I was delighted this month to be able to take part in the 1977 club run by Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon from Stuck in A Book and my choice was A Rumour of War by Philip Caputo, which my husband has been hounding me to read for years!
Interestingly, A Rumour of War was published in the same year as Michael Herr’s acclaimed Dispatches, which tells the story of the Vietnam War from a journalist’s point of view. Caputo’s depiction is a more personal odyssey as he depicts his real life experience as a Marine serving in Vietnam and uses his moral and physical transformation from a naïve and noble soldier to a desperate cold-blooded killer as a metaphor for this damaging war as a whole.
The book opens with Caputo’s path to military life and his training in Quantico, which is as you would imagine, full of arduous physical tasks, mental abuse and army indoctrination. Although his training proves ultimately useless on the ground in Vietnam, based as it is on theory and the relative comfort of the climate of Virginia, Caputo does note that his attitude changes in training and he is driven by an urge to succeed as a Marine in the eyes of his superiors.
By the time the battalion left for Vietnam, I was ready to die . . . for a few favourable remarks in a fitness report.
As they eventually set out for Vietnam, Caputo’s battalion are infused with that belief in the invincibility of the Marine Corps – a belief that this war will cruelly puncture.
It doesn’t take long for his enthusiasm for this ‘splendid little war’ to wane. Despite being some of the best trained soldiers in the world, there is little Caputo and his men can do against the heat and the landscape of Vietnam. Caputo describes the intense heat as something ‘malevolent and alive’ and a scene in which a soldier is driven mad by a body temperature of 109 degrees makes for difficult reading. Add to this, the impenetrable jungle, long periods of boredom and inertia and a war that was made up of ambushes, snipers and hidden threats it’s no surprise that the mental strain starts to become worse than the physical one.
A man needs many things in a war, but a strong imagination is not one of them.
This is a book of two halves about a war of two halves and is segmented by two very specific deaths, both of which mark a change in Caputo’s attitude to the war and to the Vietnamese. The first death in his own platoon is hard to bear, as Sullivan – a young man whose first son has just been born – is killed by a sniper while he is filling up a water canteen. The sheer banality and surprise of Sullivan’s death comes as a shock to Caputo’s Battalion and marks a sea-change in their attitude to the Vietnamese.
And men who do not expect to receive mercy eventually lose their inclination to grant it
Later in the offensive, when working on desk duty keeping track of the casualties on both sides, he has to identify the body of a friend from Quantico, Levy. Levy’s death marks a distinct crossing over in Caputo and he begins to suffer what the French call ‘cafard’ – as angry rages and murderous thoughts are followed by depressive episodes of guilt, self-hatred and remorse.
The random arithmetic of war. I had been in Vietnam seven months and had not been scratched. Levy had lasted two weeks…I knew I could not have done what Levy had done. Pulling himself up on his wounded legs, he had tried to save the corpsman, not knowing that the man was beyond saving. And he had probably done it as he had everything else – naturally, and because he thought it was the right thing to do.
As the war becomes more a farce of ‘organized butchery’ and more and more of his soldiers die, Caputo comes to detest the ‘rules of war’ he is forced to work under and cannot reconcile his guilt, anger and shame.
As he goes back into the field at the height of monsoon season, this unforgiving terrain, and the unrelenting fighting finally becomes too much for him and his war experience culminates in the murder of a Vietnamese informer that leads to Caputo being court-marshalled.
Caputo is very open about his own part in this incident and shirks no responsibility for his actions
My purpose has not been to confess complicity in what, for me, amounted to murder, but, using myself and a few other men as examples, to show that war, by its nature, can arouse a psychopathic violence in men of seemingly normal impulses.
But his moving and detailed account of Marine life in Vietnam makes it hard for the reader to judge him, or to place blame. By recounting his experiences with such honesty, Caputo lays bare the indifference of a population back home, the inhumanity of the politicians and generals who lead the war and the ultimate futility of everything they were fighting for.
What makes A Rumor of War a great book rather than just an interesting book is the human angle and the moments of warmth, kindness and camaraderie among the soldiers that Caputo clings to. These sparks of light in the darkness give the book a sense of hope. A sense of hope that these men can recover from their experience and a sense of hope that this kind of futile war will not entered into easily again.
“They’re young men,” he told me. “They’re just like us, lieutenant. It’s always the young men who die”
A Rumor of War is a moving read and a timely one given the times we are currently living in. It is a powerful, cautionary tale that deserves its place alongside the work of Owen, Sassoon and Michael Herr.
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I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!