Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Phillip Caputo: A Rumor of War

The novel written by Phillip Caputo entitled, “A Rumor of War,” is an autobiographical account of his experiences in the Vietnam War. He began his story as an idealistic young man inspired to join the military by John F Kennedy’s call to service, and ended it when he left Vietnam, feeling disillusioned, prematurely aged, and haunted by the loss of his fellow Marines. Caputo described his novel as, “a story about war, about the things men do in war and the things war does to them.”

In many ways, Caputo’s story is one about coming of age in war, which is a dynamic that is similar to literary classics such as, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and “the Red Badge of Courage.” But it was also about how young men at war become dehumanized and demoralized. According to Caputo, “once men begin killing it is not easy to stop them,” and according to Sergeant Colby, “one of the most brutal things in the world is your average nineteen year-old American boy.” I have to agree with that assessment to some degree, but when I look at war from a historical perspective, the American atrocities that occurred in Vietnam, while brutal, pale in comparison when compared to some others. I’m not trying to say its right to slice off people ears, burn villages, and summarily execute civilians and prisoners, nor am I trying to draw a moral equivalent between US forces and others, but history has proven just how vicious men can become when they enter into combat. From the Mongols in Baghdad, to the Romans in Carthage, to the Imperial Japanese, and Nazi Germany; atrocities have been committed throughout history with the belief that the carnage was right, which leads to the Machiavellian idea that only a fervent belief or a patriotic frenzy could drive men to go to any length for a country or cause. That only through a process of indoctrination and mind control can a person become an ideologue driven to kill. Caputo had personally witnessed a form of this during his training when the Drill Sergeant made them all shout, “Ambushes are murder and murder is fun.” He was whipping the men into the type of frenzy “required for cold-blooded slaughter.”

On a few occasions, Caputo quoted the World War One poet Wilfred Owen. A poem of Owen’s which wasn’t referenced by Caputo was called “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori,” which roughly translated means, “It is sweet and honorable to die for one's country.” It was a poem about chemical warfare, but it was also a warning against the patriotic fervor and empty rhetoric of war advocates. That poem came to my mind as I read about Caputo’s first helicopter drop into a combat zone. Caputo was “happy,” while Sergeant Colby, who had already seen combat, was more serious and reflective. He told Caputo about a time when he and his men, “got their asses waxed.” Colby was attempting to warn the young Lieutenant of what he was in for, and that’s when an important Owen quote was used:
“All the poet can do today is warn,” Owen wrote. Colby and other platoon sergeants were certainly not poets, but that is what they had been trying to do the night before—warn me, warn all of us. They had already been where we were going, to that frontier between life and death, but none of us wanted to listen to them. So I guess every generation is doomed to fight its war, to endure the same old experiences, suffer the loss of the same old illusions, and learn the same old lessons on its own.
This is obviously profound because Sergeant Colby’s warning was really just a microcosm of a larger warning about history, and how it was doomed to repeat itself.

The stages of deterioration in troop morale were a big aspect of the novel. Caputo’s platoon went from shunning the brutality of the South Vietnamese methods of interrogation, to committing their own individual acts of retribution in Vietnamese villages. The atrocities ranged from summary executions of captured VC and civilians, to the burning down of villages. In the initial stages of the war, Caputo and his men prevented a South Vietnamese interrogator from pistol whipping a villager for information. The SV soldier warned the Americans that they didn’t know anything about Vietnam, and that they didn’t understand its people or history, which foreshadowed the events that were to come. Eventually, the American troop morale began to deteriorate and Caputo and his platoon began seeking retribution against the Viet Cong. They started by burning the homes in the village of Giao-Tri because it appeared as though the villagers had aided the enemy. That is why they were, “taught a lesson.” Without looking at the extenuating circumstances in the burning of Giao-Tri, it appears to be a crime, but when you take into account the Viet Cong strategy of blending in with the villagers, who are usually Viet Cong sympathizers with American blood on their hands, you end up accepting the notion that civilians have a role in the war. Once you accept the notion that civilians have a role in the war, you have a stalemate, because no western democracy can convince its electorate that killing civilians is justifiable or noble. It then becomes a war that can’t be won, either politically or militarily, and that’s the lesson that Ho Chi Mihn taught the world.

Many parts of Caputo's novel resonated with a naturalistic style which was seemingly derived from Stephen Crane's habit of combining elements of war with nature. Caputo used this style when he described mortar shells as “gray, blossoming flowers” and bullet belts as “rows of long, sharp teeth.” The naturalistic elements of writers like Stephen Crane became abundantly clear when Caputo began to view himself as tiny and insignificant.
I would die as casually as a beetle is crushed under a boot heel, and perhaps it was the recognition of my insect-like pettiness that had made me stop caring. I was a beetle. We were all beetles, scratching for survival in the wilderness.
Caputo became filled with rage when a mine exploded at a creek, killing and injuring many of his fellow Marines. As you probably know, Marines are not soldiers, they are Marines. It is a brotherhood that lasts until death, so as Caputo was carrying his injured Marine brother, Corporal Greeley, he was overcome by a profound sense of anger, “an icy abiding fury; a hatred for everything in existence,” except for the injured men under his command. Which reminded me of the novel, “All Quiet on the Western Front,” and the scene when Paul Bäumer was trapped in a shell hole and suddenly heard the voices of his comrades and thought, “they are more to me than life, these voices, they are more than motherliness, and more than fear; they are the strongest most comforting thing anywhere: they are the voices of my comrades.” And that was the message conveyed by Caputo, that the body language of men at war can lead to actions without words, because men fighting for their existence in war can become close enough to develop an ability to read each others minds without a word being spoken. It was after the explosion at the creek that Caputo’s platoon became ugly and burned down another village called, “Ha Na,” and according to Caputo, it was “one of the ugliest” sights he saw in Vietnam. It was at this point that his platoon turned from, “a group of disciplined soldiers into an incendiary mob.” Not soon after that, Lieutenant Caputo organized an “independent mission” into a village to capture or kill two Viet Cong “sappers” that were identified by a Vietnamese informant. It turned ugly when the two Marines that went into the village killed two unarmed Vietnamese, including the informant who was trying to help the Americans. The 2 dead men weren’t Viet Cong at all, and so, the Marines were brought up on court-martial. When Caputo heard he was being charged with murder, he was unable to comprehend how such a charge could exist in the midst of such barbaric fighting. “Greene had told them they had a single, simple mission to accomplish in the war: ‘you men are here to kill VC.’” So after being ridiculously charged with murder, Caputo became a vocal anti-war advocate, giving everyone an earful of how he felt about the war. The conversations he had bear a stark contrast to the situation in Iraq today in many ways.

While this book is not a literary masterpiece filled with fancy metaphorical interpretations and hidden meanings, it will stand as a historical record, not just of facts and figures which can be easily pointed out, but of the actual thoughts of a Marine who served in Vietnam. In conclusion, after surviving the war, Caputo was haunted by the deaths of his fellow Marines, and the informer Le Dung, whose open mouth seemed to scream at him in accusation. He also could never answer the question that the old man cried out as his home was burned by Caputo’s platoon, “Tai Sao,” or why?

1 comment:

Alan Echo said...

any accounting of William Owens of Illinois, who is one of those acquitted?