Horn of Africa, by Philip Caputo

This 1980 work is a novel of adventure, and also a work of literature. From the very first pages, it drew me into its world. First, because of narrator newspaperman Charlie Gage’s point of view; he is a burnt-out case and full of guilt. The guilt is both for the story he will tell and for his role in the deaths of men with whom he shared a mission. And, second, this novel drew me in with its creation of a vivid, tangible foreign world, first that of Cairo, Egypt, and then of a stress-filled crossing of African deserts into the mountains of Ethiopia.

This is the early text that drew me into Caputo’s world, as narrated by Gage: “This story may be an exorcism of sorts; but it is not an apology for the things we did and the things we allowed him to do out there….Certainly we would have been indicted if everything had happened in a place where lawyers and judges stage the little dumbshows we call justice; but it all took place in the empty desert in the midst of a revolution….Each eventually dispensed its own form of justice, crude and unfair, but forms of justice nevertheless. The last few days on the desert were the worse, racking us with agonies more exquisite that could be inflicted by the worst prison in the world. The wilderness, however, was not entirely merciless; it allowed me to escape, to bear witness, and to experience a kind of expiation. The professional moralists, from their pulpits, from their editorial offices, from their speaker’s dias…might say it was not a genuine expiation and call for investigating commissions, inquiries, punishments. Let them chatter. We paid whatever debt we owed. Nordstrand and Moody paid all a man can pay, Nordstrand with interest because his liability was the greatest. I took his last installment and closed his account.”

That is what hooked me. This is Greene territory, Conrad territory, the territory of moral novelists exploring the roles of consience and justice in a violent, unjust world.

The mission, called Operation Atropos, is to bring armaments to Moslem Ethiopian rebels who wish to carve out a piece of Ethiopia and create a separate country called Bejaya. Charlie Gage, the American newspaperman, is recruited in Cairo by an ambitious American agent called Colfax, who seeks to make a name for himself. Colfax also recruits a level-headed but ineffectual English officer named Moody, who is to be in charge, and a dominating, headstrong, powerful soldier named Nordstrand, who is to provide the muscle and, as he himself believes, the leadership. Nordstrand is clearly the novel’s major character. After delivering the arms, he sees himself as the leader of the new nation, which is why he exerts brutal control over everyone he deals with.

What complements such conflict among the characters is the physical detail, whether in the streets of Cairo or the desert outside, whether in the villages or valleys of Africa, its sands or its swamps, its mountains or ravines, and whether one treks in the heat of day or the chill of night. The trio must also deal with the loyalty and the fickleness of both the natives they encounter and the rebels they join. Indeed, one so marvels at the physical detail that one is convinced that Caputo himself must have explored that same rugged terrain and lived the same exotic life of the African native. Because he makes that world come so alive.

The novel moves back and forth between its two strengths, character and description. And more than a reader expects, straight narration plays a major role, both forays into the past and extended descriptions of the present. Particularly effective are the constant physical and human obstacles when crossing deserts, confronting armed men, and hiking into the mountains. This vivid environment ranges from thornbushes to mosquitos, from swamp muck to endless sand, and includes even the sounds of snorting camels and jingling harnesses, plus the darkness, the burning heat, and the exhaustion. And yet…the narrative sustains our interest, even as little else happens.

In another complication, the arms the trio expects to deliver to the rebels do not arrive; but the trio continue on, hoping the promise to deliver those arms will justify their trek into rebel territory. That they will not be held for ransom by Jima, the rebel leader who awaits the weapons. Which reverts to the second strength of the novel, the relationships among the trio and their local contacts, Murrah and Osman, as well as with Jima. All of which comes across in both violent disputes and moments of introspection and doubt. Particularly effective is the intimidation by Nordstrand, whether he is trying to dominate narrator Gage, officer Moody, or the local natives.

Nordstrand is a violent schemer who seeks to control every obstacle he meets, and who does not care about the pain he inflicts on others. He meets an ironic fate however, when his installation into a native tribe, which he seeks as the first step in dominating them, results in an infection that weakens him and begins his downfall. This is the character Caputo wants the reader to remember. How his maniacal ambition brings his own destruction.

But Caputo also wants to demonstrate the foolhardiness of the entire operation. First, the foolish effort by Colfax to create the operation; and then, on the scene, the muscle that Nordstrand uses to control his colleagues, and the even greater violence he resorts to, murder, in order to take over, first, the revolution and then the new country. With the guilty conscience of narrator Gage underscoring that evil by allowing it to happen.

In the novel’s climax, the rebels capture a vital town and then the more powerful government forces bombard and destroy it. The horror of warfare is brilliantly portrayed here, and leads each character to his fate—a fate we have been prepared for. Except we learn how the various characters die, and where the responsibility lies for their deaths.

To sum up, this brilliant novel blends adventure, morality, and justice. It brings alive both its characters and its African setting. It contrasts the brutal Nordstrand, the “civilized” Moody, and the pliant Gage, along with the pragmatic, deceitful, and violent natives. I rarely use a novel’s blurb to help sum it up, but this blurb works: “Set in a bleak landscape where none of the signposts of civilization as we know it exist, [this novel] exposes the dark side of human nature—the side that, freed of all restraints, acts without pity, without conscience, without remorse.” (May, 2015)

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)