Saturday, May 24, 2008

Review of "A Rumor of War" by Philip Caputo

In keeping with the theme of this Memorial Day weekend, I would like to offer my thoughts on “A Rumor of War,” a classic tale of Vietnam. Philip Caputo has crafted one of the most moving and disturbing testaments to the men who fought and died in that far away land. When the book was first published in 1977, the New York Times called it “The troubled conscience of America speaking passionately, truthfully, finally.” I became aware of this classic memoir when my friend, Capt. Kyle Kalkwarf, West Point Class of 2002, told me that it was one of the best books about war he had ever read. He recommended that I add it to my reading list. He was right in doing so.

Caputo’s recollections of his time as a Marine in Vietnam are filled with anger and sorrow at the misbegotten policies promulgated in Washington and carried out with disastrous results by General Westmorland and his subordinates. The author makes it clear in his introductory remarks how he felt and feels about that war and the impact that it had upon him and his comrades in arms:

“Beyond adding a few more corpses to the weekly body count, none of these encounters achieved anything; none will ever appear in military histories or be studied by cadets at West Point. Still, they changed us and taught us, the men who fought in them; in those obscure skirmishes we learned the old lessons about fear, cowardice, courage, suffering, cruelty and comradeship. 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. The knowledge of death, of the implacable limits placed on a man’s existence, severed us from our youth as irrevocably as a surgeon’s scissors had once severed us from the womb. And yet, few of us were past twenty-five. We left Vietnam peculiar creatures, with young shoulders that bore rather old heads. . .

This book is partly an attempt to capture something of its [the war’s] ambivalent realities. Anyone who fought in Vietnam, if he is honest about himself, will have to admit he enjoyed the compelling attractiveness of combat. It was a peculiar enjoyment because it was mixed with a commensurate pain. 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, and he attained an acuity of consciousness at once pleasurable and excruciating. It was something like the elevated state of awareness induced by drugs. And it could be just as addictive, for it made whatever else life offered in the way of delights or torments see pedestrian.” (Pages xv-xvii)

Caputo’s last comments in the section just quoted seem to be eerily in keeping with the themes of the stunning films, “The Deer Hunter” and “Apocalypse Now.”

In one of the most gripping passages in the book, Caputo recaptures the spectrum of emotions he felt during a helicopter assault – running the gamut from fear to courage:

“A helicopter assault on a hot landing zone creates emotional pressures far more intense than a conventional ground assault. It is the enclosed space, the noise, the speed, and, above all, the sense of total helplessness. There is a certain excitement to it the first time, but after that it is one of the more unpleasant experiences offered by modern war. On the ground, an infantryman has some control over his destiny, or at least the illusion of it. In a helicopter under fire, he hasn’t even the illusion. Confronted by the indifferent forces of gravity, ballistics and machinery, he is himself pulled in several directions at once by a range of extreme, conflicting emotions. Claustrophobia plagues him in the small space: the sense of being trapped and powerless in a machine in unbearable, and yet he has to bear it. Bearing it, he begins to feel a blind fury toward the forces that made him powerless, but 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 only overcome his fear 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. Its very measure is the measure of that fear. It is, in fact, a powerful urge not to be afraid anymore, to rid himself of fear by eliminating the source of it. This inner, emotional war produces tension almost sexual in its intensity. It is too painful to endure for long. All a soldier can think about is the moment when he can escape his impotent confinement and release this tension. All other considerations, the rights and wrongs of what he is doing, the chances for victory or defeat in the battle, the battle’s purpose or lack of it, become so absurd as to be less than irrelevant. Nothing matters except the final, critical instant when he leaps out into the violent catharsis he both seeks and dreads.” (Pages 277-8)

Caputo’s thoughtful and passionate recounting of the growing up that he did in the cauldron of Vietnam added to my understanding of what many of my generation experienced as they fought in Southeast Asia and returned to a country that had grown sick of the fighting. As our nation once again wrestles with combat fatigue and the questions of when to withdraw and how to withdraw from Iraq, I am grateful that this time around - unlike the situation that existed in the late ‘60’s and 70’s - even those who oppose the war have not showered those returning from the Gulf with opprobrium. They deserve our admiration and our gratitude.

Thanks Kyle, for recommending this book, and for your continuing service to our nation.


No comments: