Philip Caputo, A Rumour of War (1977)

Author: Philip Caputo

Title: A Rumour of War

Format: Paperback

Pages: 354

Series: –

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. πŸ˜‰ 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 πŸ˜‰ 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 πŸ˜‰

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:

β€œAfter 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. β€œAll 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.”

Score: 10/10

22 thoughts on “Philip Caputo, A Rumour of War (1977)

  1. This sounds like essential reading. I’ve heard of “Dispatches” but not this book. You’ve got me very interested and I will probably pick up a copy when I feel like a change. I bought a copy of MASH last week but haven’t dipped into it yet. Have you read it? I love the Altman film and the old TV series.

    Sorry to hear you will be posting reviews less frequently, but I completely understand. I’ve been posting less, too. But it’s great that you aren’t leaving just yet. Real Life TM has a way of taking over, doesn’t it! For me, it’s my time spent building my YouTube channel that’s eating up any spare time I have lol! Best wishes to you and yours!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Wakizashi! πŸ˜€

      Yeah, I’d definitely classify A Rumour of War as essential reading. It’s not an easy book, though. MASH is about Korea and I tend to read later war books πŸ˜‰ but I might give it a go! I do love the TV series πŸ˜€

      Yeah, I’m kinda all over the place right now, not posting on the blog or on YT, for that matter. I have started a few things that are eating all my time, and I still don’t know if they’are going to work out or not, so your best wishes are very much appreciated! πŸ˜€

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review, I think I need to read this. It only confirms why you will missed here.

    If you donΒ΄t mind me asking: what things have you started? Always curious when I read such vague descriptors. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bart! πŸ˜€

      Hehehe I like to keep my cards close to the chest ;). I will give some updates once I know more, but in general I’m considering a big change in my career path as it’s become clear that I cannot continue academic career in NZ. So I’m considering some new options, but as we’re also planning a monthlong trip to Poland in summer this is going to be a longer endeavor. And with the trip to a place half a world away bordering a country with a full-on war going on and a refugee crisis in the making… You can imagine πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I guess the events described in the book brought about a sort of “end of the innocence” for a whole generation, and although it sounds like a difficult one to go through, the excerpt you shared makes it quite intriguing. Thank you so much for sharing! πŸ™‚

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Real life sometimes ignores all our plans, it can be so rude!! But I hope that it is something good going on!!!
    And your review is awesome and heartfelt and also intriguing.
    It was a pleasure to read, and though provoking too!
    Good job!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m glad you had a great experience with this book. It sounds great! Too bad the academic life is a difficult one. I know and have seen that struggle in others in the institute where I used to work. I hope everything will work out for you. Don’t worry about the blog, it is only an extension of books, which are the main thing. It will be here if you need to write down thoughts, and I have a feeling that that comes naturally for bloggers like us whenever you read a book.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Jeroen, your commiseration and good wishes are much appreciated! 😊

      What I mean to say is that I’m not saying goodbye, I will continue to post a review, hopefully at least every two weeks, but that I won’t be on the blog – and all your blogs – as much as I used to. Which means less comments and less likes, probably, and longer breaks between πŸ˜… we’ll see how that goes!

      You were in the academia for a while, correct? Biology, I seem to remember. What do you do now, Jeroen, if you don’t mind me asking? And was the change something you enjoyed?


      1. Yes I did a PhD in biology. Near the end of it I saw how my colleagues were struggling to get hired and had to search all over the world to find a spot, and had to worry about funding and low salaries. And I didn’t love science enough to deal with all of that. After the PhD I had a miserable time looking for work, I won’t lie. I spent a year unemployed. No employer knew what the hell a PhD even was, so it didn’t help me. Eventually in total panic I jumped into some starter job in financial services and it totally sucked. Then I started a traineeship to become a software programmer and that is what I am doing right now. I like it enough. It’s similar to being a scientist in the sense that you need to be analytical and solve puzzles. And people actually want to hire you. But the stress at the end of the PhD and finding a new career for myself contributed to my eventual burnout.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yeah, I kind of see myself in what you describe… πŸ˜” I too think of software programming, actually. Looks like it’s a type of job that doesn’t go out of market, and seems convenient enough. I was also thinking of agile coaching as I did teach organization science for a few years, but we’ll see what’s going to happen. I love sociology/cultural anthropology, but I’m totally unable to find work in my area of expertise. So it’s time to move on I guess πŸ˜‰


          1. Yeah, I had that same problem that my area of expertise didn’t provide any jobs. And the constant rejections began to my self respect. Now as a programmer I’m contacted every week by recruiters with new job opportunities, it’s crazy. What helped me is that I got some certificates, first in the financial world and then in programming, and that told recruiters that I’m a quick learner. The PhD didn’t give them a clue, but get some certificates and they suddenly realize that you can learn things.


    1. Thanks, Lashaan, much appreciated! ☺️

      Oh, this is a fascinating book, indeed. Hard and unforgiving, but simply brilliant. A very demanding read, though, so not something I’d want to get down to after a long day’s work πŸ˜‰

      Liked by 1 person

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