First of all, look! I’m on time! And I finished A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo. Mr. Caputo was a lieutenant in the US Marines and was with both the infantry and the regimental HQ during 1965-1966. In 1967, he was honorably discharged and spent his life as a war correspondent for a variety of news organization. He wrote this book as a memoir and it serves as a first-hand account of what he personally went through during his time in the Vietnam War. This was at a time when the war was in its infancy stages.
If you’re looking for a book about the various battles in the Vietnam War, this isn’t the book for you. But if you are looking for personal experiences and observations about this war, then I would highly recommend it. Caputo definitely has a knack for writing. He captures the reader’s attention in such a way few writers do any more. For example, when describing death, he says “Most of all, we learned about death at an age when it is common to think of oneself as immortal. Everyone loses that illusion eventually, but in civilian life it is lost in installments over the years. We lost it all at once and, in the span of months, passed from boyhood through manhood to a premature middle age” (p. 14). I thought this well captured at least how I have often thought of my own personal transition of immortality to very mortal (as he says, in installments). Caputo especially delivers on the imagery of how he observed the landscape of Vietnam and the reader feels like they are right there with him. When he describes the death of an informant, I felt like I was actually seeing it in my mind.
Caputo has a really amazing way of driving home the point that while soldiers are brave and courageous and everything that goes with that, they are also feeling anger and fear which is what really drives them to be brave. Here’s an excerpt that really drove it home for me:
“Claustrophobia plagues him in the small space: the sense of being trapped and powerless in a machine is unbearable, and yet he has to bear it. Bearing it, he begins to feel a blind fury toward the forces that have made him powerless, but he has to control his fury until he is out of the helicopter and on the ground again. He yearns to be on the ground, but the desire is countered by the danger he knows is there. Yet, he is also attracted by the danger, for he knows he can overcome his fear only by facing it. His blind rage then begins to focus on the men who are the source of the danger-and of his fear. It concentrates inside him, and through some chemistry is transformed into a fierce resolve to fight until the danger ceases to exist. But this resolve, which is sometimes called courage, cannot be separated from the fear that has aroused it. It is, in fact, a powerful urge not to be afraid anymore, to rid himself of the fear by eliminating the source of it” (pp. 271 & 272).
Caputo goes on to say “The change in us, from disciplined soldiers to unrestrained savages and back to soldiers, had been so swift and profound…” (p. 281) and coupled with the above, it put me in mind of another book I had read long ago, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I was in middle school when I read it and was appalled at how quickly the boys in the book had become savages (at least it seemed quick to me at the time) but thinking on that and Caputo’s points, isn’t that what we really are to begin with? Refined savages with good manners and hopefully, more intelligence? Caputo noted “That may be why Americans reacted with such horror to the disclosures of U.S. atrocities while ignoring those of the other side: the American soldier was a reflection of themselves” (p. 19). That still seems to be the case today. I often counter that we should be held to a higher standard since we’re a world power but I’ve never fought in a war or a battle and who knows how I would react if pushed to the brink? Can anyone really know but just hope that when put into that situation, it brings out the best in us and not the worst?
Overall, I really enjoyed this book and it certainly made me think deeply about not just the Vietnam War but man’s reactions to being in war. There were some funny parts, some parts that were graphic (not too graphic though), and some parts that just blew my mind (mostly about leadership of our forces). Has anyone else read this book? What did you think? Are there other books you would recommend that are along this line (first person account, memoirs, etc.)?
Next on deck is Civilization: A New History of the Western World by Roger Osborne. It’s a pretty heavy book (weight-wise) but I thought it would help narrow down the early conflicts at least in this hemisphere for me to focus on in the future. We’ll see 🙂 Next post will be on Thursday, May 3rd.