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 Marines (early in the book he bitterly, and correctly, speaks of John Kennedy as being “that most articulate and elegant mythmaker,” who was as responsible as anyone for the Vietnam enterprise and for his own final disillusionment), but Caputo and I shared, quite unequivocally I think, the quest for war’s heroic experience: “war, the ultimate adventure, the ordinary man’s most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary.”
In the opening passages of his book, Caputo describes how directly from his classes in English literature he entered Marine Corps training at Quantico, where as an officer candidate he learned to slaughter people with rifles and knives and explosives or to blast them to pieces with rocket launchers. These passages could serve almost perfectly (excepting one or two trivial technological details) as the introduction to my own youthful military reminiscences. We went through virtually the same training ordeal which in the Marine Corps remains unchanged to the present moment: the remorseless close-order drill hour after hour in the burning sun, the mental and physical abuse, the humiliations, the frequent sadism at the hands of drill sergeants, all the claustrophobic and terrifying insults to the spirit which can make an outpost like Quantico or Parris Island one of the closest things in the free world to a concentration camp. (I have learned that revolutionary changes have taken place, but only in recent months.) Yet this preparation, a form of meat processing which I do not think it hyperbolic to call infernal (it has on too many occasions actually maimed or killed), is intended to create an esprit de corps, a sense of discipline and teamwork, above all a feeling of group invincibility which sets the Marine Corps apart from the other branches of the service. And that the training has been generally successful can be demonstrated by the fierce pride with which it stamps its survivors.
It is for me a touchstone of the Marine Corp’s fatal glamour—that training nightmare—that there is no exMarine of my acquaintance, regardless of what direction he may have taken spiritually or politically after those callow gung-ho days, who does not view the training as a crucible out of which he emerged in some way more resilient, simply braver and better for the wear. Another measure of the success of that training is that it could transform Philip Caputo of Westchester, Illinois, from an ordinary bright suburban lad with amorphous ambitions into a highly trained technician in the science of killing, who in March of 1965, during those palmy “defensive” or “expeditionary” days of the war, landed at Danang eager for the fight, for the excitement, for medals, anxious to prove himself as a Marine officer, above all drawn to war with “an unholy attraction” he could not repress. One of the indispensable features of Caputo’s narrative is that he is never less than honest, sometimes relentlessly so, about his feelings concerning the thrill of warfare and the intoxication of combat. At least in the beginning, before the madness. After sixteen months of bloody skirmishes and the ravages of disease and a hostile environment, after the psychological and emotional attrition, Caputo—who had begun “this splendid little war” in the jaunty high spirits of Prince Hal, was very close to emotional and physical collapse, a “moral casualty,” convinced—and in 1966!—that the war was unwinnable and a disgrace to the flag under which he had fought to such a pitch of exhaustion.
There is a persuasive legitimacy in this hatred of a war when it is evoked by a man who has suffered its most horrible debauchments. But perhaps that is why we are equally persuaded by Caputo’s insistence on a recognition that for many men, himself included, war and the confrontation with death can produce an emotion—a commingled exultation and anguish—that verges on rapture. It is like a mighty drug, certainly it approaches the transcendental. After becoming a civilian, Caputo was engaged for a long time in the antiwar movement. But, he says, “I would never be able to hate the war with anything like the undiluted passion of my friends in the movement.” These friends, he implies, could never understand how for him the war “had been an experience as fascinating as it was repulsive, as exhilarating as it was sad, as tender as it was cruel.” Some of Caputo’s troubled, searching meditations on the love and hate of war, on fear, and the ambivalent discord that warfare can create in the hearts of decent men, are among the most eloquent I have read in modern literature. And when in a blunter spirit he states, “Anyone who fought in Vietnam, if he is honest about himself, will have to admit he enjoyed the compelling attractiveness of combat,” he is saying something worthy of our concern, explaining as it does—at least in part—the existence of preparatory hellholes like Quantico and Parris Island, and perhaps of war itself.
Of course no war can be reckoned as good. Yet aside from the fact that for the Marines in the Pacific World War II was at least a struggle against aggression, while the war in Vietnam was a vicious and self-serving intrusion, what finally differentiated the two conflicts from the point of view of the dirty footsoldier? Caputo’s war and mine? As the earlier war recedes, and the Pacific battlefields become merely palm-shaded monuments in the remote ocean, there is a tendency to romanticize or to distort and forget. Bloody as we all know that conflict was, it becomes in memory cleaner and tidier—a John Wayne movie with most of the gore hosed away for the benefit of a PG-rated audience. The Marines in that war seem a little like Boy Scouts, impossibly decent. Could it be that the propinquity of the unspeakable horrors of Vietnam forces us to this more tasteful view? Yet it should be noted that World War II produced its own barbarities. As a young Marine lieutenant I knew a regular gunnery sergeant, a mortar specialist, who carried in his dungaree pocket two small shriveled dark objects about the size of peach pits. When I asked him what they were he told me they were “Jap’s nuts.” I was struck nearly dumb with a queasy horror, but managed to ask him how he had obtained such a pair of souvenirs. Simple, he explained; he had removed them with a bayonet from an enemy corpse on Tarawa—that most hellish of battles—and had set them out at the end of a dock under the blazing sun where they quickly became dried like prunes. The sergeant was highly regarded in the company and I soon got used to seeing him fondle his keepsakes whenever he got nervous or pissed off, stroking them like worry beads.
I have been prompted to set down this vignette because of its resemblance to Caputo’s Vietnam where in a trance of comparable horror the young officer, still innocent and untried in battle, watches one of his Australian allies display a couple of mementos taken from the Viet Cong—“two dried and bloodstained human ears.” With his tough fairmindedness Caputo is quick to point out in a somewhat different context how ready the Viet Cong and ARVN were to commit similar desecrations, and the cruelty of the French in the earlier Indochinese war is too well documented to dispute. Nonetheless, there is a continuity of events, a linkage of atrocity from war to war, that forces the conclusion that we are capable of demonstrating toward our Asian adversaries a ruthless inhumanity we would doubtless withhold from those less incomprehensibly different from us, less likened to animals, or simply less brown or yellow.
Racism was as important, ideologically, to the conduct of the Pacific war as racism was to the war in Vietnam. As a matter of fact, racism may have been more important to the Marines in the Pacific since there was no such propagandistic cause as anticommunism to impel those peach-cheeked youngsters to wage a war against an enemy caught up in the thrall of a fanatical, even suicidal nationalism. Pearl Harbor was a powerful incentive—as were the Japanese cruelties on Bataan—but still these were not enough. Racism in warfare had already been initiated by the Germans who, imputing to them a subhuman status, had begun to exterminate hundreds of thousands of Russian prisoners of war (many gassed at Auschwitz) while in general treating their Anglo-Saxon foes with acceptable decency. As for the Japanese it was enough for us to establish an anthropoid identity and thus, having classified them as apes, we found it easy to employ the flame-thrower—that ghastly portable precursor of the napalm bomb used in Vietnam—and fry them in their bunkers and blockhouses. (“They sizzle like a bunch of roaches,” I remember being told by a flamethrowing corporal, who was delighted with the weapon.) There was also a normal amount of casual murder, torture of prisoners, and other crimes. (A friend of mine admitted to having slit the throats of two prisoners while he was a sergeant leading a patrol on Guam, though he later expressed honest remorse for the deed. A retired colonel now, he lives in La Jolla where he grows prize dahlias.)
Psychologically, however, the Pacific war differed from Vietnam in that the Marines not only had a clearly defined commitment, a sense of purpose, but a decisive, freewheeling (albeit at times badly flawed) strategy which almost never allowed them to feel that they had settled into a pointless morass. The Marines were too busily on the go, too happy at their lethal task, to dabble in atrocity. After Guadalcanal the Marine Corps was constantly on the offensive (a state most conductive, for the infantryman, to that sense of qualified bliss Caputo dwells on), in battle not against a guerrilla enemy maddeningly lurking in the jungles of a huge land mass but against soldiers immured for the most part within plainly visible fortifications on plainly visible islands where there were few or no civilians.
Behind the fighting men, too, was a perpetual surge of national pride. It was a madly popular war. It was a war which accomplished successfully what history demanded of the Marine Corps: the almost total annihilation of the enemy—more bliss. That is what fighting men are for, to kill but to kill purposefully and with a reasonably precise goal in view—not as in Vietnam to produce mere bodies for General Westmoreland’s computer. And certainly not to get fouled up with civilians.
Thus the Pacific war may be viewed in retrospect as a discussible moral enterprise. It was an awful war, one of the worst: in it one could experience battle fatigue, unconscionable misery and pain, insane fear, deprivation, loathsome disease, stupefying boredom, death and mutilation in places with names like Tarawa, Peleliu, Iwo Jima—arguably, the most satanic engagements in which men have been pitted against each other since the birth of warfare. But those who fought in the Pacific war, whatever the nature of their wounds or their diminishment, could emerge undefiled. What Philip Caputo demonstrates by contrast in his ruthless testament is how the war in Vietnam defiled even its most harmless and well-meaning participants. His is the chronicle of men fighting with great bravery but forever losing ground in a kind of perplexed, insidious lassitude—learning too late that they were suffocating in a moral swamp.
I have said that one of the most remarkable features of A Rumor of War is the fact that Caputo’s bitter disaffection with the Vietnamese war and all it represented came when the war was in its infancy, 1966. Not that the war was anything but corrupt to begin with; still there is something almost phenomenal in Caputo’s microcosmic sixteen-month odyssey, as if compressed within its brief framework was the whole foul and shameful drama of the conflict which was to drag on for many more years.
Of course, as I have also said, the war began for Caputo in a spirit that was anything but shameful. Gung ho, a knife in his teeth, he was pining for the glamour, the action, and he got it. After a stagnant period of waiting and chafing at the bit on the perimeter around Danang, Caputo and his men went on the offensive in perhaps the very first engagement by American forces in Vietnam. It was not a big engagement, only a skirmish with the Viet Cong, but it was filled with noise and excitement and a certain amount of danger, and this baptism under fire made Caputo “happy…happier than I have ever been.” Reading this early episode from the vantage point of hindsight, knowing what the outcome had to be in the ensuing dreadful years, one feels a chill at all that youthful machismo and reckless bloodlust: it evokes all that is unripe and heedless and egregiously romantic in the American spirit.
Already the United States—bursting with unspent power and unused armaments, slowly and inexorably being maneuvered from “defense” into aggression by the generals and the politicians—was beginning to move from its phase of “expedition” into the colossal entanglements of a full-scale war. How easy it would have been at that point, one thinks, for the Marine Corps to have packed up its sea bags and departed, leaving our Asian brothers to resolve their strife in whatever way destiny willed. But we had fatally intervened, and one of the critical instruments of our intervention was dauntless, hot-blooded Lieutenant Philip Caputo, who, it must be remembered was hardly dragooned into the fray. He was also a man without whom (together with his tough, resolute brothers in arms) the war could not have proceeded a single inch into those treacherous and finally engulfing jungles.
Caputo writes brilliantly about these early days around Danang, that period of eager expectation before the horrors descended and the war began to taste like something incessantly loathsome on his tongue. Even then, in that time of cautious waiting—a stationary war of skirmishes and patrols and skittish engagements with the Viet Cong—it was not pleasant duty, but after all this is what Caputo had bought and bargained for: the unspeakable heat and the mosquitoes, the incessant clouds of dust, the boredom, the chickenshit from upper echelons (often described with ferocious humor, in the spirit of Catch 22), the dreary nights on liberty in the ramshackle town, the impenetrably lush and sinister mountain range hovering over the flyblown domestic landscape, already smeared with American junk.
The convoy slows to a crawl as it passes through Dogpatch. The fifth and poverty of this village are medieval. Green pools of sewage lie in the culverts, the smell mingling with the stench of animal dung and nuoc-maum, a sauce made from rotten fish…. Water buffalo bellow from muddy pens shaded by banana trees whose leaves are white with dust. Most of the huts are made of thatch, but the American presence has added a new construction material: several houses are built entirely of flattened beer cans; red and white Budweiser, gold Miller, cream and brown Schlitz, blue and gold Hamm’s from the land of sky-blue waters….
Boredom, inanition, a sitting war; drunken brawls in Danang, whores, more chickenshit, the seething lust for action. All this Caputo embroiders in fine detail—and then the action came in a powerful burst for Caputo and his comrades. Suddenly there were pitched engagements with the enemy. There were the first extended movements into enemy territory, the first helicopter assaults, the first real engagements under heavy fire, and, inevitably, the first shocking deaths. War became a reality for Caputo; it was no longer a film fantasy called The Halls of Montezuma, and there is great yet subtle power in Caputo’s description of how—in this new kind of conflict, against a spectral enemy on a bizarre and jumbled terrain (so different from such textbook campaigns as Saipan or even Korea)—the underpinnings of his morale began to crumble, doubt bloomed, and the first cynical mistrust was implanted in his brain. These misgivings—which later became revulsion and disillusionment—did not arrive as the result of a single event but as an amalgam of various happenings, each one repellent, which Caputo (as well as the reader) begins to perceive as being embedded in the matrix of the war and its specifically evil nature.
It is an evil more often than not underscored by a certain loathsome pointlessness. A nineteen-year-old Marine is discovered cutting the ears off a dead VC. After a huge engagement in which the battalion expends thousands of rounds of ammunition there are only four Viet Cong dead. (Later three thousand troops supported by naval gunfire kill twenty-four VC in three days.) In pursuit of the enemy and fearing an ambush one of the platoons goes berserk and burns down a hamlet, devastating the place entirely. In this instance none of the villagers is seriously hurt, yet there is a peculiar primitive horror about the scene, and Caputo does not even bother to make the point all too ominously adumbrated by his powerful description hovering in that smoke and the sound of wailing women is our common knowledge that My Lai is only a few years away.
There were many brave men who fought in Vietnam, and many performed brave deeds, but the war itself disgraced the name of bravery. That “uncommon valor” of which the Marines are so justifiably proud—which still stirs men when they hear names like Château-Thierry and Guadalcanal and Peleliu—was as much in evidence on the banks of the Mekong and on the green walls of the Annamese Cordillera, about which Caputo writes with such strength and grace, as in those early struggles. But what names blaze forth from Vietnam? Men’s courage passes from generation to generation and is never really extinguished; but it is a terrible loss that, try as we might, we cannot truly honor courage employed in an ignoble cause.
In this book Philip Caputo writes so beautifully and honestly about both fear and courage, writes with such knowing certitude about death and men’s confrontation with the abyss, that we cannot doubt for an instant that he is a brave man who fought well long after that “splendid little war” became an obscene nightmare in which he nearly drowned. But he was dragged downward, and indeed the most agonizing part of his chronicle is found not in the descriptions of carnage and battle—as harrowingly re-created as they are—but in his own savage denouement when, driven into a raging madness by the senseless devastation he has witnessed and participated in, he turns into a monster and commits that mythic Vietnam-stained crime: he allows the murder of civilians. Although he was ultimately exonerated, his deed became plainly a wound forever engrafted on his soul. It seems the inevitable climax to this powerful story of a decent man sunk into a dirty time, in a far place where he was never intended to be, in an evil war.
In a passage near the beginning of A Rumor of War Caputo—happy, optimistic, thirsting for battle—sits in an observation post overlooking the sundappled rice paddies, the green hills, the majestic ageless mountains of the Annamese range. He cannot even dream of the horrors yet to come. He is reading Kipling and his eyes fall upon some lines which may be among the most lucid ever written about the mad, seemingly unceasing adventures which bring young boys from Illinois to such serene, improbable vistas:
The end of the fight is a tombstone white with the name of the late deceased,
And the epitaph drear: “A Fool lies here who tried to hustle the East.”
June 23, 1977