“I Was a Good Witness”: A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

War memoirs hold a special place in American literature. They tell a story about an important aspect of our culture, give perspective on significant historical events, and allow those who have never seen war in person to get a glimpse of what it’s like for our soldiers and veterans. There have been a lot of notable war biographies in the past few years—American Sniper and Unbroken—but, more often than not, there seems to be a kind of prestige when American wars are written about. We’re the good guys with good intentions and every battle is justified. Philip Caputo’s A Rumor of War manages to question American values while upholding them at the same time.

The Vietnam War holds a unique position in our history. It lasted for twenty years, sparked countless protests and debates within the country, and scarred the American psyche in the decades that followed. America was still riding high from its victories in Japan and Germany in WWII; a tiny, no-name country in Indochina seemed like the easiest battle to take up after the stalemate in Korea. However, the native population proved that there was more to this war than just a fight against Communism—that what we were fighting for wasn’t as strong as what the Vietnamese were fighting for.

Philip Caputo joined the Marines after graduating college because it seemed like the perfect thing to do. It rebelled against the consensus and middle class background with which he’d been raised, it quelled his thirst for adventure and danger, and it answered President Kennedy’s question of, “Ask what you can do for your country.” After graduating from training in Quantico, Lieutenant Caputo was stationed on Japan with a seasoned platoon of soldiers who seemed more mature and battle-competent than he. Within months, the grapevine started talking about conflict in Vietnam. A few months after that, Caputo landed in Danang and was assigned to a platoon in Charley Company.

The narrative that follows clearly shows why the Vietnam War was a lost cause from the very beginning. They lose soldiers to the land mines that are hidden in the ground, to ambushes inside of the unfamiliar terrain, to disease and madness caused by the different climate, to Mother Nature herself. The conflicts with the Viet Cong are brief, unpredictable, and always bring some sense of the destruction of normalcy. It makes the soldiers question themselves, the war, and their country. Slowly, the war turns from a battle for democracy to a war of attrition—where as long as the enemy dead outnumber personal casualties it doesn’t matter whether we’re actually winning or losing.

Caputo witnesses many terrible things through his service, but it seems that the heaviest part of the memoir is his time spent as Officer of the Dead, reporting casualties and keeping an ongoing count as all the numbers did was climb. His accounts of the callous attitude of commanding officers toward the dead bodies of suspected Viet Cong agents, their gung-ho sense of justice and righteousness, and their lack of understanding what it was really like on the front lines creates a distance between those actually fighting the war and those waging it.

Caputo does an excellent job of recreating the conditions of Vietnam during the war. The reader can feel his sense of paranoia that a VC could jump out of the bush at any time, that a mine could explode a man to pieces with just a wrong step. The people you will read about and come to know throughout the book will either die, become crippled by injuries too various to note, or turn so jaded that they become the killing machines the military wanted them to be. The sun is hot, the rain relentless, the bugs everywhere, and toward the end of A Rumor of War the reader will be reading as fast as they can to escape.

The ending is surprising, but deserved. The dissatisfaction readers will feel with Caputo, the war, and their country is real. Numerous things were happening at the same time as the Vietnam War and the veterans and soldiers who came home didn’t get near the same homecoming that WWII heroes did. They were different wars, and Vietnam changed the American perception of our own invincibility. We were reminded that we are human, and we make mistakes. Whether America learned from Vietnam or not is up for debate, but it cannot be denied that it changed us.

If you love war memoirs that tell the gritty truth instead of the glossy lie, want to know what Vietnam was like for those who began the war by choice rather than draft, or want an engaging and heartbreaking nonfiction book with plenty of action, A Rumor of War delivers. Philip Caputo’s prose brings humanity to one of the darkest wars we’ve ever waged, and will make you question whether America needs to police the world or not.