Philip Caputo’s first command is a rifle platoon in a battalion of the 3rd Marine Division. After graduating from Basic School and taking a month’s leave in San Francisco, he joins the platoon of forty men on Okinawa. He recalls a partial list of his men, while the others are “just names without faces or faces without names.” Still, Caputo can generalize all of them as “idealistic, insolent, generous, direct, violent, and provincial in the sense that they believed the ground they stood on was now forever a part of the United States simply because they stood on it.” They all come from slums, dirt farms, and Appalachian mining towns. Many have never finished high school, and some have no relationship with their fathers.
The marines have absorbed an imperialist sensibility. Though they are in a foreign country, the Marine base is a world that has been constructed for them. Ironically, they convey a sense of power and dominance during their time in Japan, though most of them come from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Marine Corps gives them both economic stability as well as the sense that they finally have the family they lacked growing up.
Caputo arrives on Okinawa in January 1965; the rest of the battalion has been at Camp Schwab since September, waiting for something to happen. To keep themselves busy, they go to nearby Heneko, a town with “a squalid collection of honky-tonks” where the marines “get hustled by the bowlegged bar girls, and drink in the heavy, reckless way of young GIs overseas for the first time.” The rest of their time is spent in the routine of garrison life: waking, roll call, exercise, breakfast, working parties in mid-morning and afternoon, drills, dinner, liberty call, taps, and sleep. For Caputo, it is a bleak existence with no resemblance to his romantic fantasies.
Caputo realizes that life in the Marine Corps is not much different from the life of a working-class American in suburbia, which he had hoped to avoid. His life is filled with routine and cheap attempts at diversion. The marines’ reckless drinking is the result of their youth and eagerness to express their independence, as well as a coping mechanism for homesickness. Though the base makes life as convenient and familiar as possible, they are still far from what they know.
The company’s first sergeant, Fred Wagoner, instructs Caputo on the formalities of the Marine Corps, including signing forms only with black ink. Caputo spends his first few weeks overseas learning such formalities, signing more blank forms with black ink, and drinking coffee with other platoon commanders. He quickly becomes restless. Caputo also feels like an outsider, due to the ranks being filled with enlisted men who went to boot camp together and other lieutenants who graduated from Quantico in the same year. Having done everything together and gone everywhere together, they share the same experiences and hardships and have, thus, developed close comradeship. As a result, Caputo feels like a guest in an exclusive men’s club.
Caputo is annoyed by the trivial formalities of the Marine Corps. This instruction also slowly disabuses him of the notion that life in the Marines is mostly about demonstrating toughness and engaging in male bonding rituals. In relation to the male bonding that does take place, Caputo feels that he is not really a part of it, due to his sense that the other men have already formed the unofficial brotherhood of which he longs to be a part. Caputo’s earlier wish not to be a conformist is now reversed, for he very much wants to feel that he belongs in the Marines.
Caputo is assigned to One-Three, or the first battalion of the 3rd Marines, for ninety days and, after this time expires, will probably be recalled to the company headquarters to do desk work. However, he learns that this could be postponed or avoided altogether if he successfully demonstrates leadership of the battalion and earns their respect. This would not be easy. The other platoon commanders in Charley Company, including Glen Lemmon, Bruce Tester, and Murph McCloy, have one to two years’ of experience, while Caputo has none. As a result, he is nicknamed “boot brown-bar,” which is slang for a very fresh second lieutenant.
Caputo has both the opportunity to prove himself, as well as an opportunity to develop closer relationships with the other marines. Still, he feels excluded from the other officers due to his relative lack of experience. His first challenge in the Marine Corps, to prove his leadership is a daunting one because he wants so much to belong to the group, while there is also the pressure to distinguish himself further from them.
Rumors float around about a possible deployment to Vietnam. Delta Company is first sent to Da Nang to furnish internal security for the American compound there. Three weeks go by and nothing happens. Caputo wonders if he will ever see action. In February, the company goes to the Northern Training Area, a jungled and mountainous region, for counter-guerrilla-warfare exercises. Caputo, afraid of making the smallest mistake, initially botches this first test in the field. He gives his platoon confusing orders and nearly gets lost several times in the Okinawan jungles. While the platoon waits to move to the jump-off point, Sergeant Campbell lights the smoking lamp. Seeing him do this, Caputo figures it’s fine to have a cigarette and gets bawled out by Campbell in front of the troops for doing something that would surely draw fire in Vietnam.
In his eagerness to prove his preparation, Caputo is unfocused on what he is doing and makes a series of mistakes. He inadvertently reveals his inexperience and is eager to go to Vietnam so that he can gain the experience that he thinks he needs to prove himself the equal of the other marines. During training in Okinawa, he fails to prove himself the leader of more experienced men, like Campbell. Not knowing what kind of leader he wants to be, he tries to mimic Campbell, it seems, and ends up making an error that could prove fatal on the battlefield.
Later, Joe Feeley lectures Caputo about being more competent and assuming leadership from Sergeant Campbell. Looking back, Caputo determines that much of his behavior in Vietnam was determined by this lecture. It instills in him a hunger for praise. Fitness reports describe him as “fearless in the face of an enemy,” eager to succeed but impulsive. By the time the battalion leaves for Vietnam, he is ready to die “for a few favorable marks in a fitness report.”
Caputo’s reputation is key to his identity formation. He wants the other soldiers and his superiors to respect him. To accomplish this, he tries to transform himself into the image of the steely-eyed marine whom he saw on the recruiter’s poster: a man whose purpose is to serve the Marine Corps.
When the company completes training and returns to Camp Schwab, they learn the Viet Cong have attacked the American air base at Pleiku, killing or wounding seventy airmen. In retaliation, U.S. planes drop bombs on the North in a campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder. The Pleiku raid revives rumors about “going South.” Then, the One-Three battalion is notified that they will go to Da Nang on February 24th. Everyone is enthusiastic, except for Sergeant Campbell, who is ready to retire.
Despite the tragedy that has spurred the need to be deployed to Vietnam, the marines are excited to escape from their routine and engage in real combat, believing that this will make them feel more like soldiers. Campbell, on the other hand, has experienced combat and is not excited for the danger that he knows it will entail, and the risk of never seeing his family again.
The 24th arrives, and the operation to Da Nang is called off. It is then repeatedly postponed through March. Rumor has it that the battalion will remain on Okinawa until April 8th, when it will then sail for the Philippines. The bargirls in Heneko, however, are certain that the GIs will leave, and an article in the island’s English-language newspaper reports that sixty prostitutes have migrated from Saigon to Da Nang “in anticipation of a rumored landing of U.S. Marines.”
Though the Marine Corps is an organization that conveys the image of the soldiers as polite gentlemen, many of them frequent brothels. The prostitutes likely heard the news from high-ranking officers whose leadership does not deter them from engaging in the vices that they deem necessary to avoid stress or the feelings of loneliness during deployment.