A Rumor of War, by Philip Caputo

This is a brilliant book. From the opening pages of the Prologue, one is aware of this. Caputo opens with the lessons he learned while serving as a lieutenant in Vietnam from 1965 to 1966. He was on the front lines of a war that had no front lines. It was a war of tedium, fatigue, and hard-learned lessons, and he puts us on the ground and shows us how those lessons changed his life.

Wisely, Caputo begins with a portrait of himself and his middle-class upbringing in Illinois. How he became frustrated with life as a teenager, and how, immediately after graduating from college, he enlisted in the Marines. He wanted adventure.

And this memoir is the adventure he came to regret. We go through basic training with him, which was tough. But this toughness is what will enable him to survive the rigors of jungle warfare in Vietnam. On the other hand, he was also naïve, he admits, as were all his buddies, as they were shipped to Okinawa to learn the lessons of past wars, and then were flown to Danang in Vietnam to confront the guerrilla warfare of the future. As a lieutenant in charge of a Marine platoon, he is as unprepared for what he will experience as are the naive, gung-ho soldiers under him.

This is what they are unprepared for: the unrelenting heat, the humidity, the monsoons, the savage mosquitos, the surprise ambushes and firefights, their own artillery booming through sleepless nights, the constant threat of snipers, the rugged jungle trails, the forded streams, the mud, the foxholes layered with water, the rotting boots, diseased feet and legs, the strange language, the disguised Viet Cong, etc. Much less the officers’ demand for dead bodies, their overbearing discipline not appropriate for the front lines, the career officers thinking only of promotion, the soldiers only of self-preservation, the long waits and the tedium between patrols, the exhaustion, the lack of sleep, the Spartan food and living, and on and on.

But most of all, Caputo and his soldiers learned about death. That it is everywhere. That it is unexpected. And they see their young selves as mortal. For they see their buddies suddenly killed by a sniper, a land mine, a booby trap, and for the first time realize how vulnerable they themselves are. How death can and will strike like a whim of fate.

This awareness is, of course, what makes them good soldiers, keeps them on high alert—alert to hidden snipers, alert to each step they take in a mined trail or across a mined field. It also teaches them how much they rely on each other, need each other. It teaches them tenderness toward one another, introduces an intimacy that they did not know existed among men. It bonds them into a team that acts as one living unit, each part protective of the other.

And at the heart of this memoir is Caputo’s acknowledgement that this awareness of death brings out both the good and the evil in each person. Perhaps this awareness is a result of his Catholic upbringing, but he does not cite this. Yet it is a truth that this book illustrates. And he concludes his entire experience with a bold example of how evil overwhelmed even him in a moment of weakness—and how it resulted in his arrest.

It is a fitting climax, for this entire book illustrates how the war changes each soldier who survives. How the “body count” measure of success has turned them all into killers. How the fear of death has them shooting first and evaluating later whether the victim is a civilian or a guerilla. And how it has so dehumanized everyone who is serving there that a massacre, such as under Sergeant Calley, can occur.

As for the book’s narrative, I found the early days in Vietnam, after the troops are settled, to be the weakest part of the book. But these are barely a score or so of pages. Once the troops go out on patrol, once they confront the mysterious villages, the hidden enemy, the torture of the monsoons, the chatter of rifle fire, the call for artillery support, the frightening mine fields—once they do, then the narrative is engrossing. And each patrol, each adventure, is entirely different.

And, yes, in each case, Caputo puts the reader in the middle of the action, helps him experience the mud, the rain, the mosquitos, the exhausting hill trails, the lurking sniper, the tiredness, the sense of being alone in a strange, dangerous, and unknown world. It is so unreal, it often seems like a dream world. And, indeed, it inspires Caputo’s own wild dreams.

As Dunne writes in his review, this work forces the reader to wonder: “How would I have acted? To what lengths would I have gone to survive?” The work also challenges to reader to decide both on the overall morality of the war, and how it was conducted. Was it justified? Will lessons be learned? By individual servicemen? By the U.S government?

And Caputo’s conclusion? ”I don’t think so.” An answer indeed chilling. For those words were written in 1977, long before we failed to learn our lesson, long before our government entered other futile wars, other guerilla wars, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

And yet no one who was in Vietnam at that time can forget the highs and lows of his time spent there. Caputo sums up the ambiguity of his own experience. “Under fire, a man’s powers of life heightened in proportion to the proximity of death, so that he felt an elation as extreme as his dread. His senses quickened, he attained an acuity of consciousness at once pleasurable and excruciating. It was something like the elevated state of awareness induced by drugs.”

In other words, it could be addictive, and he admits that the memory of his year there is what drew Caputo back to Saigon as a journalist in 1975. In his concluding chapter, he describes how he volunteered to cover the collapse of the American effort there.

And who would say it is not similar memories that a generation later has drawn many Americans back to Vietnam. As tourists. To, indeed, a friendly environment. How strange the world works. We lost our first war in history in Vietnam, and now many go back as tourists. We hate that war still, and yet we cannot resist the memories of the land, the people, and our own adventure there.

“[The book] is so honest,” Margaret Manning writes, “it makes the attraction of combat understandable. This is not a simple book. It may even be profound.”

It certainly is.

Here is how Caputo himself sums up the challenge he faced in writing this book. “How to find meaning in such a meaningless conflict? How to make sense out of a succession of random firefights that achieved nothing? And what heroes could be found in a war so murky and savage? Yet the task was necessary. In this book, I tried to give meaning by turning myself into a kind of Everyman, my experiences into a microcosm of the whole. My own journey, from the false light of youthful illusions, through a descent into evil, and then into a slow, uncertain ascent toward a new and truer light of self-knowledge, I hope, reflects our collective journey.”

For me, this book has lived up to its reputation. Interestingly, Caputo himself didn’t expect much of a response, certainly not that it would win awards and become a best-seller. Too much time had passed, he felt, and Vietnam was an unpopular war. But it made his reputation, and presumably is what allowed him to leave journalism for the literary world.

In summary, Caputo has written a classic of war, of modern war, a classic that is anti-war and yet salutes the bravery of the men the author served with. He cites “the angels in our nature” that the war revealed, as men died for each other, and also the devil in us that prompted violence and hate. He explores the changes that this inner conflict produced in each soldier, how the bright faces of those who arrived in Vietnam were turned within months to drawn faces of anger, exhaustion, and frustration.

The reader emerges from this book, from its world, with admiration for every man there, and yet with a conviction that “never again.” And yet with an awareness that such a lesson was not learned. Perhaps, Caputo suggests, because the men who have always made such decisions are never the ones to send their own sons off to war. (October, 2013)

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