A Rumor of War

ISBN: 0345331222
ISBN 13: 9780345331229
By: Philip Caputo

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Reader's Thoughts


A similar story to Matterhorn, but a memoir rather than a novel. The tone is less bleak, and the Marines are still idealistic, because it is set in the very early stages of the war - Caputo was among the first marines deployed to Vietnam. But like Matterhorn, the bulk of the book details the pointless missions through the jungle to seemingly arbitrary checkpoints and the terror of fighting an enemy who is rarely seen but wreaks havoc via land mines and booby traps. The military leadership is not nearly as incompetent as portrayed in Matterhorn, which is a novel and thus permitted to be as dramatic as it wants. But we do get a view into the score keeping of the war of attrition, when Caputo's job in a staff rotation is to keep a board up to date that shows enemy dead vs. American dead. The whole goal of the war is to have more enemies dead than Americans - there is no goal of capturing any positions. The book ends during the evacuation of Saigon, where Caputo was a reporter a decade after he'd been a Marine. It's an interesting look into how pointless and mismanaged the whole thing was, and I highly recommend it. Matterhorn is amazing in how successfully it brings the reader into the day to day awfulness of the war; Caputo's memoir, by comparison, is a sedate story.


Easy read. He had some good points on war that of course never having been through a war - I would never have thought about.It wasn't as philosophical or even maybe horrific as I needed. He didn't sell me on why exactly did the Vietnam war effect men's psyches more than other wars. I guess that's what I was looking for. To understand their psyche. He only would delve into that a few times. I guess I felt this book was a good overall view on the Vietnam war. But really it didn't make me feel a whole lot and didn't make me think a whole lot either.


"A Rumor of War" is a deeply disturbing book. Like "Dispatches", by Michael Herr, it is a gripping first person narrative of what it was like to be in Vietnam- but Herr was there as a war correspondent, and the worst action he sees is brief visits to forward camps. Caputo, on the other hand, is a Second Lt. in the Marines, and his best days in Vietnam are much worse than the worst things Herr reported in his book. Months spent sleeping in foxholes deep in VC territory, dozens of fellow soldiers killed in the bloodiest ways imaginable right in front of him, and finally, participation in obscene war crimes. But it isn't the facts of his experience that make this book so disturbing. Caputo's strength is that he forces you to stand in his shoes, and by the end, you come to realize that you would have probably comported yourself in much the same way he did. And that erases any sense of moral superiority you might feel towards soldiers, and leaves you with the very uncomfortable feeling that as a citizen, you bear direct culpability for these things terrible things our country makes them do.Caputo begins describes his indoctrination into the Marines. He is the real deal— deeply courageous, committed to his job, and unquestioning about the larger issues at play in the war: "Napoleon once said that he could make men die for little pieces of ribbon. By the time the battalion left for Vietnam, I was ready to die for considerably less, for a few favorable remarks in a fitness report. Words." He is desperately eager to fight: "After I came home from the war, I was often asked how it felt, going into combat for the first time. I never answered truthfully, afraid that people would think of me as some sort of war-lover. The truth is, I felt happy."Of course, like soldiers of previous generations, he quickly finds that his ideas about war have very little to do with the brutal reality- especially in a dirty, ugly war like Vietnam, fought mostly in small, undistinguished battles in the jungles: "Everything rotted and corroded quickly over there: bodies, boot leather, canvas, metal, morals." A typical battle involves parachuting into a hot landing zone, taking fire from an invisible enemy, slaughtering a few of them with overwhelming force, and then retreating to bury many young Americans. A brief respite in the rear command base, tallying the numbers of MIAs and KIAs and WIAs just makes him feel worse, and soon, like many of his fellow soldiers, Caputo is on the edge of losing his mind. He asks for a return to forward command, and quickly finds himself even deeper in the shit. What follows is the most gruesome and strangely beautiful series of scenes I've ever read in literature. For instance, regarding courage in battle:"...he is also attracted by the danger, for he knows he can overcome his fear only by facing it. His blind rage then begins to focus on the men who are the source of the danger- and of his fear. It concentrates inside him, and through some chemistry is transformed into a fierce resolve to fight until the danger ceases to exist. But this resolve, which is sometimes called courage, cannot be separated from the fear that has aroused it. Its very measure is the measure of that fear. It is, in fact, a powerful urge not to be afraid anymore, to rid himself of fear by eliminating the source of it. This inner, emotional war produces a tension almost sexual in its intensity. It is too painful to endure for long. All a soldier can think about is the moment when he can escape his impotent confinement and release this tension. All other considerations, the rights and wrongs of what he is doing... become so absurd as to be less than irrelevant. Nothing matters except the final, critical instant when he leaps out into the violent catharsis he both seeks and dreads."The action builds to a bloody climax: after months in the jungle, Caputo orders his men to kidnap some local VCs, making clear that he doesn't care if they murder them in the process. The men are duly killed, and it turns out that they weren't VC at all, but instead, loyal South Vietnamese citizens. He and his men are then put on trial for war crimes. In his own mind, he is clearly guilty, but despite his guilt, and a number of other shocking incidents that he has been involved in (torching villages, shooting civilians), he finds himself acquitted and returned home.As I said, deeply disturbing stuff, all the more so because Caputo is such a skilled writer (after the war he became a Pulitzer prize winning journalist and war correspondent.) He clearly suffered deeply in the war, and is haunted by his experiences. It's impossible not to feel sympathy for him and his fellow soldiers. It's easy to forget now, but sympathy for Vietnam vets was in somewhat short supply after the war— as a country we were embarrassed by the loss and ashamed of the atrocities we committed at places like My Lai and Hue. So Caputo's book was deeply revolutionary, and led to a whole-scale reconsideration of the war by many readers, as well as a flood of similar books and films.In his preface, Caputo writes "This book ought not to be regarded as a protest... it might, perhaps, prevent the next generation from being crucified in the next war. But I don't think so." But the effect of reading the book is a deep reconsideration of one's feelings about soldiers and about war. For a liberal, it makes you feel a sympathy for soldiers you might have never experienced before. For a conservative, it might make you question the high price of war, and reconsider if war is justified for anything short of existential threats to the country. And for all Americans, it will make you feel a deep sense of shame and responsibility for what we put these soldiers through, and the terrible damage we inflicted on Vietnam. The record of the last forty years has proved that we (or the leaders we elect) haven't learned much from the experience- our tribulations in Latin America, Iraq, and Afghanistan continue to be bloody and largely pointless. But there is always time to change, and that's why "A Rumor of War" and books like it will always remain timely and important reads.


incredible real-life account of the first wave of marines in the city of vietnam where my father ended up a few years after the author. made better by the poem my sister wrote in the front cover for my dad - your copy won't have that, but it is still worth the read.

Steve Woods

This is a very personal account of one man's war, set in the very earliest days of the US commitment to Vietnam. It is told with scarifying clarity and honesty that sets it among the great literature that came from the First World War, from authors like Owen, Graves Sassoon and Remarque- towering story tellers of that horrific tragedy whose words Caputo acknowledges as a primary influence in the style and presentation he has employed to tell his tale.... and what a tale. Anyone can feel, and taste and smell that place; can sense the frustration and numbing experience of climate and terrain; can exhaust themselves in the gradual disintegration from being a "good man" into something evil. For those of us who were there, particularly in combat this book cannot help but invoke a kaleidoscope of memory much similar to that described by Caputo at one point. For most of us, our time there is nothing but that a kaleidoscope of vignettes cobbled together by the skein of emotion that is our felt sense of what it was for us. That skein holds us, I am sure all of us who lived it,in its thrall still, even to this day when we are now old.This is an important work in part because of the time in which it is set, those heady early days when the rot had yet to set in. What is so clear from this account is the presence of all those elements that would later be drawn out as contributing so much to America's demise in that war, both its physical and its moral demise. The accountants mindset where all was judged by numbers, the body counts and kill ratios, the de-huamization of the Vietnamese, the creation and support of the counterfeit universe, the lack of leadership at Battalion and Regimental level, the provision of sub standard equipment, the corruption and inefficiencies of the regime being supported,the total unpreparedness of US forces to fight such a war ....and on and on it goes. The writing then was on the wall in 1965 for anyone who was prepared to read it and no one who had reputation, career, pride or arrogance tied up in the venture was so prepared.The account of the incident that resulted in a charge of murder and a court martial just showed so clearly how "there but for the grace of..." applies in these kinds of circumstances, the way in which "the machine" created to fight that war resulted in the complete dismemberment of the souls of so many. That without the balance of "good purpose", nothing but some philosophical ideal driven by the political right and the American belief in its own omnipotence, was at stake here. "It don't mean nothin" the universal response by soldiers on the to pain and hardship was born out of that absence of any greater guiding principle for which the fight was conducted.For those of us who saw it and went through Vietnam, the parallels in Iraq and Afghanistan have been almost too much to bear. It seems that nothing has been learned in America or in Australia, still riding the coat tails of Uncle Sam into another misadventure. It is truly pitiful to see....again!

Jessi Bishop-Royse

It took me 11 years to read this book. I'd picked it up 6 or 7 times over the last decade, always mesmerized by Caputo's prose, but with a heavy heart because it's heavy material. It takes a certain mindset to be keep reading Caputo's dense but depressing narrative. It has much more military strategy than O'Brien's "The Things they Carried". I had an excellent sense of what Caputo's platoon did and where they moved. The somberness of "A Rumor of War" parallels anything written by Wilfred Owen, but is equally descriptive. Among my favorite lines is: "Even after my eyes adjusted, I could not see the slightest variation in color. It was absolutely black. It was a void, and staring at it, I felt that I was looking into the sun's opposite, the source and center of all the darkness in the world."An excellent read for anyone interested in the Vietnam War.

Kate Virden

I read this book with an open mind, ready and willing to learn about the gruesome aspects of the Vietnam War. The book exceeded all of my expectations in the writing style, tone, and descriptions.

Ryan Bross

I really enjoyed "A Rumor of War" written by Philip Caputo. I like to read books that have to do with war which is the main reason that I chose this book. For myself the book started slow. It talked about his life before the war; however, after a couple of chapters the book started flowing. It quickly became a page turner and I had a hard time putting it down. In the book Caputo decides to enlist in the Marine Corps. He ends up in the ROTC program to keep his mother happy. Caputo catches on to the art of war quickly and seems to succeed in the program very well. After the war in Vietnam begins Caputo sets out to lead his Battalion. He is later promoted but returns to his squadron to finish his job. The intensity and realness of the scenes in the book is unlike any I have experienced. The greatest connection I see is with the movie Saving Private Ryan. The book and the movie are set in two different plots dealing with two different wars. However the actions of the men are very similar. The squad becomes very close and losing one of the men is devastating. And the largest connection is between Caputo and Private Ryan both of these men refuse to leave their men, knowing what it could cost them to stay they both do so. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who appreciates everything our veterans do for us and anyone who wants a heartbreaking and thrilling book that will keep your attention.

Alfred Searls

In January of 1961 the newly elected President John F Kennedy stood on the steps of the Capital building in Washington and famously challenged the youth of America to “Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country”.Away in windy Chicago a young student at Loyola University knew just how to answer that call; he would join the United States Marine Corp and play a man’s part in defending the new Camelot against all enemies, foreign and domestic. A Rumor of War is Philip Caputo’s frank and compelling memoir of his transformation from excitable undergraduate to experienced infantry officer amid the humid misery of South Vietnam.Raised in the suburban serenity of Westchester Illinois, where the lulling drone of lawn mowers sought to anaesthetise his youth, Caputo was like generations of young men before him; eager for adventure, eager to be tested and absolutely terrified of being found wanting. Indeed, this fear of failure, a fear that eclipses both fatigue and the terrors of combat alike, plays an important role in driving the young Caputo to endure the gruelling ordeal of officer training school and the boredom and terror of his service on the front line in Vietnam.From the beginning this book stands out in the crowded genre of the war memoir. For a start the man is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and a terrific writer; he’s clearly highly literate and populates the book with well-judged literary references; and crucially from where I was sitting he was also painfully honest. And I’m not just talking about the kind of ‘honesty’ that publishers routinely demand of combat memoirs. No, Caputo goes far beyond the usual confessions of fear and guilt; in A Rumor of War he writes with great frankness about the secret shared by many soldiers – that combat can be addictive, intoxicating and unbelievably exciting.In his description of the camaraderie he found within his unit he turns the reader into a willing confederate to his nostalgic prose; passages which for him are often underwritten by memories of almost unbearable tenderness. At the same time he evokes with enervating exactness the numbing boredom of static warfare, the deadening routine of manning fixed positions and the remote, pointless obsessions of those running the war at far remove front the front line.Only once did I feel this honestly thinning in the book, during those passages which deal with an incident in which men under his command shot and killed two suspected Viet Cong prisoners. I personally felt a shadow of reticence fall across the narrative and if reticence there was then I’d be willing to put money on it having being deployed in the protection of his soldiers and not in the defence of his own reputation. For Caputo honour and duty are sacred concepts and even though he had no part in the killings he took full responsibility for the actions of his men, who were brutalised by a war in a place, in which as Caputo himself puts it “a callus begins to grow around our hearts”.After his honourable discharge in 1967 Caputo got involved with the anti-war movement but found that he could not hate the war on the simplistic terms of those who had not experienced it. He built a successful career for himself as a journalist and the book ends poignantly with his eye witness account of the fall of Saigon in 1975.A Rumor of War is not only an outstanding account of war and the man, but also a touching reminiscence on the loss of innocence. In it he mourns for not only the dead, but also for the idealistic young man who gradually faded away, amid the heat haze and smoke of battle, in a land very far away from Westchester, Illinois.


This memior of a marine lt in Vientam was hard for me to rate. On a technical score, this book earns three stars. It is well-written and readable. In terms of content and message, however, I could not say that I certainly liked it. Caputo was about 6 months ahead of my dad on the Quantico-to-Vietnam trajectory. Many of the officers mentioned in the book were men my dad also knew/served with. I read the book largely to learn more about my dad's experiences as a young marine in training and in combat. Caputo was just so whiny and hystrionic that he lost a degree of credibility with me. For one small ex, he makes a big deal about the coppermouth snakes living in the swamps of Quantico. He acts like the marines' lives were on the line from that mortal enemy even before arriving in Vietnam, which is simply laughable. My dad said that he supposed the snakes were there, but that absolutely nobody made an issue of it, and that includes the 12 year old girls from our church who recently went camping there. The bigger problem with the book, though, had to do with his moralizing and arguments against our involvement in Vietnam. First, he claims to have realized as a 22 year old kid in 1965 that the war was a lost cause. He doesn't really give any support to that claim other than to remark that American soldiers were being killed, but it is just not truthful to say that anyone could have known at that stage what the outcome of the war was to be, particularly when the loss took place on campuses of America's colleges rather than in the jungles of Vietnam. Second, he argues that America should not have been in Vietnam at all. That is a perfectly legit proposition, but his supporting arguments are not. His reasoning is, essentially, that because men died, sometimes in horrible ways, we should not have fought. Of course, death (and horrible death) is a part of war and an objection to it is simply an objection to all wars, not just Vietnam. But Caputo does not object to all wars. His argument is just not logical. He also argued that because a small minority of soldiers in Vietnam committed brutal, illegal acts (himself included) the war was wrong. Well, there is an element of the soldiering population in all wars that react in a crazy way and do brutal or illegal things. A marine in WWII ripped out the gold teeth of a wounded but conscious Japanese soldier for the value of the gold. Americans also murdered a couple hundred German POWs upon learning that a troop of German SS had shot a regiment of US soldiers who had surrendured (the Germans claimed to not have had the manpower to take the US soldiers to any sort of camp so they had to just shoot them). All of those things are horrible, but are they an argument to have not resisted Nazi occupation of Europe? I am a little tired of the much-touted bit of misinformation based purely on anecdote that Vietnam held a disproportionate number of war crimes as compared to other wars and that most of the soldiers there were a bunch of murderers. Vietnam just happens to be a war it is popular to villify; WWII, on the other hand, is the hero's war and therefore you will not often hear about the cruel or illegal acts committed by those soldiering it, even though such acts did take place.While only a small minority of soldiers were guilty of war crimes, Caputo was one of them. (I suppose his order would not have *technically* been improper had there not been a tragic, tragic case of mistaken identity). Rather than take responsibility for his own actions, he choses to blame American foreign policy. From start to finish, Caputo is a whiner who credits himself with a prescience about the war's outcome that no one in any position of authority had and shifts blame for a lynching off of himself and onto generalized America. while I enjoyed his appreciation for the best soldier-writers of the WWI generation (Sasson and Owen), he mistakenly appropriates some of their feelings of bitterness about their military leaders. He says something about the generals sending better men than themselves to go die. Better men? The generals in Vietnam were the same guys who were soldiers in WWII and Korea. While there was a lot of reason to disparage the generals directing the men in WWI to be mowed down by the hundreds of thousands to earn a few square feet, there just was not that cause for bitterness against the military personel in Vietnam. At least, Caputo didn't show me one. Maybe I shouldntbe giving this book 3 stars . . .

Matt Adams

Although I'm giving this book 5 stars, it's a little hard for me to simply say that I enjoyed it. It's not a pleasant read. It's dark. It's ugly. It's war. And this book throws you right in the midst of it. The reason I gave it 5 stars is because it's important. As Caputo says early on, there are plenty of TV shows and movies about war that may be exciting, but many of them focus on building this image of being a hero. Books such as this one strip the make up off and describe every horrific detail. When a soldier fights, he isn't thinking of heroics, he's thinking of survival. This book is proof of just how removed from humanity people can become after months or years of constant battle. It isn't just mud and rain that soldiers trudge through. It's frustration, pain, anger, fear, and paranoia. Imagine being envious of someone who's been badly wounded or even killed by shrapnel from a bomb. Imagine digging graves for bodies that show up by the truckload, day after day. This is the type of war you'll learn about here. This book is not for the faint of heart.

Kim Dawson

When I read this book I didn't know that it was somewhat of a classic work on the Vietnam War. After reading it, I can understand why. I found it to be a captivating and engrossing retelling of the author's experience in the war. His writing style pulls you in so that you feel like you are there with all the sights, smells and sounds of war. And time progresses, you see and understand the gradual transformation of the soldiers' attitudes and actions. I think the author's well-crafted portrayal of this transformation and its effect on the men who served in Vietnam is the most important aspect of the book. Anyone who has a Vietnam veteran as a friend, family member, or colleague would be well-served by reading this book.


Philip Caputo enlisted in the Marines in 1960, and admits to being motivated by both a desire to escape the humdrum existence of suburban Illinois and the glowing enthusiasm engendered by the euphoria that was Camelot. He envisioned himself as a courageous patriot, becoming a man by surviving the rigors of military life, and being eventually discharged as a recognized hero. After college and officers' training, he became part of the first group of Americans to be dropped on Vietnamese soil; this book, which covers his months on the front and their profound effect upon him, describes his tour of duty, his incredible court-martial, and his return as a war correspondent during the fall of Saigon.Many films have depicted the atrocities of the Vietnam War, but this first-hand narrative puts it in mind-numbing perspective. Well-written prose describes the brutal, unforgiving environment - temperatures in excess of 100 degrees, periods in which a steady rain fell for weeks at a time, the endless onslaught of leeches and fire ants, and relentless filth. Men were expected to perform at their physical peak while consuming barely adequate calories from tin cans.Caputo also describes, quite clearly, the psychological trajectory of the Marines. They arrived in the hostile country filled with American arrogance and youthful invincibility, and the realities of war slowly chipped away at both. There were brief periods of engagement, followed by long, dull waiting. Nights were spent lying in watery foxholes, listening to sniper fire from enemies they could not find in the daylight. Death was random - one man emerged unscathed, while another, perhaps only inches away, was blown to fragments. As the casualties mounted, so did their anxiety, frustration, and rage, sometimes released in horrible brutalities. Not being able to identify the enemy, and the constant, fearful tension of losing a war due to "mines and ambushes" were as magnets to their moral compasses, and stripped them of conscience.This is very moving, and it's easy for the reader to be swept into the range of emotions. Each chapter is headed by a piece of poetry, from the works of Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and Shakespeare. It demonstrates that not much has changed over centuries, and that the ugliness of war transcends both time and technology.

John Maberry

Caputo's book doesn't need another review. I will offer mine anyway, if nothing else to contrast it with Wolff's "In Pharoah's Army," an inferior book. First, I wish I could have written "A Rumor of War." I wasn't ready to write about the war soon after I returned from Vietnam, in 1967. Not even after a couple years of college in 1971, when I camped on the mall with 1,200 other Vietnam Vets Against the War (including John Kerry). Caputo had the advantage of education on me. Not just that, I needed a lot more time to experience other things and gain a broader perspective. But he made it all perfectly clear when he had a dialogue in the officer's mess with the chaplain and the doctor, "The chaplain's morally superior attitude had rankled me, but his sermon had managed to plant doubt in my mind, doubt about the war. Much of what he had said made sense: our tactical operations did seem futile and directed toward no apparent end. . . . Twelve wrecked homes. The chaplain's words echoed. That's twelve wrecked homes. The doctor and I think in terms of human suffering, not statistics." AND THIS WAS IN 1965, before things really got going in Vietnam. If you want to know what the BS about body counts was--that ended up in a lawsuit by General Westmoreland against Mike Wallace of 60 Minutes, if you want to know what Vietnam was like because you are too young to have learned about it during that time in America and the world's history, read this book. If you want to know how it relates to more recent events, try my own memoir, Waiting for Westmoreland, that finally came out so many years later.


This review is by an admitted Vietnam War novice who was looking to learn more. Caputo served in the war for about 18 months starting in early 1965. What I gathered from this book is that America decided to intervene on behalf of the South Vietnamese army against Viet Cong gorillas who were under the leadership of Ho Chi Minh who was trying to take over the government and turn Vietnam into a Communist state. Unfortunately, the Viet Cong were very good at ambush, booby traps, mines and hiding in the jungle. And, when you can't see your enemy most of the time, it is very difficult to conquer him. Caputo vividly paints the picture of how difficult it was to be there both physically and mentally. And, while I think in hindsight everyone knows the war wasn't a good idea, that doesn't change the fact that all these men had no other choice, but to go to Vietnam and do what they were told even if it was futile. My heart breaks for all the families of the young men lost. I think Caputo summed it up perfectly when he said, "We would not return to cheering crowds, parades, and the pealing of great cathedral bells. We had done nothing more than endure. We had survived, and that was our only victory." Now while I wouldn't go around recommending this book to people, I am glad I read it to have a better understanding of what my father-in-law and all the other young men went through. And, the book was very well written, although at times assumed the reader had more military/Vietnam War knowledge than I really had, but I would think it safe to say most readers of this book would have that knowledge.

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