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Thursday, February 05, 2015

"A Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo

The impact of a book like "A Rumor of War" is forceful in many intimate ways.  This is not just a "war story," but a story of a truth so devastating few of us would look at it directly without blinking.  The narrative is personal and its honesty so palpable as to leave the reader wondering whether (if given the opportunity) he/she would write so openly about a topic so profoundly wounding.  I am not sure if Philip Caputo set out from the start to delve into the deepest pool of honesty, or if the narrative was carefully constructed by hinting and tapping the ugliness of the experience just enough to get it down on paper... what comes across, however, is one of the most bare and sincere books I have ever read.  Philip Caputo opens up about his experiences in Vietnam in a way that leaves him completely vulnerable and naked.  The courage it takes to write it all down in this fashion is astonishing.  Few men would readily admit to even a microscopic fraction of what Caputo embraces as his reality and his experience.  "A Rumor of War" is simply the best book on the Vietnam war; its excellence is without equal.  I have had this book for years and just this past week decided to finally read it.  I am still trying to get over the remorse of not having done it sooner.

I was 14 years old when "A Rumor of War" was turned into a television movie.  The book had been published in 1977 (I own a first print copy I purchased a few years ago), just two short years after the fall of Saigon.  The movie left a bitter taste in my mouth due to the fact that we lost two family members in that ill-conceived war, and my father and mother watching with me that night were divided in opinion, going back at each other regarding the spectrum of politics.  I remember that was bothered me the most was not my parents' comments but the fact that the personal story was lost to both of them.  The movie was not about the shoot'em up, run-between-the-raindrops, dash and stab action of most war movies from previous conflicts.  "A Rumor of War" was the first narrative to come out of that war to embrace the personal, the emotional, the recognition that something had reached a higher-level of insanity in the ridiculously insane act of war.  There is, of course, little a made-for-television movie can do to convey the message of the book, but even at the tender age of 14 (when nothing was more important to me than getting to 17 so I could join the Marine Corps) I understood that the idealism behind what push men to die for God and country was a fragile idealism, a dangerously thin crystal that could shatter at the softest of air drifts or bumps.  I never forgot the experience of watching the movie, and even when the "barrage" of Vietnam movies began to flood the movie theaters in the mid to late 1980s, it was always "A Rumor of War" that stayed with me.  I did join the United States Marine Corps before finishing high school, and left for boot camp less than a week after graduation.

Caputo's story grows and branches out into vast realities.  The ugliness of the war is there, vivid, palpable and without compromise... so is the suffering of the men.  As a young lieutenant, Caputo is forced to lead men into the madness of seemingly suicide missions against an enemy they couldn't see or find, in an environment that would drive most people mad in just a few days.  What Caputo does best in this book is to balance that ugliness with how it affected him and the men around him.  There is a strand of the story that is clearly psychological and here Caputo captures it raw--it's as if we have been asked to look into a microscope and into the psyche of men at war.  The reader can't help to stop at points and ask "how is this even possible, how could someone survive this?"  The truth Capote exposes is that they really didn't.  The dead died horrible deaths (which Caputo retells in detail as he is sent to HQ to become "the officer in charge of the dead," responsible for writing the after-action reports for the killed in action and other casualties).  Men also died horrible emotional deaths, psychological wounds that are still bleeding to this day.  His bitterness boils over and the beginning of this shattering idealism takes a hold of him as one of his duties is to write the statistics on a board at headquarters so the higher-ups could decide which encounter with the enemy was successful and which one was not.  It all became a game of statistics and ratios--the entire war did.

Caputo shows how the entire machinery of war functions just like a private sector enterprise.  You have career-driven people who care about nothing more than advancing their own path, even at the expense of other people's lives.  You have these same people obsessed with liability, the ones who are always on the look out to make sure that the paper trail never leads back to them, that their names are never associated with any disaster... "What do you mean? I delegated that to so-and-so... I had nothing to do with that."  I think this was probably the most difficult part of the book for me to read, really, not because things like that happened to me in the Marine Corps, but because they certainly happened to me in the private sector.  The details of ground combat operations, of seemingly suicide patrol missions and the inconveniences of the environment (monsoon season, extremely hot temperatures, the variables of field pain-in-the-ass everyday bullshit) were not as painful to read as those parts where Caputo unmasks the "faceless high-command."

The last part of the book, the part dealing with Caputo's potential court-martial is excruciating.  I am not going to recount it here but only to repeat what I started with regarding the honesty of the narrative.  How could anyone write so honestly about something so damaging, so painful and make it be so unwavering and unquestionably true is frankly beyond me.  Philip Caputo's ordeal at the end of his role as a platoon leader in Vietnam, and his ability to recount what happened with such openness is mind-twisting.  I don't think I have ever read an author leave himself so completely open and vulnerable as this section of Caputo's book.  His integrity and his courage are without equal.  He's not asking for us to "forgive" him because, after all, it was the war that did it... the war made men do things they would otherwise never do.  Caputo takes full responsibility for his actions.  The fact that at the end of it all the military bureaucracy comes to the conclusion it does seems to me a fitting end to the bitterness and ugliness of what Vietnam was, and how the higher-ups played a bloody game of chess with the lives of so many young American men.

This is a brutal book, a book that will shatter many misconceptions about the historical reality of Vietnam.  Americans have a funny disposition to make things less terrible as time passes--the usual "oh-that-happened-so-long-ago-and-it-wasn't-as-bad-as-I-remember-it."  "A Rumor of War" is a book that reminds us it REALLY was that terrible and certainly we should NEVER forget.

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At 5:05 PM, Blogger Bleets said...

One of my favorite writers. Have you read his 1999 'coming of age' novel, The Voyage? It has long been on my all-time Top Ten list of books. In my opinion, Caputo at his best.

At 11:00 AM, Blogger Kagemusha said...

Thanks, Bleets... I will check it out. Thank you.


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