Philip Caputo Essay - Critical Essays

Caputo, Philip


Philip Caputo 1941–

American novelist, journalist, and nonfiction writer.

Caputo has achieved success with works that draw upon his experiences in Vietnam. Caputo was among the first American soldiers to arrive in Vietnam in 1965; the sixteen months he spent in combat there provided the material for his critically acclaimed first work, A Rumor of War (1977). Upon his discharge from the Marine Corps in the late 1960s, he became a journalist and, as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune, returned to cover the fall of Saigon ten years after he first arrived in Vietnam. The dual perspective of a soldier and a foreign correspondent enabled Caputo to write with an insight uncommon among chroniclers of the Vietnam War.

Hailed for its candid depiction of the excitement as well as the horror of combat experience, A Rumor of War received overwhelmingly positive reviews. One critic claimed Caputo's memoir is "unquestionably the very best work to appear on the Vietnam War," and William Styron noted that "some of Caputo's troubled, searching meditations on the love and hate of war, on fear, and the ambivalent discord that warfare can create in the hearts of decent men, are among the most eloquent I have read in modern literature."

Caputo's second work, a novel entitled Horn of Africa (1981), shares with A Rumor of War the exploration of violence in human nature. His next novel, DelCorso's Gallery (1983), is set in Vietnam and Lebanon and incorporates Caputo's journalistic experiences in these countries. Although his novels have been less enthusiastically received than A Rumor of War, Caputo's work is widely praised for its vivid and insightful descriptions of human violence and its compelling, persuasive narratives.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

Theodore Solotaroff

["A Rumor of War," Caputo's personal account of the Vietnam War, is] the true story of the transformation of one of "the knights of Camelot," whose "crusade" was Vietnam and whose cause could only be "noble and good" into a vindictive, desperate and chronically schizoid killer in a war he had come to realize was futile and evil. As Emerson put it, "the lengthened shadow of a man is history": Caputo would no doubt agree, for the course and character and damage of America's involvement was registered on his altered body, mind, nerves and spirit.

The causes and stages of his transformation form the spine of his narrative. It begins with Caputo's account of his summers at Quantico, where officer's training differed little from the fabled sadism of Marine boot camp. (p. 9)

With each month he appears to have more fury to burn, more moral numbness to account for in needlessly destroyed villages and hamlets. He wrestles with the mockeries of the "rules" of engagement…. He concludes that military ethics seemed to be a matter of killing people at long range with sophisticated weapons. But the actuality was the official American strategy of "organized butchery." In his final month of duty, the commander of his half-decimated company is offering a can of beer "and the time to drink it" for any enemy casualty.

Caputo's book is not as relentless as I am making it seem. It is not meant to be one long damning indictment, or an endless chronicle of demoralization and brutalization. There are the...

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William Styron

One of the indispensable features of Caputo's narrative [A Rumor of War] is that he is never less than honest, sometimes relentlessly so, about his feelings concerning the thrill of warfare and the intoxication of combat. At least in the beginning, before the madness. After sixteen months of bloody skirmishes and the ravages of disease and a hostile environment, after the psychological and emotional attrition, Caputo—who had begun "this splendid little war" in the jaunty high spirits of Prince Hal, was very close to emotional and physical collapse, a "moral casualty," convinced—and in 1966!—that the war was unwinnable and a disgrace to the flag under which he had fought to such a pitch of exhaustion.

There is a persuasive legitimacy in this hatred of a war when it is evoked by a man who has suffered its most horrible debauchments. But perhaps that is why we are equally persuaded by Caputo's insistence on a recognition that for many men, himself included, war and the confrontation with death can produce an emotion—a commingled exultation and anguish—that verges on rapture. It is like a mighty drug, certainly it approaches the transcendental. After becoming a civilian, Caputo was engaged for a long time in the antiwar movement. But, he says, "I would never be able to hate the war with anything like the undiluted passion of my friends in the movement." These friends, he implies, could never understand how for him the war "had been an experience as fascinating as it was repulsive, as exhilarating as it was sad, as tender as it was cruel." Some of Caputo's troubled, searching meditations on the love and hate of war, on fear, and the ambivalent discord that warfare can create in the hearts of decent men, are among the most eloquent I have read in modern literature. (p. 3)

What Philip Caputo demonstrates … in his ruthless testament is how the war in Vietnam defiled even its most harmless and well-meaning participants. His is the chronicle of men fighting with great bravery but forever losing ground in a kind of perplexed, insidious lassitude—learning too late that they were suffocating in a moral swamp....

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D. Keith Mano

What can be said? This is the hardest review I have ever had to write. Okay: there are three options. I can hang it up now, at sentence four. Or I can tell you that A Rumor of War is the most daunting and significant personal account yet generated by our great dishonor, Vietnam—which Rumor is: full stop: no qualifications—and end my assessment, my responsibility, there. Yes, but would that be enough? Would you read it? Oh, I'd like to have authority over your life. For just this moment. To hit you across the mouth, take your first-born child, invalidate your credit cards, whatever, if you don't read A Rumor of War. Now. I am that sick with passion for this book.

Or, option three, I can tell you what happened to Marine Lieutenant Philip J. Caputo in Vietnam. My review might then astonish you—but never as the book would astonish. Because its force depends on a slow acceptance: an acceptance, by you, of Lieutenant Caputo—half fearful soldier, half courageous soldier, half cynical, half enthusiastic—and, after three hundred pages, you will accept. (p. 1001)

Caputo hasn't written a leftist harangue (though I could easily have forgiven him for that). Indeed Rumor is more or less apolitical. It transcends the hawk-dove face-off. It's about young men under unreasonable stress: more persuasive for that. Caputo qualifies: the credentials are impeccable.

Take his brilliant analysis of heroism:...

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The Virginia Quarterly Review

It is difficult to know where to begin an analysis of [A Rumor of War, a] first-rate memoir of a Marine lieutenant's experience with war. It is unquestionably the very best work to appear on the Vietnam war and one of the finest pieces of American writing on war from the ground in this century. The fascination of Caputo's account is not that his experiences were typical or his reactions to the war commonplace among veterans—both of these interpretations would be only partly true. What Caputo has done is to capture the sounds of men at war as no other American writer has ever done…. If there is any book published last year that ought to be read by everyone, it is this one.

A review of "A Rumor of War," in The Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 54, No. 1 (Winter, 1978), p. 25.

Randall Kennedy

In Horn of Africa Philip Caputo endeavors to present a "personal vision of the nature of violence and to show what happens when a certain kind of man is placed in a condition in which he is free to exceed the bounds of acceptable human conduct." Jeremy Nordstrand is this "certain kind of man." An imperious figure with bear-like strength, Nordstrand and two other US intelligence agents undertake a secret mission to Ethiopia. Its purpose is to smuggle arms to a warlike Islamic tribe, the Beni-Hamid, to help them fight the central Ethiopian government. Nordstrand's motivation, however, has nothing to do with the purposes of his superiors. He joins the mission hoping to find a place where he can follow his...

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D. Keith Mano

Philip Caputo last wrote A Rumor of War; indisputably the most consequential and terrific Vietnam memoir: alone, it almost made our involvement there worthwhile. Still, I don't see why Caputo should be penalized (or rewarded) for former brilliance. Every reviewer from the NYT to the Block Island Bivalve will compare Rumor and Horn of Africa. Oh, there are coy parallels; the temptation is like a ripe carbuncle. Yet, for our purposes, Horn—novel, not memoir—was written by Phil X.

And Phil X can write well enough. In Horn he has glued together a very big protagonist. Fine with me: hell, Moby Dick was no take-out from Arthur Treacher's: I prefer a...

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Peter Andrews

Tales of adventure set in Africa, with their prefabricated plots and pasteboard heroes, have become so much the special preserve of hack novelists that the genre has been all but spoiled for serious writers. Philip Caputo's [Horn of Africa, a] story of African gun running and clandestine warfare, begins in such a conventional way that it took me a few more pages than it should have to realize that it is the genuine article: a real novel stuffed with excitement and filled with sharply drawn characters, written by a tough, sinewy writer who has something more important on his mind than finding a new tax shelter….

As is to be expected from the author of "A Rumor of War," the finest memoir of...

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R. Z. Sheppard

Philip Caputo (A Rumor of War, Horn of Africa) is one of the more successful enhancers of the factual, largely because he writes intensely about his own experiences, which were dramatic and perilous. Caputo, 42, served with the U.S. Marine Corps in Viet Nam during the mid-'60s. He returned ten years later to cover the fall of Saigon for the Chicago Tribune. As a journalist, he also rode camels with Eritrean rebels in Ethiopia and was shot in both feet by Muslim militiamen in Beirut.

Substantial parts of DelCorso's Gallery are set in Viet Nam and Lebanon; the novel is not only about war but also about the relationship between morals and aesthetics. Nicholas DelCorso, the...

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Joe Klein

Philip Caputo has written a celebrated memoir ("A Rumor of War") and a novel about the meaningless horror of modern war ("Horn of Africa"). He works the same territory again in his new novel, "DelCorso's Gallery."

Nicholas DelCorso, a Vietnam veteran turned combat photographer, wants to show the public the true face of war. It has become an obsession with him, an attempted expiation of a momentary sin of callousness, a crusade that seems inexplicable and tasteless to P. X. Dunlop, his former mentor. (pp. 14-15)

With bemused revulsion, he watches DelCorso photographing mangled corpses. Their rivalry, the emotional center of this book, reaches its climax in Beirut, a place so awful...

(The entire section is 239 words.)