the destructive power that was present in splitting something so small that it cannot be seen. Thus began the arms race between the Soviet Union and the United States of America, and with each progression forward, more fearful weapons were developed, leaving the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a past technological era, even though in reality it was only a decade or so ago. With the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world had its closest brush with nuclear war ever and despite that reality, the world as a whole still remained largely ignorant to the chilling fact that the world could end with the click of a button and a brilliant flash of light.

The reader meets William Cowling at the age of 49. Cowling immediately poses a question to the reader, “Am I crazy?” (page 1). This short sentence carries significant weight throughout the novel because as the story progresses, William is constantly questioning his sanity and then providing answers to the reader and to himself as to why he is sane. Although in many parts of the story the reader may truly think Cowling is insane, O’Brien’s constant usage of repetition bring about an entirely different attitude toward Cowling later on. When he begins to dig a hole, a fallout shelter, despite his logic, his family is convinced that he is crazy. His wife threatens to leave him and his daughter struggles with the fact that she loves her father but is scared of him, convinced he is crazy and going to kill her. He is determined not to lose his family and boards them up within his bedroom and continues to dig. Running parallel to the story in 1994 is the story of Cowling past, beginning with his childhood, moving through his college years and then into his days as a draft dodger and revolutionary. Following his dodging days, the reader follows Cowling as he strives to find the girl he is determined he is to marry, an airline attendant named Bobbi. He marries her and has his daughter Melinda, and lives a relatively peaceful life. However in the back of his mind is still that nagging, ever-present fear of nuclear annihilation.

Is it not humorous how many times those people in history who truly were aware of something that foreshadowed the coming future, were thought to be insane by the people who were ignorant to the coming event or truth. Nostradamus was a philosopher who was thought to be insane by most, but in retrospect many of his predictions have come true. He predicted the coming of Hitler and World War II, as well as the death of Henry II in a jousting accident. Nicolaus Copernicus, a philosopher and astronomer who is credited with developing the heliocentric theory of the solar system, was thought to be insane because his theory contrasted with the geocentric theory proposed by Claudius Ptolemy that was accepted by the Roman Catholic Church. However, Copernicus was correct. Jesus Christ was not believed when he stated that one of his disciples would betray him and that Peter would deny him three times before the cock crowed. Yet Judas betrayed Jesus and Peter denied Jesus three times when questioned by citizens if he knew the man Jesus of Nazareth who was now before Pilate. Noah was thought to be a madman for building an arc, but in the end by the grace of God he survived.

“ ‘They laughed at Noah, princess’ (page 59)”.

William Cowling is no different. When he was about twelve years old, William was plagued by insomnia and constantly had nightmares of the world ending with fire and fallout.

“At night I’d toss around in bed for hours, battling the snagged sheets, and then when sleep finally came, sometimes close to dawn, my dreams would be clotted with sirens and melting ice caps and radioactive gleamings and ICBMs whining in the dark. I was a witness. I saw it happen. In dreams, in imagination, I watched the world end.” (page 9)

When Cowling begins building a fallout shelter underneath his ping-pong table and reinforcing it by laying hundreds of pencils (because they contain “lead”) on top of the table to protect from radiation, his parents and doctor laugh because they think his plan is ridiculous. He is hurt that people think he is crazy and does not understand how he is the only person who is afraid of being wiped out in a flash of light and fire. He constantly faces the internal battle of whether or not he is crazy, and constantly he produces examples of situations in which someone could see the threat of impending doom.

“Ask the microorganisms in Nevada. Ask the rattlesnakes and butterflies on that dusty plateau at Los Alamos. Ask the wall shadows at Hiroshima. Ask this question: Am I crazy?” (page 7)

However, society as a whole is ignorant of the possibility. Despite all the signs and events such as the Cuban Missile Crisis, society still seems not to realize that nuclear annihilation is a very real threat. O’Brien’s use of symbolism clearly illustrates the fine line that humanity walks:

“I was afraid. For myself, for my parents, for my prospects as an ordinary human being. It was like getting on a tightrope. You start tiptoeing across, very slowly feeling your way, but you know you can’t make it, you know you’re going to fall, and it’s only a question of which way you’ll go, left or right” (page 29).

The tightrope in the passage above is symbolic of humanity’s fragile existence. In today’s day and age, with nuclear power so dangerous and volatile an issue, with North Korea issuing threats of stepping up plutonium enrichment programs to make it weapons grade, and Iran’s constantly volatile situation, the precious balance between peace and ultimate disaster finds itself precariously wobbling on that tightrope. The slightest nudge one way or the other, as it almost occurred with Cuba in October 1962, would send the world spiraling into oblivion. To William Cowling, he seems to be the only person to be cognisant of that harsh reality, as people in the world have become so desensitized to it that they no longer are aware of the brutal truth, immune to the fact that someone can push a button and end their lives in such an impersonal way that millions die in the blink of an eye. While in many respects William Cowling may be a little bit shaky as far as his methods and psychological state in some aspects are concerned, he is extremely intelligent and completely sane in the matters regarding to impending doom. He constantly plays with the frustrating paradox:

“If you’re sane, I thought, you’re fucking crazy” (page 225).

Frustrating indeed. William Cowling constantly has to attempt to conform to society’s immunity, while in reality, his insides are boiling and churning as he watches the flashes of light and cities liquefied in his all too common dreams. But is he insane, absolutely not, although society would tell one yes. In one quote, Cowling breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience, calling them out on their immunity and lack of fear in the face of such an obvious danger.

“If you’re sane, you don’t fuck with the obvious. You know what MAD means. It means there is nothing to live for. Which means bedlam. So who’s crazy? True or false: The world can end. Multiple choice: Fire or ice or nuclear war. The realities are with us” (page 199).

This statement is clearly one of strong social commentary as O’Brien is truly addressing the audience through William Cowling. Why do you wait? Why do you gloss over the fact that the world we live in teeters on a fragile rope, one that can be easily severed? When the signs of arms buildup and the threats of nuclear annihilation stare humanity in the face on the news, on the internet, and on the radio, why do humans simply change the channel? In the following paragraph, O’Brien makes one of the most profound statements in his novel, examining what will be left of the world if humans continue to remain blind to the fact that nuclear war could rapidly end the world they live in, replacing it with one of melted glass and fire.

“Everything is combustible. Faith burns. Trust burns. Everything burns to nothing and even nothing burns. There are no footprints – the footprints burn. There are no messages in bottles, because the bottles burn, and there is no posterity, because posterity burns. Cement and steel, it all burns. The state of Kansas burns, the forests, the Great Lakes, the certificates of birth and death, every written word, every sonnet, every love letter. Graphite burns. Churches burn. Memory burns, and with it the past, all that was. The reasons for burning burn. Flags burn. Liberty and sovereignty and the Bill of Rights and the American way. It just burns. And when there is nothing, there is nothing worth dying for, and when there is nothing worth dying for, there is only nothing” (page 303).

Quite ominous and foreboding. Although many of Cowling speeches and thoughts throughout the novel at times may be farfetched, the fact of the matter is that through William Cowling, Tim O’Brien poses it to the reader to evaluate his or her awareness. Is it not worthwhile to take a moment to realize that, “The Bombs Are Real” (page 74). Is it not worthwhile to realize that the fragile existence that humans have on Earth is indeed that; fragile. By posing these questions, O’Brien has created a masterful novel in which the moral fibers and awareness of humanity are challenged by the omnipresent threat of nuclear war.

(T.D. 2009)

Going After Cacciato: The Struggle to Do Right in a Situation that is Wrong
[(Essay Dated June 13, 2009) In this essay, T.D. analyzes the ever present conflict experienced by soldiers in Tim O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, how one struggles do right in a situation where there is so much wrong.

Everyone has a conscience. It is that conscience that guides everyday decisions and actions, from remaining honest when working on a task to helping someone in need. If humans were devoid of conscience, the world would be a very different place, one in which people would be impersonal and there would be no heroes because the only person that an individual human would care for is themself. There would be no need for war heroes like Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II; Hector Cafferata, a Korean War marine who fought for hours in bare feet in the snow and singlehandedly held off the assault of over one hundred Chinese infantry; and Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL who, while stationed in Afghanistan, exposed himself to withering enemy fire so he could call in air support team, and as a result was killed so he could save his men. Without conscience, many more people would have died in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, had it not been for the courage of the policemen and firefighters who charged into the World Trade Center while others ran out, and if not for the courage of the passengers of United Flight 93, that plane may have cause massive destruction on the scale similar to the damage inflicted on the World Trade Center. It is people such as these that everyone can draw inspiration from and truly understand what true courage is all about. It is in Vietnam, during the most controversial war in American history, that Specialist 4th Class Paul Berlin finds himself in a constant battle with his conscience as he wonders how he can do right in a situation where there is so much wrong.

The reader first meets Spec. Four Berlin in the jungles of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Berlin is the member of a squad led by an older lieutenant named Lt. Corson, and when the reader meets him, Berlin has been the member of the squad for quite some time. And it is here that the reader learns that Cacciato has run away. Cacciato is a soldier in Berlin’s squad, a harmless individual who is a very simple person that means no harm to anyone. It is his plan to walk to Paris, a massive trip consisting of over 8,000 miles and his squad is sent to capture him. A simple enough task since Cacciato has only enough supplies to last him a little while and is actually trying to walk to Paris, plus the fact that he is not overly intelligent. However, Cacciato proves a wily fox to catch and leads his squad on a chase that brings them from the jungles of Vietnam to the mountains of Afghanistan, to the Rhine in Germany and finally to the Eifel Tower in Paris. As the journey progresses, the continuum of the story is sporadically broken as Berlin remembers the time before the journey through flashbacks, as well as scenes where Berlin is keeping watch at night from a watchtower, quietly pondering his existence and role in this war. By undertaking the journey, Berlin not only travels a massive 8,000 plus miles to Paris, he also undergoes a tremendous psychological journey as he examines the ability to do right in a world that is wrong, and the hard consequences that come with either choice.

Everyone knows war is a terrible thing, and everyone knows that in war young men die. However, many times in war, the slaughter that ensues seems so unnecessary. Many times, the reader will find his or herself questioning why, and along with Berlin, wondering what is wrong with the world. In one instance, Berlin and his squad come over a rise in a peaceful setting and in an instant, one of Berlin’s comrades known as Stink thinks he sees Cacciato. Without hesitation, Stink drops to a knee and open fires on pair of water buffalo. These buffalo pose no threat to anyone, yet Stink slaughters them without remorse, and even a hint of glee.

“Someone was screaming for a cease-fire but Stink was on full automatic. He was smiling. Gobs of flesh jumped off the beast’s flanks” (page 47).

Obviously there was no reason for the heinous slaughter of the water buffalo, which the reader later learns was the pet of two old women who had raised it from infancy. The reader joins Berlin in wondering if the slaughter was necessary, and if all his purpose entails is to slaughter without remorse, how can he possibly do good? What is the point? Face to face with an enemy is one thing, but ruthless slaughter of an innocent animal is ridiculous, and Berlin will come to realize that many things in war are wrong. Not everything is the glamour and parades that many assume war is all about. He comes to grips with the fact that despite his attempts to take the higher road, sometimes the low road is the one that leads to survival.

This low road makes its most profound appearance in relation to Lieutenant Sidney Martin. Martin is the leader of the squad prior to his death, and he is one who is insistent on Standard Operating Procedures, commonly referred to as SOPs. One of Martin’s SOPs that he sternly enforces is the procedure of searching the tunnels found in the terrain prior to detonating the entrance. In truth this process is ridiculous because no soldier is willing to go inside the tunnel where the chances of being shot by the Vietnamese were unbelievably high. That ugly fact shows itself when Martin orders Frenchie Tucker into the tunnel where he is immediately shot in the face and killed. As if that were not enough, Martin then orders Bernie Lynn into the tunnel after Tucker. As one would imagine, Lynn also dies, but more over the point of the matter is that neither Tucker nor Lynn needed to die. They could have blown the tunnels and moved on without anyone saying anything. That is the reason why neither Lynn nor Tucker’s character is developed because they are just another casualty in war in which so much seems wrong. Even Lt. Martin, who was trying to do right by following the Standard Operating Procedures that he has been ordered to follow, has done wrong by getting two of his men killed by following the order that could have been circumvented.

Martin again takes the forefront in the examination of right and wrong when his soldiers, led by Stink plan to remove him from command. They all have to consent to it, because removing him from command entails killing him, and every man including Cacciato touches the symbolic grenade. However, Cacciato is ignorant to the meaning of the grenade and thus remains detached from the true plot. This is another one of the novel’s many ironic situations in that the soldiers are trying to do good for themselves by removing Martin from command. However, the way in which they have to do it is very wrong; murdering a comrade and their commanding officer. How can the soliders justify their action when the means is wrong? On the other hand, how can they stand by knowing they are going to die sometime if the SOPs are followed? Neither choice presents the soldiers with viable options, as either decision has a right and wrong, whether it is self-preservation and murder, or death and letting someone live.

One of the most brutal points in the novel occurs at Landing Zone Bravo. Here, the idea of doing right by following orders cannot be justified by the horrible results that ensue. The squad and Lt. Martin are being inserted to their new area of operation by helicopter, and following SOP, the gunners are covering every open spot of land with machine gun fire. When the soldiers jump from the helicopter, the gunners continue their relentless stream of fire. They are doing right by following order and supporting the landing soldiers. However, when their bullets cut down Jim Pederson, that right changes drastically.

“Behind him, the gunners strafed the paddies, red tracers and white light, molded to their guns, part of the machinery, firing and firing, and Pederson was shot first in the legs. But the gunners did not stop. They fired in sweeping, methodical rows; dense white smoke rid the gunners’ faces. Slowly, calmly, Pederson lay back in the slush. He did not go crazy at being shot. He was calm. Holding his stomach together, he let himself sink, partly floating and partly sitting. But the gunners kept firing, and he was shot again” (page 118).

Now what is the point of that? None, that is the answer and impersonality of the gunners symbolized by the white smoke which hides their faces. Pederson was doing his job by wading through the paddies and the gunners were doing theirs by providing covering fire. However, even though the gunners did not cease fire when they hit Pederson, it is the fact that something so wrong and heinous came out of the attempt to do right. These are just some of the many paradoxical situations that the characters in the novel experience. How to do right when there is always the potential for something wrong is truly a difficult situation. And it is one that humans find themselves in everyday. All that humans can learn to do is try to make the best out of these situations, taking the moral high road and using their best judgment to determine which course is the right one.

(T.D. 2009)

[(Essay dated June 15, 2009) In the following essay, L.N analyzes the outcome of suppressing one’s past and how it affects one’s future in In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O’Brien]

In the Lake of the Woods presents a dark experience in which the reader sees into the lives of John and Kathy wade, who live together in a lake house in Minnesota. What is dark about this relationship, however, are the secrets the two keep from each other. Kathy leaves John without a trace, and many different hypothesis’s are made to explain her disappearance. Throughout the story, dark secrets are kept from characters which impact them negatively.

John’s early life was ridiculed by a drunken father, however he still looked up to him. John’s father suffered from alcoholism, which led him to ridicule John about his wait. “John loved his father a lot. I suppose that’s why the teasing hurt so bad… he tried to keep it secret—how much it hurt—but I could always tell… Oh, he loved that father of his… things were hard for John. He was too young to know what alcoholism is.” (10) John’s father kept his past of alcoholism secret, which ultimately hurt John. Even though he loved his father dearly, he could not understand why he was being ridiculed. When he died, it was no wonder that John didn’t take the news lightly. The way his father kept the secrets away from John is something John will do later on in life.

John’s early life was plagued by a serious event in Vietnam that he decided to keep secret. When he was running for the office of senator, however, the ugly truth began to surface. “Must’ve asked a trillion times if there was anything that could hurt us, scum or anything. Man never said one single word. Zero.”(11). John decided to keep it a secret that he partook in a massive slaughter in Vietnam. When the news reached the public, however, the result was catastrophic and it cost him the election. Not only did John’s dark secret affect the outcome of his election, but his marriage as well.

After his defeat in the elections, John and Kathy moved to a secluded lake house in the middle of the wilderness. During one night, however, John woke up in a fit of anger reciting “kill jesus.” He began his rampage by destroying flowers with boiling water, and began to think “It occurred to him that he should wake her. Yes, a kiss, and then confess to the shame he felt: how defeat had bled into his bones and made him crazy with hurt. He should’ve done it. He should’ve talked about the burden of villainy, the ghosts at Thuan Yen, the strain on his dreams.” (50). John begins to think that he should reveal his dark past to his wife, but he decides not to. Daily, he is plagued by his horrible past and wishes to reveal it. John doe not reveal his secrets, however, and one day his wife mysteriously disappears without a trace. Perhaps if he had talked with his wife, the marriage could have been spared.
John’s wife Cathy wasn’t without her share of dark secrets, as she had an affair with a dentist in the north. Kathy’s sister explains “Kathy was no angel. That dentist… I shouldn’t say his name. I guess it hurt him pretty bad—John, I mean.”(261). Kathy never mentioned to John that she had a secret affair with a dentist, which evidently hurt him badly. Her horrible secret led to John’s sporadic anger issues, which ultimately led to her disappearance.

Throughout the novel, there are many speculations on why Kathy left John. Whatever the accusation is, however, it is a result of dark secrets that the characters refuse to share. The characters, especially John Wade, believed they could hide their evil pasts and move on with their lives. However, no matter how hard they tried, their pasts caught up with them, which had dire consequences. Perhaps the ruined election couldn’t have been avoided, but his failing marriage could have been saved if he talked things over with Kathy. O’Brien is trying to state that when you suppress and pretend you have no past, eventually the past will catch up to you.

L.N 2009

[(Essay dated June 15, 2009) In the following essay, L.N analyzes how war takes away one’s innocence in Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien

The Vietnam War was a conflict that caused great destruction to the soldiers that served, both physically and mentally. O’Brien’s Going After Cacciato, explores the effect of how war destroys one’s innocence. In chasing after Cacciato, Paul attempts to escape the past and present horrors by conjuring up a fictional story of chasing Cacciato and tries to retain his innocence.

The story opens with a paragraph of dead soldier’s names followed by morbid descriptions of the war. The very first pages set the stage for an unforgiving atmosphere in which Paul must live in daily. One such description is of a soldier Vaught who lost an arm as a result of a horrid disease. Following the descriptions, Cacciato leaves the war for Paris and Paul and his squad chase after him. The descriptions of Cacciato, however, contrast the morbid descriptions found earlier in the book. “There was something curiously unfinished about Cacciato. Open-faced and naïve and plump, Cacciato lacked the fine detail, the refinements and final touches, that maturity ordinarily marks on a boy of seventeen… it was all part of a strange, boyish simplicity that the men tolerated the way they might tolerate a frisky pup.”(8) Cacciato is described as a boyish soldier who barely looks seventeen, who decides to leave the war. The descriptions of Cacciato portray him as being innocent and clean, compared to Vaught who lost an arm from infection. Paul chasing after Cacciato can be interpreted as him chasing after his innocence.

Innocence is not only sought after from Paul, but his fellow soldiers as well. In one of Paul’s flashbacks, he recalls a soldier Bernie, who attempted to search a VC tunnel, only to be shot in the throat. He is attended to by Doc, who gives him plasma and M&M’s. In seeing this, the soldiers move away because they know Bernie is about to die. The M&M’s come to symbolize innocence in this scene, as they have no medical value. The medic feeds the dying soldier M&M’s in an attempt to make the soldier happy again, much like how they make kids happy, however the soldier dies. The dying soldier attempts to retain his youthful innocence, however the war has destroyed this and he dies.

In another flash back, Paul attacks a mountain that has been destroyed by bombers which left huge craters in the ground. The rain eventually filled the craters up, and Cacciato was seen fishing in them. Paul approaches Cacciato with the proposition of fragging their lieutenant. The fishing, however, is what perplexes Paul, because there are clearly no fish in the lifeless water. In an attempt to explain why he is fishing, Cacciato says “Patience… that’s what my dad told me. Have patience, he says. You can’t catch fish without patience.”(238) The fishing is symbolic to the story, in that Cacciato is unaware of the destruction that has gone on around him, and attempts to fish in the barren wasteland. He is isolated from this destruction, and appears childish. Eventually, Paul gets around to asking Cacciato if he will support fragging the Lieutenant. Cacciato refuses, and explains “He’s not all that bad. Once he let me carry the radio. Remember that? Along the river. Martin let me carry the radio. He’s not all that bad.”(239) This remark is juvenile in that even though Paul insists he must frag the Lt. because he wants the soldiers to meet certain death in the tunnels, Cacciato insists he is a good person because he let him hold the radio. The fishing, however, sparks memories of Paul’s childhood and he remembers how he had once fished with his father. Paul’s attitude changes dramatically, and as he opens his eyes, he looks at Cacciato and says “Any luck?” Paul begins to feel nostalgic as he sees Cacciato fish, as he begins to recollect his childhood. Paul comes in with the vicious proposition of fragging his commander, and leaves feeling nostalgic about his youthful days. Cacciato hasn’t lost his youth from the war, as he is seen fishing in the war torn battlefield, but Paul begins to realize how much he wishes if he could go back home.

The novel takes a bizarre twist, when Paul and his comrades fall through a giant crack in the ground. Paul hits the ground and is stranded there, until one of his comrades explains “The way in is the way out…We have fallen into a hole. Now we must fall out.”(98). O’Brien puts this scene in the novel to prove that Paul chasing Cacciato to Paris was fictitious. Paul had created this story in an attempt to avoid his harsh reality. Chasing Cacciato in his dream was a way of escaping the war. Proving that this story is fake, however, shows that Paul will never obtain his innocence back. The reader now knows the story of Going After Cacciato is just a conjured story inside Paul’s head, which Paul is using to try to shield himself from the war.

Paul finally reaches Paris and begins to create a good life for himself. He buys a house and settles down with a girl named Sarkin Aung Wan, however, his life crumbles when the authorities find out he is carrying firearms without a passport. In an attempt to save themselves, Paul and his squad attempt to catch Cacciato in his apartment. Paul eventually busts into the room, but upon entering, he breaks down and eventually wets his pants. At this end of this scene, it is made apparent once again that this story was just a dream. Paul awakes from his nightmare by wetting his pants, and slowly begins to resume his life. Ending the dream as a nightmare, however, shows that Paul will not be able to retain his youth and innocence.

By ending the dream the way he did, O’Brien states that war is a life changing experience, and you may never recover from the horrors you see. By never being able to catch Cacciato, the message is made clear that after war, you may never retrieve your innocence.
L.N 2009