Philip Caputo’s first experience of the world outside of the classroom is in a war zone. He trains in Quantico, Virginia, practices what he learned there in the jungles and rice paddies of Da Nang, South Vietnam, then teaches others his combat skills at a training base in North Carolina called Camp Geiger. When his three-year enlistment expires in 1967, he is ignorant “about marriage, mortgages, and building a career.” However, Caputo learns all about “the art of killing.” He learns how to use every weapon from a knife to a 3.5-inch rocket launcher. Using a two-way radio, he is also able to perform “magical feats of destruction” with jet fighters that release napalm and high-explosive bombs.
Caputo contrasts his specialized knowledge of combat with his ignorance about the practical, mundane aspects of adult life. His purpose is in demonstrating how ill-prepared many young veterans were for adult life, despite performing the serious and morally questionable task of killing to help protect freedom at home and abroad. Caputo is unable to enjoy the aspects of life that he helps to protect because no one has taught him how to access them.
Caputo goes back home feeling older than his father. He returns after having seen “all manner of violence and horrors so grotesque that they evoked more fascination than disgust.” He recalls having once seen pigs eating “napalm-charred corpses.” It was rather ironic to watch pigs eating roasted people.
Caputo joins the Marines in 1960 because he is tired of suburban life in Westchester, Illinois. Westchester is one of the towns that springs up near Chicago “as a result of postwar affluence, VA mortgage loans,” and the urge to leave cities in favor of open spaces and more housing options. Caputo recalls the town’s “sleek, new schools,” “supermarkets full of Wonder Bread and Bird’s Eye frozen peas,” and rows of “split-levels” that “lined dirtless streets on which nothing ever happened.” By the time Caputo is in his late teens, he cannot stand the place.
Caputo characterizes suburban life as a sanitized and overly protected existence. He mentions World War II’s role in creating this affluent environment, but he overlooks the sacrifices that the previous generation made to ensure the American concepts of freedom and comfort that Caputo will later go to Vietnam to protect.
The only thing that Caputo likes about his “boyhood surroundings” is the Cook and DuPage County forest preserve, which offers some fishing and small game. Occasionally, Caputo finds “flint arrowheads in the muddy creek bank,” reminding him of the region’s past—“that savage, heroic time” when the indigenous people trod on the forest paths with their “moccasined feet” and “fur trappers cruised the rivers in bark canoes.” This was America before it “became a land of salesmen and shopping centers.” Caputo longs for that world—a place where he can live “heroically.” He has known “nothing but security, comfort, and peace” but hungers for “danger, challenges, and violence.”
The arrowheads are remnants of a period in which America was a rugged land of danger and uncertainty. Caputo longs for this rough-and-tumble atmosphere, though he only knows it through books, TV shows, and films. His concept of danger is as false and sanitized as the suburbs that he claims to despise. His desire to live “heroically” is a wish to live with a sense of moral purpose that goes beyond the postwar pursuits of material comforts and money.
Caputo does not know how to fulfill this ambition for danger and challenge until a Marine recruiting team sets up a stand in the student union at Loyola University. They have displayed a poster of “a trim lieutenant” with an “athletic, slightly cruel-looking” face.” He looks “like a cross between an All-American halfback and a Nazi tank commander.” Caputo takes a pamphlet and reads about every battle in which the Marines have fought from the Revolutionary War to the Korean War. Caputo realizes that war is the heroic experience that he seeks. He envisions it as “the ordinary man’s most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary.”
Caputo is looking to fulfill a vague heroic purpose and believes that he has found it when he sees the image of the marine in the poster. The image seems to represent the heroic ideal that he has imagined for himself—a cross between wholesome and ruthlessly tough. Caputo’s idea of strength and heroism is rooted in white masculinity and a historical tradition that has valorized Western values and political objectives.
Caputo’s other reason for enlisting is feeling that he needs to prove his manhood. During his freshman year at Purdue University, he feels freed from “the confinements of suburban home and family.” However, “a slump in the economy” prevents him from finding a job during the summer break. Worse, he is flunking out of school, after having spent the first year drinking too much and attending frat parties. He transfers to the smaller Loyola University in Chicago. At nineteen, he moves back in with his parents, which he hates. He fears that his parents view him as an irresponsible adolescent who still needs their care. He is desperate to demonstrate to them that he is “a man after all, like the steely-eyed figure in the recruiting poster.”
Caputo is eager to assert his manhood and thinks that physical action is the means through which he can do that. His first solution is to find a job, thinking that he can prove himself by generating his own income. When this does not work, he looks to the Marine Corps to give him purpose. The image of “the steely-eyed figure” contrasts with Caputo’s self-image as a coddled suburban boy. The image of the marine is that of a man with purpose, whereas Caputo struggles to figure out how to give his life meaning and individual purpose.
Caputo joins the Platoon Leaders’ Class, which is the Marines’ version of ROTC. He is set to attend six weeks of basic training in the summer and then an advanced course in the summer before he graduates from college. In the summer of 1961, Caputo attends Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia. He and the other aspiring lieutenants range in age from nineteen to twenty-one. Those who survive the course will be sent to Vietnam in four years, though most of them currently do not know where Vietnam is. The first six weeks comprise of boot camp at Camp Upshur, which is located deep in the forest. The candidates are “shouted at, kicked, humiliated, and harassed constantly.” What Caputo recalls most vividly is the endless hours marching in the hot sun at the command of Sergeant McClellan’s voice.
When Caputo decides to join the Marine Corps, his life takes on a structure that it did not have previously. He knows exactly what the next four years of his life will look like, which likely reduced his sense of anxiety about having nothing to do after university. His stark memory of the abuse he experienced at boot camp contrasts with the comfort and coddling he had come to know in the Chicago suburbs. Being under the command of a black staff sergeant also begins to redefine any of Caputo’s previous notions, reinforced by his white suburban upbringing, about who occupies positions of authority.
About seventy percent of Caputo’s original class makes it through training and graduate in August 1963. Those who pass the initial trial return to Quantico two years later for the even tougher advanced course. Some of the training is familiar—“more close-order drill, bayonet practice, and hand-to-hand combat.” Additionally, the marines must run over Hill Trail, a range of seven hills as steep as roller coasters but “ten times as high.” They run while “wearing full pack equipment.” Dozens of men collapse during these runs, and drill sergeants show them no mercy. An overweight man who lies unconscious against a tree stump is shaken and shouted at. Caputo recalls, too, the “intense indoctrination” that encouraged an undying love for the Marine Corps and the code by which marines are expected to live, particularly “never [leaving] their casualties on the battlefield.” They also learn Marine Corps history and acts of heroism.
Caputo undergoes thorough physical and psychological training in his effort to become a “hero.” The challenges are key in his transformation into the figure he saw on the recruiter’s poster. His lack of sympathy for the overweight man who collapses reflects the “steely-eyed” resolve that he hopes to develop within himself. Caputo sees the overweight man as unfit for the challenge of being in the Marine Corps. Caputo’s triumph over those whom he deems weaker reinforces his personal view as exceptional, as well as his belief that the Marine Corps is the space in which he can prove that he is destined for a more extraordinary life.
Caputo finds Basic School rather pleasant compared to Officer Candidate School. There is no more harassment from drill sergeants who now have to call the lieutenants “sir.” Living conditions are also “regal.” The purpose of the school is to turn the young lieutenants into professionals and to emphasize infantry fundamentals, such as how to take a hill and then defend it. Caputo detests the classroom work and longs for the romance of war, illustrated through books and films. That August, when they are midway through their Basic course, the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passes, setting up the next arena for war in Indochina.
Caputo is impatient to join the arena of war. His classroom studies in the Marine Corps seem to repeat the dull life of a schoolboy—the very thing he was determined to escape when he joined the Marines. Once again, he associates heroism and purpose with physical action and deems learning a passive and relatively unproductive activity. Meanwhile, he remains unaware of the political forces that are slowly shaping his fate in Vietnam.
The senior first lieutenant lectures Caputo and the other junior officers on counterguerrilla operations. The instructor disabuses his students of any sense “that guerilla-fighting [is] something like Indian-fighting” and stresses to them that it is “a highly-specialized art.” The officers have to learn “complex tactics with esoteric names” designed “to outwit the wily insurgents.” A few of Caputo’s classmates become “counterinsurgency cultists,” learning everything they can about the subject. Caputo finds it ironic that these “crew-cut, American-looking officers” study the teachings of Mao Tse-tung “as devoutly as the Chairman’s disciples in Peking and Hanoi.” They are ambitious and think that learning such tactics will make them better at their profession, while Caputo is only interested in the adventure Vietnam may offer.
Caputo still associates the possibility of combat in Vietnam with the “cowboy-and Indian” scenarios that he saw on television and in films when he was growing up. He learns that fighting in Vietnam will be a complex task. Though Caputo finds it ironic that his colleagues are “devoutly” studying the teachings of Mao, from their perspective it is essential to understand the enemy in order to defeat the enemy. Caputo still uses the language of Catholicism to describe his education in war, indicating that, for him, becoming a marine is a kind of religious experience, requiring in devotion and personal sacrifice.
As winter approaches, Caputo attends the Marine Corps birthday ball, which commemorates the Corps’ origins in a Philadelphia tavern on November 10, 1775. Caputo goes AWOL from Quantico Naval Hospital, where he is recovering from mononucleosis, to attend the celebration. He imagines something like the gatherings of Beowulf’s warriors in the mead hall and is disappointed to discover something more akin to a cotillion, attended by fellow marines and their wives and girlfriends. Still, that night in 1964 holds special significance as a moment of innocence, before the “fear, disfigurement, sudden death, the pain of long separation, [and] widowhood.”
The ball represents the Marine Corps’ traditions and formalities, which reinforce the image of the soldiers as gentlemen. Caputo is less attracted to this image than he is to that of the war-faring men of Anglo-Saxon tradition, like in Beowulf. The moment of innocence that Caputo describes is not only that of the ball’s attendees but also his own; he has no real understanding of the kind of brutality that he will soon encounter. The ball is a reprieve from the brutal duties of a marine.