After reading Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried last fall (review here), I was eager to finally get into A Rumor of War. While the books are similar in the respect that they both discuss the Vietnam War--a war I know relatively little about, there are many differences. While O'Brien's discusses the greater aspect of the war as it affects several soldiers that the reader gets to know, A Rumor of War is Caputo's actual memoir of his year (1965-1966) in Vietnam and focuses mostly on his own experience and the experience of his specific company--Charley Company. [**I have no desire to get into the current war discussion nor express my personal beliefs--I hope none of my comments on the book are misconstrued].
Because Caputo was part of one of the first battalions to go to Vietnam, the memoir begins explaining the lofty expectations of the soldiers: "They were to a man thoroughly American, in their virtues as well as flaws: idealistic, insolent, generous, direct, violent, and provincial in the sense that they believed the ground they stood on was now forever a part of the United States simply because they stood on it" (27). The soldiers had the idea that they were going to win the war quickly. They were arrogant, bored, and impatient for fighting--and even when the fighting did come it was sparse and uneventful.
Soon, though, it became apparent that this war was not going to be the same type of war that had been fought in the past. It was as much a mental war as a physical war--a war where fear of the unknown always haunted the soldiers, a war where the elements were as dangerous as the unseen guerrillas, a war where men began to question their own purpose and the purpose of the war. By the end, Caputo explains:
"My mind shot back a decade, to that day we had marched into Vietnam, swaggering, confident, and full of idealism. We had believed we were there for a high moral purpose. But somehow our idealism was lost, our morals corrupted, and the purpose forgotten" (345).
There are so many things that were powerful about this book. And it isn't necessarily and anti-war book but rather a book explaining the psychological effects the war had on its soldiers. This war not only changed the soldiers from eager and willing soldiers to disillusioned men, but it also changed our nation to one who was willing to fight for JFK's myth of Camelot (a theme discussed throughout the novel) to one who couldn't remember what the myth was in the first place. Caputo explores the similarities between the Vietnam war and WWI--a war that changed how warfare was perceived (first trench warfare and the second guerrilla warfare), and the weapons had evolved, and how the war changed each generation permanently.
Caputo writes with beautiful and lyrical prose--sometimes even urgent prose. It is evident that he believes in what he is writing and has deliberated over what the war and his experience meant to him. I dogeared several pages and had a difficult time choosing which passages to use to depict Caputo's writing. He makes every bit of the book come to life-the beautiful and dangerous scenery of Vietnam, the fear of the soldiers, the pain and even momentary elation. There were a few times when the writing felt a little jumpy, but I feel that he is being true to the fact that he can remember what he can remember--not every detail. Some of the details in the book are rather gruesome--especially during the middle section where Caputo is "the officer in charge of the dead"--the one who keeps track of the wounded and killed.
I would recommend this book--I'm actually taking it to Dad tonight. This book makes me curious to know more about the war--especially since just a tiny slice was detailed in the book. I would be interested to know how the soldiers changed as the fighting began to change and as the soldiers began to realize more and more they were fighting a war they would not/could not win. All in all, I found A Rumor of War to be an important and and emotionally moving book.