Author: Philip Caputo
Title: A Rumour of War
This book deserves all the laudatory reviews and paeans it can get. I could actually leave my review at that, but, you know, I was never known for short reviews, let alone one-sentence ones. 😉 I’ll keep my review short this time, though. But before I delve into it I need to write a little about my recent absences from the blog, as it looks as if the situation will continue.
So, life has this habit of getting in the way of the best laid plans, and while I had planned to keep my engagement with this blog on the same levels as last year, it clearly isn’t happening. I might go deeper into various reasons that conspired to result in this particular effect, but in truth, it’s all rather boring, usual stuff 😉 In short: more things to do, on many fronts, and some decisions to make for the future. I will be on the blog as often as I can, but just so you know, in the next few months it won’t be as often as it had been before. I will still continue to haunt your blogs and comment, hopefully more often than not, and whether you want it or not, but I won’t be “here” that much 😉
Now, on to the meritum. Caputo’s work has been called a “contemporary classic,” and I think that’s an apt description. If I were to recommend one book about the Vietnam War, that would be it (can’t believe it, but this re-read actually pushed Herr’s Dispatches to the second position for me). The reason is rather simple, I think: while Dispatches offers a civilian’s take on the war – and it is a haunting, painfully honest, and strikingly written account, no doubt about it – Caputo’s work is equally masterfully written but from the perspective of a soldier. A Rumour of War, while billed a “war memoir,” takes on a form of confession. It is a confession of one man, but at the same time it’s a vivid and sincere portrait of a generation embroiled in a life- and society-changing situation. More than that, it offers a frightening number of truths about humanity as a whole. And the best thing is that while Caputo never claims to speak universal truths – he writes only about himself and people like him – the things he has to say nevertheless have universal appeal and application.
It’s an unforgiving and unforgettable book. Caputo doesn’t shy from the ugly reality, but he doesn’t revel in it either. I guess there are places where even empathy or imagination cannot take you – only the bitter, shattering personal experience can give you the requisite insight and understanding to depict this in a way that’s honest, raw, and truthful. I will not start a discussion of what “truth” is here, neither ontological, epistemological nor aesthetical – I don’t think that would bring anything valuable to the review, so let’s agree on the common definition of truth as something that has a direct, reliable and faithful relationship to reality – reality-fidelity, so to speak. But this is the lesson that every grimdark author should learn by heart before they start to play with their characters and plots: compared to fiction, reality is always immesurably more. More uplifting, more horrific, more tragic, more touching. Caputo knows this intimately and applies the hard truths with laudable deliberation, precision, care and constancy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t state the obvious, because even though this observation is tangetial to the book, it is relevant to the reality we currently live in, in which a renewed relevance of the concept of just and unjust wars can be observed. A Rumour of War portrays the Vietnam War from the perspective of American soldiers, who, both from their own and their foe’s perspective, were the invaders. Caputo acknowledges this, and his slow realization of the gulf between his convictions and official propaganda and the reality of the ugly war is heartbreaking.
I would say that this book is not for the faint of heart. It pulls no punches and it strikes where it hurts the most. It shows that there is darkness in everyone, and while many of us should count ourselves lucky that we were never tested and never found wanting, in fact very little is needed to set that darkness free. Actually, it takes an incredible strength of character, an inner moral quality that is not dependent on the outside circumstances, not to set it free. It’s a sobering thought.
Lastly, a few words on Caputo’s skill. This is a book that was born of pain, over many years; a depiction of formative experiences of a young impressible man by that same man, but not the same, much older and wiser and more erudite. It’s a meaty book, the language evocative and deceptively simple, mixing subtle poetry with deliberate crassness. Throughout it a thread of wry humour keeps showing through despair, remorse and an effort to comprehend – oneself, others, the system of institutions and beliefs we created. It’s a confession, so inherent in it is a tacit request for understanding, and, maybe, forgiveness. It’s also a warning, today seemingly more relevant than before – but truth be told, this particular warning never loses its importance. A Rumour of War is simply a helluva book.
So if you want to take an excruciatingly frank and painfully close look at war and “the things men do in war and the things war does to them,” this is the best of the best. And instead of conclusion, a quote:
“After I came home from the war, I was often asked how it felt, going into combat for the first time. I never answered truthfully, afraid that people would think of me as some sort of war-lover. The truth is, I felt happy. The nervousness had left me the moment I got into the helicopter, and I felt happier than I ever had. I don’t know why. I had an uncle who had told me what the fighting had been like on Iwo Jima, an older cousin who had fought with Patton in France and who could hardly talk about the things he had seen. I had read all the serious books to come out of the World Wars, and Wilfred Owen’s poetry about the Western Front. And yet, I had learned nothing. “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.”