Philip Caputo starts his memoir, A Rumor of War, by declaring that it is not an historical account but simply a book about war, and about what happens to people as a result of conducting war. Caputo enters the Marine Corps in 1960, attracted by the allure of adventure and danger. He grows up in Westchester, Illinois, a western suburb of Chicago, and longs to escape from the dullness of his Middle-American suburb. He also gets caught up in Kennedy-era idealism and sees military service as the proper response to the president’s call for public service, as well as the way to demonstrate opposition to the spread of Communism. After graduating from Loyola University in 1964, Caputo goes to Quantico, Virginia for Officers’ Basic School for a six-month apprenticeship before being sent to his first assignment.
Caputo’s first command as a second lieutenant is in a rifle platoon in the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Marine Division. He is stationed in Okinawa, Japan in January 1965, where he enjoys a life of relative ease. Rumors float of a possible deployment to Vietnam. After several false starts, the battalion is shipped out to Da Nang in South Vietnam. Initially, their purpose is only to provide defense for the ARVN. However, as the war progresses, and infighting among the South Vietnamese distracts them from their original purpose of defeating the Viet Cong, the Marine Corps takes on the brunt of the battle.
Caputo describes a war that is less defined by excitement than it is by endless waiting—they experience more conflict with mosquitos, snakes, and centipedes than with the enemy. In instances in which there are skirmishes, or someone is unlucky enough to step on a mine, the war reveals its savagery. Bodies are mutilated beyond recognition, men lose limbs, or, in some cases, are rendered vegetables due to illness or heatstroke. As if this is not morbid enough, Caputo is transferred to regimental headquarters where he is assigned as an assistant adjutant, or an administrator whose job it is to report on the deaths of both members of the Marine Corps and the Viet Cong. Caputo declares himself “Officer in Charge of the Dead,” due to his recording of the countless names of those who died in battle. One of the names that he comes across one day is that of First Lieutenant Walter Neville Levy, who dies while trying to save a marine who was already dead. Levy’s death shakes Caputo; not only were they friends who shared a great deal in common, Levy was also a man whom Caputo admired. He begins to resent how the war is taking “good” men, which soon leads him to question the overall good of the war and if it is a worthy sacrifice for the lives of men like Levy, Sergeant Hugh John “Sully” Sullivan, and Caputo’s former classmate at Quantico, Adam Simpson.
Caputo asks to be transferred out of his position as assistant adjutant, both due to boredom and a feeling of guilt that his fellow marines are suffering in the field while he enjoys a relatively easy (though depressing) job as a clerk. Ironically, he is assigned to replace Lieutenant Levy in C Company of the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. The war is intensifying—with more losses, it seems, on the American side. Caputo witnesses morally ambiguous moments, such as when his new skipper, Captain Neal, offers marines beer and extra free time to drink it for every dead VC the crew can bring him. When Lance Corporal Crowe one day returns with the news that two of the VC suspects whom Lieutenant Murph McCloy previously cleared are, in fact, active guerrillas who build mines and booby traps, Caputo commits to getting them. He has a thirst to kill, fostered in the marines, as well as a desire to get revenge on those who have helped to shed the blood of his friends and comrades-in-arms. He organizes a patrol team, including Crowe, Allen, Thornhill, and two riflemen, to capture the VCs. If they resist, he orders the men to kill their enemies. The crew returns with two bodies, though there is initial uncertainty that one of them is the right body. Crowe has told Caputo that Le Dung was the younger man who informed him that the two older men were VC. However, Le Dung ends up being one of the men, along with Le Du, whom the marines bring in dead.
Crowe and Caputo are later brought up on charges of murder and conspiring to commit murder, but the charges against both are later dropped. Caputo leaves Vietnam in 1965. He returns to the country in 1975, as a foreign correspondent. He witnesses the North Vietnamese Army’s entry into the city and the surrender of the South Vietnamese Army. The conflict is finally over. The United States’ moral fight for democracy in Vietnam was, for Caputo, all for naught.