In light of his new position as an assistant adjutant—an administrator whose job it is to report on dead marines and dead Viet Cong—Caputo nicknames himself “Officer in Charge of the Dead,” and even makes himself a name plate with the designation out of cardboard. Caputo’s self-designated status symbolizes his growing feelings of uselessness in his leadership position and skepticism surrounding the validity of the war’s cause and if it’s a worthy sacrifice of so many young lives. Caputo finds the reporting demoralizing and is especially dismayed when he is responsible for reporting the deaths of PFC Peter Devlin, Lance Corporal James Bryce, and PFC Lockhart—all men from his former platoon. His morbid work takes on new significance after he has a dream in which he is in command of all of the deceased soldiers from his old platoon. He feels helpless in stopping the imminent deaths, a perspective that contrasts markedly from his previous confidence, which made him believe that the war would end quickly, and that most of the soldiers would return home intact. However, his confrontations with violence, in which he sees how modern weaponry can mutilate a human body, force him to grapple with mortality and question the point of the war.
Officer in Charge of the Dead Quotes in A Rumor of War
The corps would go on living and functioning without him, but it was aware of having lost something irreplaceable. Later in the war, that sort of feeling became rarer in infantry battalions. Men were killed, evacuated with wounds, or rotated home at a constant rate, then replaced by other men who were killed, evacuated, or rotated in their turn. By that time, a loss only meant a gap in the line that needed filling.
The interesting thing was how the dead looked so much alike. Black men, white men, yellow men, they all looked remarkably the same. Their skin had a tallowlike [sic] texture, making them appear like wax dummies of themselves; the pupils of their eyes were a washed out gray, and their mouths were opened wide, as if death had caught them in the middle of a scream.
That night, I was given command of a new platoon. They stood in formation in the rain, three ranks deep. I stood front and center, facing them. Devlin, Lockhart, and Bryce were in the first rank, Bryce standing on his one good leg, next to him the faceless Devlin, and then Lockhart with his bruised eye sockets bulging. Sullivan was there, too, and Reasoner and all the others, all of them except me, the officer in charge of the dead. I was the only one alive and whole, and when I commanded […] they faced right, slung their rifles, and began to march. They marched along, my platoon of crippled corpses, hopping along on the stumps of their legs, swinging the stumps of their arms, keeping perfect time while I counted cadence. I was proud of them, disciplined soldiers to and beyond the end. They stayed in step even in death.
So much was lost with you, so much talent and intelligence and decency […] There were others, but you were the first and more: you embodied the best that was in us. You were a part of us, and a part of us died with you, the small part that was still young, that had not grown cynical, grown bitter and old with death. You courage was an example to us […] You died for the man you tried to save […] You were faithful. Your country is not. As I write this, eleven years after your death, the country for which you died wishes to forget the war in which you died […] But there are a few of us who do remember because of the small things that made us love you—your gestures, the words you spoke, and the way you looked. We loved you for what you were and what you stood for.