What is the summary for Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War?

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kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Philip Caputo served in the Vietnam War as a young, newly-commissioned Marine Corps officer. A Rumor of War is his memoir about growing up, enlisting in the Marines, and learning first-hand the horrors of combat and the injustices and incompetency that characterized the American role in that conflict. Caputo's book was one of the first serious examinations of the Vietnam War from the individual soldier's perspective, and his experience being court martialled for the execution-style slayings of two Vietnamese by Marines under his command deeply influenced his views on the American way of war. Much of A Rumor of War focuses on the irony of accusing young men -- many still boys -- of murder in the midst of a guerrilla war in which the enemy was often indistinguishable from the civilians in whose midst they often hid. Caputo was highly critical of the way in which his military and civilian superiors conducted the war effort, with the soldiers and Marines trained to fight a conventional war like World War II rather than a modern conflict characterized by the guerrilla insurgents known as Viet Cong. In addition to the focus on the improper training of American military personnel for this particular war, Caputo was highly critical of the emphasis he observed among his military superiors on what was known as "body counts," in effect, the importance placed by superior officers on the number of enemy combatants killed rather than on the accomplishment of mission objectives. 

A Rumor of War, as noted, was one of the first personal observations of the American role in Vietnam, and, together with James Webb's Fields of Fire and Ron Kovic's Born on the Fourth of July, set the tone for the literature that would grow out of that highly-contentious conflict -- literature that reflected the disillusionment with war experienced by once-eager young soldiers thrust into a very different kind of conflict than those experienced by their fathers.

jameadows eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Caputo's A Rumor of War, published in 1977, is about his personal experiences in Vietnam—first as a member of the Marines sent into Danang in 1965 as the first combat unit in Vietnam and then, in 1975, as a newspaper correspondent covering the fall of Saigon in 1975. The memoir traces his disillusionment with the war.

Caputo grew up in a suburb of Chicago during the patriotic Kennedy years and joined ROTC in college. When he joined the Marines and attended officer training school, he was filled with patriotism and a willingness to serve his country. Sent to Okinawa and then to Danang, Caputo at first is part of what seems like an uneventful exercise in defending a military base. However, when he comes under fire by the Viet Cong, his experience becomes nightmarish, as he and his men hunt for Viet Cong soldiers in villages and become disillusioned about the reality of the war.

After he serves in a rifle company, he becomes what he calls "the officer in charge of the dead." He counts casualties and becomes increasingly mentally ill. He writes in the introduction that he came to realize that the Viet Cong, who he and the other men thought of as "peasant guerrillas . . . were a lethal, determined enemy" (page xiv). He returns to a rifle company and is court-martialed for the murder of two Viet Cong soldiers (though he is eventually declared not guilty). He finds the court-martial hypocritical and writes about the military, “They had taught us to kill and had told us to kill, and now they were going to court-martial us for killing” (322). 

When he leaves Vietnam in 1967, he feels ambivalent about the war. He is opposed to the American policy in Indochina but has a personal and emotional connection to the war. He eventually mails his ribbons back to President Nixon. When he witnesses the Fall of Saigon in 1975, he feels that the men he knew in Vietnam "had died for no reason" (342).

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