Philip Caputo

A Rumor of War

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A Rumor of War Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 39-page guide for “A Rumor of War” by Philip Caputo includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 18 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The Marine Corps as Religion and Heroes and the Romance of Battle.

Plot Summary

Philip Caputo’s 1977 memoir, A Rumor of War, depicts Caputo’s true experiences serving as a Marine during the Vietnam War. Lieutenant Caputo lands in Vietnam in March 1965, with the first fighting troops assigned to combat there, and soon learns that his romantic notions of war bear no resemblance to the bloody brutality he and his men confront in fighting the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army. Expressing the theme of the dehumanizing brutality of war, Caputo’s true experiences also go beyond that theme into the complex psychology of a culture that inculcated its young men with the beliefs that war and sacrifice make a man out of a boy, glorifying adventure and bloodlust, manliness and killing rage. As Caputo writes, his memoir exposes “the things men do in war and the things war does to men.”

Caputo was raised in a middle-class haze of apple pie, baseball, and fishing in a town near Chicago. Bored with safety and comfortable living, Caputo hungered for the violence and action that he believed would grant him manhood and heroism. Caputo first volunteers for the Marine ROTC program in college and then enters the military. The causes in which Caputo believes mirror his transformation from an inexperienced twenty-year-old soldier to a man driven to maniacal violence in his quest to revenge his fallen fellow soldiers.

Dropped into the mountainous jungle of Vietnam, his small rifle company attempts to seek and destroy the enemy. The conditions alone are murderous: relentless heat and a green jungle of elephant grass and trees, thick and impenetrable. The Vietcong ambush the American forces at will from the jungle; soon, none of the men are able to bear the psychological stress. Driven to madness by the conditions and their feelings of helplessness in being unable to protect themselves from the Vietcong, the men take trophies from fallen Vietcong soldiers, including ears, and they murder wounded Vietcong soldiers without a second thought. Wanting only to protect his men and meet his superior’s expectations, Caputo’s reason and judgment desert him, as he experiences murderous rages followed by guilt and remorse.

Removed to a desk position at headquarters for a few months, Caputo obsesses over the American body counts, hallucinates the faces of dead men, and learns to resent the trivial decisions and priorities of the administrators and leaders of the war.  The ethical conflict between the wholesale killing of villages at a distance by napalm and the same killing being wrong for Caputo’s men to inflict on the ground erode Caputo’s belief in the justness or integrity of the war. As he grows more emotionally numb, he becomes even more filled with rage. He longs for death—the ultimate stage of dissociation from reality.

After Caputo is sent back to his men, the summer monsoon season’s relentless heat and rain make a mockery of fighting on the ground. The war is reduced to butchery, tempered only by the men’s tender concern and caring for each other and random kindness they dole out to the civilian population, as when they put salve on a baby’s jungle sores.

With his company decimated, Caputo desperately resorts to any means of finding and killing the enemy. When a boy brings him the news that two Vietcong soldiers are hiding in a nearby village, Caputo sends his best snipers, in a fit of borderline insanity, hoping that they will kill rather than capture the enemy soldiers. His snipers bring back two bodies, but one of them is the boy who brought them the information. Caputo faces a court-martial for the murder of these two men. He is exonerated, but his beliefs in any honor or truth in the war are shattered. Soon after, he receives an honorable discharge.

Nearly ten years later, Caputo returns to Vietnam, as a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, to report on the fall of Saigon to the North Vietnamese. His emotions in turmoil, Caputo reflects on the war—the loss of humanity and waste of human lives and resources, leaving Vietnam on April 29, 1975.

Ultimately, this memoir indicts both the public’s indifference and the generals’ and the politicians’ inhumanity toward the horrors of the Vietnam War and their complicity in the dehumanizing destruction of their own soldiers. Considered a modern classic on war, in the literary tradition of Homer’s Iliad, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, and Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, Caputo’s speaks as Americans’ conscience, his legacy enduring in a truthful, unsparing portrait of the American war machine.

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