Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Rumor of War - Philip Caputo

Title: A Rumor of War
Author: Philip Caputo
Date Finished: June 16, 2008 #32
Pages: 356
Rating: 4.5/5

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.


Nymeth said...

The psychological effects of a war on soldiers is definitely a theme that interests me. I hadn't heard of this book before. Thanks for the great review, Trish. It's one I'll look for.

Heather J. said...

excellent review - thanks. My grandpa talks about his experiences in WWII but my dad won't say too much about his time in Vietnam ... although he WILL talk more to my husband that he will to me ... it must have something to do with protecting his "little girl" ...

Debi said...

Oh Trish, what a fabulous review! I have this book in my TBR stacks, and have always wanted to read it, but something always seems to pop in ahead of it. You most definitely have made me want to go dig this one out and move it closer to the front of the line.

Laura said...

As I was reading your review, I kept thinking about All Quiet on the Western Front, which I read earlier this year. It dealt with the psycological effects of trench warfare in World War I. I find these stories difficult to read, yet they are major eye- openers as to what really goes on in wartime.

I also know extremely little about the Vietnam War, and I find myself wondering why? I know people who fought in this war, yet I don't know much about it. I would definitely be interested in reading this book! Great review!

Literary Feline said...

My father is a Vietnam veteran and it's a time in his life that he talks so little about. I will have to look for this one, not only for me to read, but maybe my father as well. Great review, Trish.

Natasha @ Maw Books said...

I'm also very ignorant when it comes to the Vietnam war. I love memoirs and especially memoirs that talk about war so I'm definitly going to look into this one. Thanks for the review!

Trish said...

*Nymeth - Effects of war is a theme that has interested me as well, but most of my reading as been about WWI.

*Heather - I think a lot depends on the experience--and from what I've read about Vietnam it was a harrowing experience. I bet you're right that he is trying to protect you in a way.

*Debi - I had been putting this one on the back burner for a while as well. I hope you get around to it one day--I know how that TBR stack goes! ;)

*Laura - I'd really like to read All Quiet on the Western Front. As I was saying to Nymeth, most of the war literature I've read revolves around WWI. I'm not sure why my knowledge of Vietnam isn't stronger either--I think maybe because no one can really agree on what happened?

*Lit Feline - I hope you are able to find it--it is certainly an interesting perspective.

*Natasha - At the end of the book Caputo talks about how more books are written on Vietnam than any other war--which I found very interesting since we don't see a lot of reviews about the subject. This one or The Things They Carried are both good ones.

Terri B. said...

I hadn't heard about this book yet, so I'm glad for the review. I've got The Things They Carried and plan on reading that soon-ish. I was a child throughout this "war" and have memories of MIA bracelets, the evening body count (sorry to be so blunt), protests, etc. but I don't really know much else about it. I probably know more about WWII than Vietnam. Again, thanks for the review since it sounds like one to include in my reading.

cj said...

Trish -

I first read this book years ago and thought it was wonderful. I also read one about the nurses that served but I can't remember the name of it. It was amazing. And, if you want a taste of what it was like for the boys over there, you might want to try "Dear America: Letters Home from Vietnam". Nothing brings the experience home like their own words.


Trish said...

*Terri - I'm not sure I learned much more about the actual war with this one, but I definitely learned how the war affected the people involved. The Things They Carried gives a broader view, but both are good in their ways.

*CJ - Thanks for the suggestions! I know very very little about this war--haven't even seen most of the movies. For some reason it seems as though all of my history classes in school focused mostly on WWII and then the cold war and that's it--not much about Korea and Vietnam. Do you know of any good books that deal with the history/politics?