Review: A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

“Death is a pleasure. The big D is the world’s most powerful narcotic, the ultimate anaesthetic.”
~Philip Caputo, A Rumor of War

Plot summary

“In March of 1965, Marine Lieutenant Philip J. Caputo landed at Danang with the first ground combat unit deployed to Vietnam. Sixteen months later, having served on the line in one of modern history’s ugliest wars, he returned home — physically whole but emotionally wasted, his youthful idealism forever gone.

The cover of LIFE magazine, Vietnam 1966 - The War Goes On. Photo: manhhai (CC BY 2.0)
The cover of LIFE magazine, Vietnam 1966 – The War Goes On. Photo: manhhai (CC BY 2.0)

A Rumor of War is far more than one soldier’s story. Upon its publication in 1977, it shattered America’s indifference to the fate of the men sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. In the years since then, it has become not only a basic text on the Vietnam War but also a renowned classic in the literature of wars throughout history and, as the author writes, of ‘the things men do in war and the things war does to men’.” More on Goodreads

On Philip Caputo

“American author and journalist. Author of 16 books, including the upcoming novel SOME RISE BY SIN. Best known for A Rumor of War, a best-selling memoir of his experiences during the Vietnam War (look for the special 40th Anniversary Edition in summer 2017).” More on Goodreads

Key concepts
  • Personal view on a war
  • Pointlessness of war
  • Young men and their mixed emotions

Once upon a time, there was a war and much later, there was the first television war. This was not too long ago but it seems like a few centuries back. Now there are social media wars as an addition, but television wars still remain on the agenda of warfaring.

I used to live in Vietnam, up North in Hanoi, but that was long after the American War ended, as the war is known in Vietnam. From my bedroom window, one could spot shot-down B52’s in one of the war museums in the city. And let me tell you, there are a number of war related museums in the country and a lot of old and rusty aircrafts lying around.

After I returned home from Hanoi, I watched several films related to the Vietnam war. I had some extra time to spare, so I viewed Platoon, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now. I could not re-watch The Deer Hunter, one has to draw a line somewhere for mental health reasons. I guess that film is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You can only get so far with the Russian roulette scenes.

Shortly before I read A Rumor of War, I read John Steinbeck‘s war report story Once There Was a War (1943), an account on war events in London, North Africa and Italy during World War II. Steinbeck applies the perspective of a more experienced man of the world, a traveler. A similar, mature account similar to Steinbeck’s story is George Orwell‘s account on the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia.

Each of the war reports offer a distinct perspective on the war folly, viewing the craziness from fresh and unique angles. All in all, both Orwell and Steinbeck had managed to gather more life experience before their encounter with the wars in question. Nonetheless, in A Rumor of War, the growing up of a man is vivid before our eyes. Young men become grown-ups and the war makes a devastating effect on the rest of their lives.

The novel A Rumor of War is both a coming-of-age tale of a young officer’s participation in the early days of the war effort in Vietnam and an account of the moral aspect of war affairs. The style is realistic in all senses of the war and shows vividly the pointlessness of wars and this particular war. The novel considers moral, psychological, social and other aspects related to young men being sent off to wage wars for other people.

There is a TV series based on Caputo’s novel, A Rumor of War released in 1980. Also, on other war related books, check out the list at the end of the review on Erich Maria Remarque‘s All Quiet on the Western Front.

Some literature on the wars in Vietnam
  • Norman Lewis: A Dragon Apparent: Travels in Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam (1951) – Indochina war
  • Graham Greene: The Quiet American (1955) – Indochina war
  • Michael Herr: Dispatches (1977)
  • James Webb: Fields of Fire (1978)
  • Tim O’Brien: Going After Cacciato (1978)
  • Robert Mason: Chickenhawk (1983)
  • Bảo Ninh: The Sorrow of War: A Novel of North Vietnam (1987)
  • Tim O’Brien: The Things They Carried (1990)
  • Harold G. Moore: We Were Soldiers Once… and Young: Ia Drang – The Battle that Changed the War in Vietnam (1991)
  • Denis Johnson: Tree of Smoke (2004)
  • Karl Marlantes: Matterhorn (2009)
Secured Beach, Operation Bold Mariner, 1969. Photo: USMC Archives (CC BY 2.0)
Secured Beach, Operation Bold Mariner, 1969. Photo: USMC Archives (CC BY 2.0)

More information
– Mark Hooper: Catch of the day: Which is the best Vietnam book?, published in the Guardian on 5 February 2008, link retrieved on 15 January 2017
– Theodore Solotaroff: Memoirs for Memorial Day, published in The New York Times on 29 May 1977, link retrieved on 15 January 2017

Other novels, reports and stories by Caputo
  • Horn of Africa (1980)
  • Indian Country (1987)
  • Means Of Escape: A War Correspondent’s Memoir of Life and Death in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Vietnam (1991)
  • Equation for Evil: A Novel (1996)
  • The Voyage (1999)
  • Ghosts of Tsavo: Stalking the Mystery Lions of East Africa (2002)
  • In the Shadows of the Morning: Wild Lands, Wild Waters, and a Few Untamed People (2002)
  • Acts of Faith (2005)
  • 10,000 Days of Thunder: A History of the Vietnam War (2005)
  • Crossers (2009)
  • The Longest Road: Overland in Search of America, from Key West to the Arctic Ocean (2013)
  • Some Rise by Sin: A Novel (expected in 2017)

“I saw their living mouths moving in conversation and their dead mouths grinning the taut-drawn grins of corpses. Their living eyes I saw, and their dead eyes still-staring. Had it not been for the fear that I was going crazy, I would have found it an interesting experience, a trip such as no drug could possibly produce. Asleep and dreaming, I saw dead men living; awake, I saw living men dead.”
~Philip Caputo, A Rumor Of War


Author: fictivestina

Hey, I'm a native Helsinkian but a cosmopolitan at heart :) Outdoors, reading, writing and cultural attractions are my passion. Hiking in Lapland cannot be competed with!

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