A memoir about a young American man’s experience in the Vietnam War, Pulitzer Prize winner Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War is seminal war literature.
Clear, Concise and Detailed
In a postscript to his memoir, Caputo writes:
“I strove for a clarity and simplicity of style — a narrative that would sound artless.”
It’s an accurate description of the book’s final form, and a sign that Caputo achieved what he wanted to achieve. On the pages of A Rumor of War we find an author in control of his craft; a natural communicator and storyteller who doesn’t play tricks with language.
Of Prize Winners and Noble Sentiments
Attempting a review or criticism of a “contemporary classic” like A Rumor of War brings with it a certain challenge because well-known works of literature tend to elicit extreme reactions from their readers.
For example, Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has its fervent supporters, who claim it’s the best novel ever written, and its detractors, who consider it long and boring junk — but you’d be hard pressed to find someone who holds the book somewhere in between.
Famous or “important” books polarize.
There is also the risk of the content casting a light (or shadow) on the style and form, especially when the intentions of the writer are undeniably noble. In theory, a critic should be able to disagree with the message of a good book or agree with that of a bad book without it clouding his criticism. However, it seldom works that way.
There is undeniably more pressure to praise an “important” film such as Schindler’s List than to praise “entertainment” like Indiana Jones, simply because the former is about the Holocaust and the latter isn’t. A negative opinion of the former becomes twisted into a denial or discounting of the Holocaust itself. Likewise, it is more difficult to praise D.W. Griffith’s unarguably racist and unarguably influential The Birth of a Nation than to praise To Kill a Mockingbird, which fits more cleanly within our current cultural and political environment.
Therefore, in reviewing A Rumor of War, a critic faces the two-fold challenge of maintaining objectivity in the face of the considerable weight of previous reviews, and of looking past the book’s clearly sympathetic anti-war message.
The I in War
An aspect of war that Caputo captures perfectly is the role of the individual among a mass of soldiers and officers — and of the private war that takes place inside every one of them.
To most of us, wars are fairly abstract events. We may know the names of the most prolific generals — such as Patton or Westmoreland — but we remain blind to the almost incomprehensible reality that wars involve millions of soldiers, and even more civilians, locked in a struggle against each other. It sounds silly to type it as a revelation, but war is people in conflict. Yet, when we read books about war, we usually read about armoured divisions or infantry battalions engaging the enemy; we collect people into groups. While this gives an accurate strategic scope of a conflict, it fails to communicate the fact that each of those divisions and battalions is made up of hundreds of individual soldiers who fight against an enemy that, too, is a mass of individuals. It’s a common saying that war dehumanizes — well, so does a lot of literature about it.
A Rumor of War discourages thinking in those terms, even when it is next to impossible to do so — when casualties are piling up and when:
“Men are killed, evacuated with wounds, or rotated home at a constant rate, then replaced by other men who are killed, evacuated, or rotated in their turn.”
Caputo shows how it becomes easy to regard the war as a struggle between two masses. He illustrates how a violent, drawn-out war erodes the importance of the individual. But he always emphasizes the inhumanity of this.
“…at the time we lost Sullivan, casualties were still light; it was the “expeditionary” period of the war, a period that lasted from roughly from March to September 1965. The loss of even one man was an extraordinary event.”
A soldier hadn’t been lost; Sullivan had been killed.
Sitting, Waiting for Enemies of Wire and Shadow
Another aspect of the Vietnam War that A Rumor of War reveals is the indirectness of much of the fighting. Instead of the thrilling fire-fights and helicopter assaults present in much of Hollywood’s treatment of the war, in Caputo’s pages we find days and weeks of mud-soaked waiting, punctuated by short engagements with a near-invisible enemy. “Charlie” exists as a sniper and a phantom guerrilla who plants mines and sets booby traps; he is rarely found as a soldier.
It’s almost heartbreaking to read Caputo’s slow realization that he will lead no heroic charge and take part in no climactic battle — that the true battle would be against the trip wires and the sun and the self.
Then there is the waiting and the repetition.
In contrast to the idea of modern combat being an affair dominated by mobility, the Vietnam War that Caputo shows is as stationary as the trench warfare of the First World War. Except, instead of going “over the top”, the warriors in Vietnam went into the scorching, bug-infested jungle, in hopes of encountering and killing a few Viet Cong. And instead of being efficiently mowed down by machine guns, they returned to their wire-fenced and fox-holed front — a few men short — fated to repeat the same action over and over again. As the war dragged on, the same tiny villages were searched time and time again because, as Caputo points out, the Vietnam War was not fought via the capture of strategic locations; but by body count. The objective was to kill as many of the enemy as possible. Only when every enemy VC was dead could victory be declared.
As Caputo informs us, he was always interested in something more than simply telling about his experiences in Vietnam.
“I wanted A Rumor of War to make people uncomfortable — in effect, to blow them out of their snug polemical bunkers into the confusing, disturbing, emotional and moral no-man’s-land where we warriors dwelled. I would do that not by creating my own polemic but by writing about the war with such unflinching honesty and painstaking attention to detail as to put the reader there — as much as was possible on the printed page. I did not want to tell anyone about the war but to show it.”
At times horrific and at other times beautiful, it’s difficult not to be struck and somehow changed by Caputo’s picture of the Vietnam War.
A Rumor of War is affecting, enlightening, and a very good book.