Title: A Rumor of War
Author: Philip Caputo
Genre(s): nonfiction, memoir
Published: Original edition was published in 1977
Rating: ★★★★ (rounded up)
The first official American troops in the Vietnam War arrived in southern Vietnam in early 1965. Among them was Philip Caputo, a young Marine lieutenant eager to finally see some combat after years of training and stationing in non-combat areas. The original task of guarding the U.S. air base at Da Nang proved incredibly boring for the marines, but within a few months they would learn that the search-and-destroy missions that sent them beyond the base were full of dangers, stressors, and horrors that would have seemed unthinkable when they first arrived. A Rumor of War is Caputo’s personal documentation of those experiences, providing an up-close look at the complex events and struggles that faced not only U.S. troops but the Vietnamese on both sides of the conflict.
I suppose by now that I’ve said this about all the books I choose to review, but the prose style of A Rumor of War is exceptionally good. There’s no fluff, no awkward, predictable cadences, and no rambling about details that are unnecessary, yet the sentences flow together seamlessly and the vocabulary is robust enough to keep interest. Most of all, Caputo is honest—you may not agree with him, condone his thoughts or past actions, or particularly like the dialogue or events he’s describing, but there’s never a sense that he is trying to paint it out to be better than it was or make it more dramatic for drama’s sake. Here’s an example from page 201:
“I did not go crazy, not in the clinical sense, but others did. The war was beginning to take a psychological toll. Malaria and gunshot and shrapnel wounds continued to account for most of our losses, but in the last summer the phrases acute anxiety reaction and acute depressive reaction started to appear on the sick-and-injured reports sent out each morning by the division hospital. To some degree, many of us began to suffer “anxiety” and “depressive” reactions. I noticed, in myself and in other men, the tendency to fall into black, gloomy moods and then to explode out of them in fits of bitterness and rage. It was partly caused by grief, grief over the deaths of friends. I thought about my friends a lot; too much. That was the trouble with the war then: the long lulls between actions gave us too much time to think.”
Since A Rumor of War is a non-fiction memoir, there’s not much to be said about the people in the story using the typical characterization standards for more creative nonfiction or fiction. There’s little glimpse into the lives or personalities of many of the people aside from Caputo, but this is not a mark against the book—it’s more of a natural result of it being a memoir and its purpose of illuminating the realities of the Vietnam War at a time when many Americans did not understand what the soldiers had gone through (a purpose that Caputo describes in the preface of the book). The dynamic writing style makes up for any gaps in “characterization.”
Typical plot conventions also don’t apply to this book, but nevertheless, the structure of the book is streamlined, easy to follow, and organized as well as possible for recalling events that happened over a decade before the first publication date. The chapters are in chronological order from his early life and the early years of his military career, to his time as a soldier in Vietnam, to when he finished his tour, to the epilogue when he went back to Vietnam as a correspondent. Unlike other nonfiction books that I’ve read about wars, this one made the complex events, battles, and geographical changes easy to follow as someone with little knowledge of the Vietnam War. That alone makes the “plot” of the book a good one.
As can be expected, the main setting of A Rumor of War is South Vietnam in 1965-1966. Caputo does an excellent job painting a picture of the world around him during his time in South Vietnam, from the dusty airbase at Da Nang to the dark, ominous, nightmarish jungles, to the rural villages and back roads, to the swamps and marshes where the platoons chased enemy soldiers. His ability to transport the reader into those settings is, perhaps, one of the greatest strengths of the book, aside from the candor of his prose. He also, thankfully, handles the culture shock and culture differences with candor but without condoning derogatory descriptions or stereotypes beyond showing what would have been historical accurate to his experiences.
This book, being a story about war, is full of what would be considered objectionable. Language of all types is strong and pervasive. Naturally, the events of the book are violent; Caputo does not shy away from describing the appearance of dead bodies that are mangled and falling apart, the effects of diseases (including stories like a man who goes crazy the heat causing the blood in his brain to boil), or the destruction of villages. Drinking and smoking are common. There’s one chapter in particular that describes some of the soldiers going into a larger city and visiting prostitutes, but the focus general deals with combat and war. In short, this is not a book that I would recommend for anyone who is sensitive to such content or anyone who’s not mature enough to handle reading about the nature of war.
A Rumor of War is not an easy book to read in the sense of content; what Caputo describes is horrific, and for me had the effect of creating immense sympathy for the men who fought in the Vietnam War, both American and Vietnamese. Yet, it is also a book that is incredibly easy to read. Caputo is a skilled storyteller and crafted a book that is compelling enough to finish quickly. What’s more, Caputo invites readers to look at controversial events in a new way—to see the humanity in the soldiers and see the horrible cruelty that humanity is capable of. That alone makes this book a worthwhile read (although one I won’t recommend as readily as some of my favorite fiction novels). All these things considered, I give A Rumor of War four stars (rounded up from 3.5).