Philip Caputo asserts that his book is not an historical account, but that it is simply about war—what men do during war and what happens to them as a result of war. Caputo goes to Da Nang, Vietnam on March 8, 1965 “as a young infantry officer” with “the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, the first combat unit sent to Indochina.” He returns to Vietnam in April 1975 as a newspaper correspondent and witnesses the fall of Saigon. He notes how he was “among the first Americans to fight in Vietnam” and “among the last to be evacuated,” a few hours after the North Vietnamese Army enters the capital.
Caputo asserts his work as a memoir. He does not have the historical expertise to contextualize the conflict within history, though he was a part of Vietnam’s transformation into a unified Communist state. Caputo experiences the conflict in Vietnam in two different contexts, first as a fighter for its democracy and then a chronicler of its sociopolitical changes. Neither role gives him moral authority, but his firsthand experience helps the reader to envision the impact of the conflict.
War, Caputo writes, is attractive to young men who know nothing about it. He recalls how he was swayed by Kennedy’s Camelot and the fallen president’s challenge to “ask what you can do for your country.” America, at that time, had never lost a war. Like late-eighteenth century French soldiers, Caputo believed that the U.S. was “destined to triumph.” He quickly realized how much he and his fellow soldiers had underestimated the skill and determination of the Viet Cong fighters.
Caputo was vulnerable due to both his youth and Kennedy’s seductive call to public service. He wanted to be a part of history and believed that he could fulfill a role in helping to spread and maintain democracy throughout the rest of the world. His belief that he could accomplish this reveals a lack of understanding about world affairs as well as an insular upbringing.
Caputo recalls how much of the war was tedious—there were no epic clashes like Gettysburg or D-Day at Normandy. Occasionally, there was “a large-scale search-and-destroy operation” via helicopter, which would be followed by “more of the same hot walking […] while an invisible enemy shot at [them] from distant tree lines.” None of these encounters achieved anything politically. However, they taught the young soldiers lessons about fear, cowardice, courage, suffering, cruelty, and comradeship. Most importantly, they learned about death at an age at which people usually think they are immortal.
Caputo describes how the daily realities of the war contrasted with his fantasies of heroism. Unlike the historical conflicts that he mentions, those he experienced in Vietnam seemed rather pointless in accomplishing the war’s political objectives. However, the war was instrumental in teaching its soldiers moral lessons, particularly about the importance of loyalty and how not to take life for granted.
Caputo returns to the United States in early July 1966 and works as the commanding officer of an infantry training company in North Carolina. He is then honorably discharged from the Marines. As happy as he is to escape death in Vietnam, he also feels nostalgic for the war. The civilian world seems alien to him and he begins to think that he belongs more to the world of the battlefield than to civilian life. Caputo soon gets involved in the antiwar movement but leaves when he realizes that he can never hate the war as much as his friends in the movement.
Caputo goes through a period of moral conflict. He despises what the war represents, but he cannot dismiss the effort of those who remain in the country. As a result of what is probably post-traumatic stress disorder, he has difficulties readjusting to the civilian world of which he was once a part. He is both attracted to the excitement of the war and repelled by its threat of death.
What distinguishes Vietnam from other conflicts, Caputo notes, is “its absolute savagery.” He uses himself and other young men as examples of how the war aroused “a psychopathic violence in men of seemingly normal impulses.” He expresses skepticism at the notion that My Lai was merely the result of racism or the “frontier-heritage” of the American soldier. These theories ignore the barbarous treatment that the Viet Cong and the ARVN inflicted on their own people, as well as crimes committed by the South Koreans and the French during the first Indochina War.
Caputo acknowledges the dishonorable behavior of some American soldiers, but he asserts that overall, Americans were no more or less moral than anyone else involved in the conflict. War and colonialism also brought out savage impulses in other groups due to the inherent brutality of conflict and the tendency to dehumanize the enemy.
This book is not a protest, for Caputo does not believe that it has the ability to change things. Furthermore, it is pointless to protest a war that is now over. He hopes that his memoir can play a role in “[preventing] the next generation from being crucified in the next war,” but he is doubtful of even that.
Caputo uses the biblical image of the Crucifixion to emphasize the extreme sacrifice that nations make when they send their youth to fight pointless wars.