A Farewell to Arms

A Rumor of War

by Philip Caputo
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 346 pp., $10.00

A short time ago, while talking to a group of students at a college in Virginia I was seized by a dismal insight. The subject of war literature had come up and I said that it occurred to me suddenly that at the age of fifty-one—perhaps a mellow age but one I refused to regard as being advanced or venerable—I had lived through three wars, in two of which, both as an officer and as an enlisted man in the Marine Corps, I had been an active participant. I reviewed the wars in reverse order. Although I had been spared the war in Vietnam, except as an outraged and frustrated onlooker, I had been involved in the war against the Chinese and the North Koreans as well as the Japanese in World War II (the Marines have in recent years specialized in Oriental foes); as a matter of curiosity I threw in the fact that the First World War—that pointless and heartrending conflict—ended only seven years before my birth.

The Virginia springtime was peaceful and bright as I brooded in this fashion, but I wondered aloud on the illusory nature of this peace. Was it going to last? Was it really peace? The students appeared to be perplexed, maybe a little bored. I reflected that given the almost cyclical nature of these terrible conflicts in our century—the seemingly inexorable pattern of their recurrence—no one could imagine an experienced oddsmaker like Jimmy the Greek or, let us say, a sound actuarial mind regarding as anything but an outside chance the notion that war of serious magnitude involving American forces would not happen again. Perhaps soon, certainly within your own lifetimes, I concluded somberly to the students—but since on those fresh young faces I saw nothing but incomprehension we talked of other matters. I had the feeling that the battles of Vietnam for them were as remote as Shiloh or Belleau Wood.

It was with the memory of this episode that I turned to Philip Caputo’s remarkable personal account of the war in Vietnam, A Rumor of War, and experienced from the very first page a chilling sense of déjà vu. Caputo and I are separated in age by approximately twenty years, and although there were significant differences in his Marine Corps experience and mine, I was struck immediately by the similarities. Born like me into a middle-class family, Caputo joined the Marines in 1960—as I did during World War II—for the glory and the adventure, for the need to “prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood….” In my own case the Japanese were already our sworn enemy and it may be that patriotism inspired by war against a proven aggressor helped to motivate my choice; to wait and be drafted into the army was unthinkable.

Caputo, enlisting in a time of nominal peace, concedes that “the patriotic tide of the Kennedy years” was an element for him in choosing the …

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