Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Book Review: A Rumor of War

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Book Review A Rumor of War


Tony Manning

A Rumor of War is a griping eloquently written story telling of the trials and tribulations of a young Lieutenant Caputo and how his views changed with the course of the war. It demonstrates how morality is juxtaposed with duty and honor. It portrays how “ordinary” men become killers. The book concentrates on the units that Caputo served in, but also reflects that the enemy must be compelled to feel the same way and Caputo begins to realize there is little difference in man in war regardless of their nation of origin. Other books that come to mind that could be compared with this work include The Red Badge of Courage, The Killer Angels and Ordinary Men. Though these books cover other wars they give the reader a sense of what the soldier must have felt. Ordinary Men goes one step further and helps to explain the process of soldiering and the art of killing, though it concentrates on a reserve unit, of aging veterans that are deployed behind enemy lines, which kills noncombatants; the process is surprisingly similar to the process described by Caputo. Caputo is trying to give a true account of his, and others, feelings in the hopes that future wars may be avoided, but fears that his message will largely go unheeded; therefore he is actually seeking some form of personal justification, understanding and spiritual healing for his actions.

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Caputo came from a very safe and secure family and joined the military mainly as a way of showing his family that he was responsible and independent of them and wanted something more exciting than his boring mundane world. He was filled with ideas of grandeur and glory, but in a few short years those ideals would be forever dashed by his experiences in Vietnam. He found that war is far from glorious.

He related the training he endured and explained that the severe physical and mental anguish that the recruits endured was designed to hardened them for war by removing any shreds of their individuality and any links they had to their former civilian lives or societal norms, but based on his later accounts I do not think anyone can prepare mentally for war. Nevertheless, the Marines did change Caputo. They did harden him. They made him confident, at least until Sergeant Sullivan’s death. The training the recruits underwent turned them into killing machines. This became more and more evident as the war progressed and their grips on morality began to fade. The biggest price paid was that the marines lost most of their sense of self, which made it much easier to commit actions they normally would not and harder to refuse the actions of the group (peer pressure).

Caputo was sent to Danang and told to guard the airbase there. He was excited about the prospect of impending combat and was expecting to get the glory that was due him. The situation changed as soon as they entered their first combat. They were baffled by the fact that people were shooting at them without any apparent reason and this led to increased caution, but also molded them into more professional and tougher soldiers while it taught them the nuances of war. They were still in the grips of doing what was right and figured that there was a natural law to everything. The longer they stayed the more they realized that Vietnam was not what they expected. Most of their time was spent in tense waiting and the firefights they did have were brief. Their attitudes changed in earnest when they suffered their first casualty, Sergeant Sullivan, and the most perplexing thing of all was that he had not died a glorious death. They believed they were nearly invincible, but if they did die they felt it would be under movie-like heroic conditions, something to die for. They also entered the war feeling it would be very short in duration that the enemy was no match for the power of the United States. This too was soon dashed as they realized that it was going to be a war of attrition. Caputo makes a note to show how new arrivals and rear echelon units are full of confidence and loyalty, but how this usually sours after they spend a tour in a front line fighting unit.

Sergeant Sullivan is the key turning point for Caputo. It is here that he realizes that the war is not some fairy tale where everyone lives happily ever after. Another important point in the war was when his close friend Levy died. Caputo felt guilty that Levy had died and he had not. Caputo felt Levy had joined for the right reasons (duty, justice and honor) where he had only joined for personal reasons (glory, self-respect and boredom).

The moral fiber of the soldiers began to erode when they saw the enemy was not always following the same rules that they were. They soon began to adopt the enemy tactics out of both fear of their lives and revenge for those who lost theirs. This changes played havoc on the mental state of the rifleman and often he would enter into deep depressions, where they would want to do little or nothing and were often dark, glum and brooding (he points out a soldier who killed another just because he did not want to get up and go on watch), or high anxiety, where the soldier broke down and let his fears rule and often had outbursts of bitter rage (he mentions a soldier who had an anxiety attack, cried and rolled in the mud saying he could not take it anymore). These episodes were usually handled at the lower levels (peer pressure), but sometimes called for extreme measures such as hospitalization or even being shipped home.

Caputo soon realized that the morals and ethics that guided the soldiers were different for different situations. For example, say a plane bombed a village that was suspected of harboring the VC, but was later found out not to be the case. It would be dismissed as an accident of war, but if a platoon entered a similar village and had similar results they would often be held accountable for their actions. He notes also how a person would receive a Purple Heart if he received a wound from an enemy, but would not if it was inflicted by friendly fire. This remains true even today!

Caputo says fear is the most dominant emotion on the battlefield and that the desire to douse that fear (revenge) is extremely compelling. He says most people want to flee, but stick around for their friends and to try. Caputo says the rush of battle produced an adrenaline high that was unlike any other, though the sexual climax is close. He said there were those who became adrenaline junkies and would seek combat and began to enjoy it, but they were few. Caputo named blind chance as being the one true god of modern warfare.

Caputo relates the story of his mission during Operation Long Lance that ended up destroying the whole village. The attack on the village started innocently enough, but the fire spread and due to the fact they were behind schedule they began torching the rest of the village, they lost their grip on humanity and became a mob. This was the only time that Caputo recalls losing control of his troops.

Near the end of the book, Caputo sends his men on a mission to capture some suspected VC and to shot them if they pose any problems. He did this without approval and ended with the two men being killed. It was later found out that they were not VC and Caputo and his men were court-martialed, but given the press that would have resulted had they been convicted the charges were dropped with the exception that Caputo was charged with lying under oath, but he was only given a reprimand, which did not hurt him since he was soon discharged. This shows that though crimes were reported it was rare for them to actuality be convicted. It simply was not in the best interest of the military to do so.

Caputo points out many deficiencies in the campaign in Vietnam The leadership of the higher commands early on had the feel of colonial conflicts, like the French who presided before and lost. The tactics seemed to be primarily defensive in nature. No clear plan was initiated, hence the trouble deciding whether or not the Marines were to go to Vietnam or stay in Okinawa (many false alarms). No clear idea of who exactly was the enemy, which was demonstrated by the civil war taking place amongst the South Vietnamese. The average age of the soldier was only 1 compared to 6 for World War II. Insufficient troops were provided to cover battlefronts. The United States had better technology, but it was unable to be used to its full potential against the enemy. Politicians were involved in the war and there was growing dissent in America. All these helped to make victory unattainable. They also helped to cause growing dissent and distress among the troops, which in turn led to the demise of the war. The draft also decreased morale. Caputo and his ilk had joined voluntarily, but many of those in the later years were forced to fight against their wishes. Caputo points out that all men are similar all fear, all die, all stink with death and our reactions are nearly mirrored when in comparable circumstances. He says that men must face battle in order to understand battle. He tries to warn against the evils of warfare, but fears it will go unheeded. I believe he is right. World War I had a tremendous antiwar movement after it was over. People were disillusioned with the whole idea of war and never wanted to repeat it again, but then with the next generation war erupted! Caputo shares his story in the hopes that he and others may develop an understanding of what took place in order to prevent future wars and to justify what he did.

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