It took Caputo as long to write A Rumor of War as it did the United States to fight the Vietnam War. He works on the memoir sporadically from the spring of 1967 to September 1976. The pressure of working as a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune, as well as the feeling of being “too fractured by the war” prevented him from writing his thoughts down coherently. While living in England, he starts reading great British memoirs from World War I, including Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer. He realizes that a memoir would be the best form through which to recall Vietnam and “the changes it wrought in cultural and social values.”
Caputo models himself less on cinematic tough guys and real-life war heroes and takes inspiration from literature. He is less interested in the façade of a soldier than he is in getting additional context about what inspires men to go to war and how the event changes them. These books help him to better understand his own cultural values and how he used them to justify his actions in Vietnam.
By the fall of 1975, when Caputo is the Tribune’s Middle East correspondent in Beirut, he has accumulated a “a mass of notes and sketches but only about fifty pages of manuscript good enough to show someone.” He finds an agent, but his next problem is finishing the book while reporting on another war in Lebanon, where he gets shot, suffering serious bullet wounds in his left ankle and right foot, as well as superficial fragment wounds in the back, head, left leg, and right arm. He moves back into his parents’ house in Westchester, Illinois, to recuperate. There, he completes the manuscript
Caputo’s fortune suddenly changes in Beirut, confirming that surviving a war without any injury is mainly a matter of luck. Caputo suffers a number of obstacles in completing his book. Ironically, he does the very thing that he feared having to do as a younger man: he moves back in with his parents. His return home suggests that he has reconciled himself with his suburban roots and, now with his own family, better understands what his own parents wanted for him.
Caputo’s purpose in writing A Rumor of War was to make people understand the morally and emotionally ambiguous world in which the soldiers existed. He also wanted them to feel the war—the heat, the mosquitoes, the ambushes—as if they, too, were there. The next objective was to get the readers to ask themselves what they would do if they were there. He also strove toward the universal purpose of writing about war itself and what it means.
For Caputo, the war was mainly a sensory experience. The anxiety of constantly waiting for something to happen, as well as the petty annoyances of avoiding snakes and insects, disrupted Caputo’s fantasies of heroism and also disrupt the reader’s expectation that war entails constant action.
A Rumor of War is published in May 1977 and becomes an immediate sensation. Caputo is besieged by radio, TV, and print interviewers. Despite achieving success, he feels guilty, as though he were profiting from the deaths of his brothers in arms. He begins to suffer from panic attacks during a nationwide book tour. To calm down, he drinks excessively and smokes too much marijuana. He has a nervous collapse and spends several days in the psychiatric ward of an East Coast hospital. Caputo says that he did not write his memoir as a form of therapy but thinks that it and the other books about the war have been therapeutic for a wounded nation. He remains in awe of the fascination that Vietnam continues to hold for people—not only those who fought in or against it, but also those who were not yet born when Saigon fell.
Caputo quickly became the voice of veterans, which is a role that gave him a great deal of anxiety. Though he only sought to describe war as he related to it, his experience of the war became emblematic. Caputo fit the image of the war veteran with which both conservatives and liberals identified. His upbringing in middle-class white suburbia, his university education, and his choice to enlist, as opposed to being drafted, made him someone who would seem least likely to oppose the war. He was also someone who benefited most from the democratic and capitalist values that the United States hoped to maintain abroad.