Rumor of War: Reality of Combat

by Brian King


The Vietnam War was responsible for widespread protests and demonstrations throughout the late 1960s. The United States' involvement in Indochina was an issue that pitted friend against friend and generation against generation. Indeed, America was torn between sharply divergent opinions. For those young Americans who were drafted into service against their will, the thought of Vietnam, even years later, sent chills of anger and fear through their bodies. For those who sought the opportunity to fight, the vision of heroism and accomplishment swelled their chests with pride. When U.S. involvement ended in 1973, however, it was the anguish of defeat that haunted the souls of those who participated as well as the bitterness of a nation conflicted by wounded pride and relief. A 1980 movie, A Rumor of War, based on Philip J. Caputo's book by the same title, reflects much of the pain and ambivalence thenation came to know too well.

Like most Americans in the 1950s, Caputo grew up knowing little of Asia and virtually nothing of Vietnam. After the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the possibility of the spread of communism in Vietnam captured the attention of the United States. For the next ten years, diplomatic tensions grew between these two nations. As North Vietnamese Communists began to threaten South Vietnam, the United States initiated a military counter to Asian communist aggression. On August 7, 1964, Congress passed the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which empowered President Lyndon B. Johnson to take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States in order to prevent further aggression by Communist insurgents of North Vietnam against the government of South Vietnam. The President steadily increased U.S. troop levels until they reached nearly a half million men by 1968. However, as a result of the TET Offensive launched by Communist forces, American leaders were forced to begin negotiations to achieve a quick end to the war. Although the Communists were eventually driven back, America's quest for a rapid victory was dashed. Under intense criticism because of his escalation of the war, Johnson did not seek re-election in 1968 and, for over half a decade, the Nixon administration found itself trapped, like Caputo and thousands of young men in the jungles of Vietnam.

Philip J. Caputo came from a middle class family in Westchester, Illinois. Yearning for the opportunity to live heroically, he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1964 with a hunger for accomplishment and worth. His first command was that of the 2nd rifle platoon, C Company, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines, which he had joined in Okinawa after his graduation from Basic School. In March of 1965, he landed in Danang with this platoon now attached to the battalion of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first U.S. combat unit sent to Indochina. The platoon's first few days in Vietnam were spent digging combat holes and patrolling. There was no fighting, no enemy, and for Caputo, no war. It was as if the insurrection in Vietnam was a fantasy war set in a steamy and tropical land far from his usual environment.

As the weeks went by, however, Caputo and his men encountered increasing enemy hostility and realized that they were involved in a type of guerilla warfare that was foreign to them and which they misunderstood. Fellow soldiers were being killed by land mines, sniper fire, invisible ambush, sickness and disease. Men he had become close to were being struck down by unseen enemies. In May of 1965, Caputo, then a lieutenant, was reassigned to the position of assistant adjutant, an administrative officer in the Regimental Headquarters Company in Danang. He did not welcome his new assignment for he loved being in the field with his men. "I hated the idea of leaving One-Three. It was a first-rate infantry battalion, with a unique spirit and personality. The staff, on the other hand, seemed to be nothing more than a military organization, a soulless, bloodless thing," Caputo later wrote. After spending six months in his new position, he petitioned to be sent back to the field with his men. In November of 1965, his request was reluctantly granted by his senior officers.

Caputo was transferred to the line company in 1st Battalion and commanded the platoon with a new sense of adventure and a thirst for vengeance against the Viet Cong. He led his men through extremely dangerous ambushes and heavy artillery fire. Following an unauthorized raid on a village family intended to capture suspected members of the Viet Cong, Caputo and his accomplices were tried for the murder of an innocent Vietnamese boy thought to have been a conspiring VC. After the first soldier to be tried was acquitted in May of 1966, the charges against Caputo and the others were dropped in exchange for pleas of guilty and an official military reprimand. For Caputo, the words of his defense counsel Lieutenant Jim Rader had an exalting ring: "You're a free man!" In July, nearly two months after his plea bargain, his tour of duty in Vietnam came to an end. While standing at the edge of a runway waiting to board his flight home, he gazed at the new military personnel as they filed off a transport plane. They were beginning their tour of Vietnam. "I felt sorry for those children," he remembered, "knowing that they would all grow old in this land of endless dying. I pitied them, knowing that out of every ten, one would die, two more would be maimed for life, another two would be less seriously wounded and sent out fight again, and all the rest would be wounded in other, more hidden ways." With these final thoughts, he boarded his plane. His military career was over.

After a decade of reflection, Philip Caputo wrote a well-received memoir of the Vietnam War. Published in 1977, in A Rumor of War, Caputo gave an in-depth and detailed account of his tours of duty while fighting in Indochina. He captured the attention and imaginations of Americans who had only seen the war being fought on television news every evening. Caputo described events and places that no television camera crew dared go in covering the war.

In a review that appeared in Newsweek on June 6, 1977, P.S. Prescott wrote, "I don't think any of the 'Vietnam books' until now have provided us with a real feeling about what it was like to fight in that war…Only Caputo's book seems to capture an entire tour." Prescott added, "I suspect that this is the only reliable image we will ever have of the Vietnam War." In retrospect, Prescott was proven wrong in view of the number of excellent studies of the war that followed, but his assessment of Caputo's achievement still holds true. A Rumor of War is an excellent work.

Director Richard T. Heffron based his movie with the same title on Caputo's book. The movie, which was released in 1980, featured Brad Davis, Michael O'Keefe, Brian Dennehy, Perry Lang, Bobby Ellerbee, and David Elliott. While Caputo's book gave very detailed accounts of the members of his platoon and the conduct of the Vietnam War, the film took some liberties with the book and fictionalized some characters. For one example, some of the names in the movie differ from those in the book. In particular, Caputo wrote fondly of his platoon sergeant William "Wild Bill" Campbell; in the movie, Campbell's character played by Brian Dennehy, is given the name Sergeant Coleman. In the book, the incident with the death of the young VC suspect involves Caputo and three other soldiers. The film simplifies this to Caputo and two others. In essence, the movie was accurate in its portrayal of the author's experiences while fighting in the war, but as is the custom in Hollywood, some of the events in the movie are distorted for the purpose of saving time and explanation. Neither the book nor the film was intended to display the strategy, power, and politics of the Vietnam War, but rather to explain the emotional problems and individual perceptions of what actually took place in a foreign war and foreign land.

In the years since its publication, Caputo's A Rumor of War continues to receive outstanding praise. Caputo broadened the understanding of many Americans who had limited imaginations or one-dimensional views of what it was like to fight in Vietnam. His tour of duty was nothing like what he, as a young and eager Marine Corps recruit, had envisioned or what the American people could initially imagine. Caputo's enthusiasm and excitement for war quickly turned to ambivalence and anguish; it would take the nation longer. Looking back upon the war, Caputo could only muster feelings of failure and regret. Near the end of his book, he wrote, "We had believed we were there for a high moral purpose. But somehow our idealism was lost, our morals corrupted, and the purpose forgotten." The tragedy of the war in Vietnam proved far beyond anything Caputo had ever conceived, but fortunately not beyond his capabilities as a writer to recreate a terrible era for the nation.

A number of excellent memoirs and interpretations of the Vietnam experience have appeared in the past three decades. Paul Drew's After the Storm: A Veteran's Reflections, Francis T. McNamara's Escape With Honor: My Last Hours in Vietnam, Frederick Downs' The Killing Zone: My Life in the Vietnam War, and Ron Steinman's The Soldiers' Story: Vietnam in Their Own Words are excellent examples of solid works published on the Vietnam War. Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam proved a best selling, Pulitzer Prize winner in 1989 and resulted in an excellent film. The New York Times hailed Sheehan's work as "…one bookthat captures the Vietnam War in the sheer Homeric scale of its passion and folly."