Philip Caputo William Styron - Essay

William Styron

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 885 words.)