A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

Posted on Sep 8, 2022
Raleigh, NC

I recently re-read this book for a second time. As before, I read it entranced but also with a great sense of unease. This time around Marine Lieutenant Caputo’s memoir had a bit more color, as I have been thinking of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. In both the Vietnam War and the current Russian invasion, the aggressor’s soldiers were were (1) misled about why they were there, and; (2) ended up doing atrocious things to survive. While you can’t sympathize with their cause, you can empathize with the horrible predicament their country put them in. In Caputo’s case, after just a few months as part of the first deployment of marines to Vietnam he was already disabused from the idea that the US could win the war and his attention quickly turned to living up to his martial self image and his duty and responsibility for his brothers-in-arms.

Caputo describes his training in the marine officer school. The training instilled a sense of toughness and unique martial character, inculcated the myth of the marines never quitting. Yet it soon becomes clear in Vietnam that these qualities are poor matches for snipers, booby traps, sporadic mortar fire, and ambushes. The Viet Cong and the Northern Vietnamese regulars knew they were up against an enemy with vastly superior firepower, so instead of attacking from the front they attacked the Americans psychologically, and only after the Americans were completely drained, physically. The marines were worn down by the climate, the rain, lack of sleep due to small scale probing attacks that dissipated as soon as they started, and by the difficulty in distinguishing between Viet Cong soldiers and regular villagers. The marines dealt with malaria, yellow fever, diarrhea, jungle foot (trench foot), heatstroke, and other maladies they were unused to and ill prepared for.

It becomes quickly evident that Caputo and his men have passed their breaking point. For example, when the opportunity arises for Caputo to take the initiative and arrest two Viet Cong sappers who are laying booby traps his men are maiming themselves with on a nearly daily basis, he describes telling his men that they are to apprehend the sappers. This is, unless the men try to run, in which case they should be killed. As soon as Caputo says this, he knows he’s just pronounced a death sentence. Sure enough, his men find and kill two men who they think are the sappers. As perhaps is evident from foreshadowing, it turns out they were not the sappers, and what Caputo’s men did in actuality was commit premeditated murder. Caputo and his squad are tried on these charges, but they are all acquitted because, lets be honest, their judges were American generals who looked for reasons to excuse their behavior. They also understood that to convict these men would be to convict the entire premise of the war, for the war had made the men the murderers they were.

“A Rumor of War” lets you vicariously inhabit the mind of a solider hunted in a war that was already lost, and understand how anyone can be driven to do horrendous, violent things in uncontrollable situations. It gives a glimpse as to why “the most violent thing in the world is your average midwestern American boy with a gun” (paraphrasing from the book).