Friday, April 10, 2009

09.14 A Rumor Of War by Philip Caputo

A Rumor Of War (1977) by Philip Caputo
Trade, Owl Books, 356 p

As I mentioned before in my review of Michael Herr's Dispatches I am looking to read some of the more well regarded histories and memoirs related to the Vietnam War. Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War was extremely popular in the late 70's. In fact, the author writes in a postscript to this book that the fame and notoriety that he gained from his memoir drove him to drink heavily and eventually have a breakdown.

That seems a strange result given the crazy and horrific stuff that he writes about in this book. In the beginning though, all is golden. Like many young men of his generation Caputo joined the army for 2 reasons: boredom with his middle class existence and a youthful desire for the glory of war. Educated, Caputo trains to become an officer and joins the 9th Expeditionary Brigade of the USMC. These soldiers were the very first sent to Vietnam in 1965 when the US involvement was in its infancy. The soldiers are there to guard US airbases and installations only. At first, the war seems distant, and winnable. The NVA and VC are rarely seen by the troops.

The middle section of the book describes how he was assigned to a desk job cataloging casualties. Here we begin to see the inexorable escalation of the conflict. Casualties are rising, soldiers are becoming disillusioned and atrocities are increasing on both sides. Caputo describes the intense weariness of the front line soldier resulting from too many night patrols, filthy conditions, the stifling heat and unending bugs to name just a few of the privations. In addition, the fighting is nothing like anyone expected. The enemy was virtually never confronted on the battlefield. Instead there was a constant level of fear and forced alertness from mines, sniping, mortars and brief ambushes which almost always ended with the VC melting away into the bush.

In the final section of the memoir Caputo requests a front line assignment again and is reassigned to a rifle company. Here he writes more about the day to day life of a soldier that is "in the shit". Ultimately, there arises a situation where Caputo and his troops cross a moral divide and there are some pretty serious consequences for him.

All in all, a powerful and gripping book. Immediately after reading this book I was a bit disappointed. I think I got over hyped as to how good it was going to be. Upon reflection, however, I've really thought a lot about the way he was able to relate his mind set changing over the course of the book. Also, Caputo writes in a very clear and forthright manner with none of the colloquial language like was used extensively in Dispatches.

1 comment:

Kate W. Ladell said...

I was going to read this next, but now I'm not so sure...