In A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo describes both the pleasure and pain of war’s many dangers. In relaying his experiences as a lieutenant in the Vietnam War, Caputo depicts the fears that can overwhelm a soldier on the battlefield, as well as the heroic feeling that some soldiers develop in response to their combat roles. Just as Caputo illustrates how war is morally ambiguous, he also shows how the experience of being a soldier can be emotionally ambiguous; for Caputo, the danger and uncertainty of war make it simultaneously terrifying and thrilling.
Much of the fear surrounding war is due to its danger and uncertainty; regardless of having so-called strength in numbers or advanced technological weapons, soldiers are always physically and mentally vulnerable. Because of this “constant and total uncertainty,” Caputo and the other soldiers never know what is going to happen, and simply having more soldiers or weapons doesn’t alleviate this problem or make them any less vulnerable. These feelings of vulnerability are compounded by the uniqueness of the Vietnam War, in which American soldiers face, for the first time, an enemy whose main weapons are “the mine and the booby trap.” This kind of warfare evokes “peculiar terrors,” according to Caputo, in which one is uncertain of their relationship with the ground. This terror complicates the soldiers’ relationship with the terrain, which is the place where they eat and sleep but also the place where they fight and must remain ever vigilant of the threat of being blown apart by a mine.
In addition to physical vulnerability, there is the ever-present threat of mental collapse. When one marine—“a veteran of the Battle of Chu Lai and of countless patrol actions since”—begins to cry and roll around in the mud, Sergeant Bain kicks and violently shakes him. Caputo is grateful to the sergeant, who he perceives as beating the “virus” of cowardice and fear out of the marine before it spreads through the rest of the platoon. The inconsolable marine outwardly manifests the fear that everyone else is likely feeling. Sergeant Bain’s act does not expel that fear, but it reminds the others to repress it for the sake of completing the mission.
Many soldiers also experience an attraction to danger, as well as a tendency to romanticize battle. Caputo uses himself and Lieutenant Murph McCloy as examples of how soldiers become attracted to danger and how this attraction can cloud, even temporarily, the ugliness of combat. Caputo describes Lieutenant McCloy as a “romantic spirit” with “a shock-proof prism that turned the starkest realities of the war into the colorful stuff of romance.” McCloy’s personal filter allows him to avoid the sense of horror that others feel at the sight of “mangled, festering corpses.” Instead, he sees “only heroes bravely fallen in battle” and “himself as Prince Hal, going once more into the breach.” McCloy’s mindset helps him to idealize his role so that he can avoid feeling debased by circumstances that would otherwise be viewed as inhumane. He places himself within a classical tradition of warriors, just as Caputo previously related his membership in the Marines to the Anglo-Saxon tradition, to remind himself that there is honor and historical importance to his role.
Caputo, on the other hand, does not romanticize his feelings in battle but concentrates on the more instinctive pleasures, such as “the inner, emotional war” that results from confronting fear by killing “the source of it” after his helicopter goes down. He describes “a tension that is almost sexual in its intensity.” In being forced to confront his mortal enemy, he dismantles his feeling of impotence and regains a sense of control, despite being trapped within the helicopter. Caputo describes feelings that swing from a desperate instinct for survival to the raw pleasure of destroying an enemy that has not yet destroyed him. These feelings are related to Caputo’s earlier romanticizing of war in that he is eager to vanquish a perceived enemy. They differ, however, in that the enemy is no longer an abstract figure of his imagination but a real fellow being who seeks to kill him. Even though the danger and uncertainty of combat is what makes war so terrifying, these very features are also what buoy Caputo against the enemy.
Danger and Uncertainty ThemeTracker
Danger and Uncertainty Quotes in A Rumor of War
A man saw the heights and depths of human behavior in Vietnam, all manner of violence and horrors so grotesque that they evoked more fascination than disgust. Once I had seen pigs eating napalm-charred corpses—a memorable sight, pigs eating roast people.
That is what I wanted, to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically. Having known nothing but security, comfort, and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges, and violence […] the heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man’s most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary.
We broke up into teams and started the search, which amounted to a disorganized rummaging through the villagers’ belongings […] Most of the huts were empty, but in one we found a young woman nursing an infant whose head was covered in running sores […] The absolute indifference in her eyes began to irritate me […] because her passivity seemed to be a denial of our existence, as if we were nothing more to her than a passing wind that had temporarily knocked a few things out of place.
On the way back, I saw an example of the paradoxical kindness-and-cruelty that made Vietnam such a peculiar war. One of our corpsman was treating the infant with skin ulcers […] At the same time, and only a few yards away, our interpreter, a Vietnamese marine lieutenant, roughly interrogated the woman who had been tending the fire. The lieutenant was yelling at her and waving a pistol in front of her ravaged face […] This went on for several minutes. Then his voice rose to a hysterical pitch, and holding the forty-five by the barrel, he raised his arms as if to pistol-whip her. I think he would have, but Peterson stepped in and stopped him.
Crowds of children and teenage boys run alongside the convoy. Many of the children have distended bellies and ulcerous skin, decades of wisdom in their eyes and four-letter words on their lips […] The older people of the village remain aloof […] The whores are the only adults who pay attention to us […] The girls are pathetic to look at, dressed in Western-style pants and so heavily made up that they look like caricatures of what they are. They make obscene gestures and signal prices with their hands, like traders on the floor of a commodities market.
Before the fire-fight, those marines fit both definition of the word infantry, which means either a “body of soldiers equipped for service on foot” or “infants, boys, youths collectively.” The difference was that the second definition could no longer be applied to them. Having received that primary sacrament of war, baptism of fire, their boyhoods were behind them […] We’ve been under fire, we’ve shed blood, now we’re men […] some were trying to master their emotions by talking them out; others masked their feelings under a surface toughness.
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.
I had ceased to fear death because I had ceased to care about it. Certainly, I had no illusions that my death, if it came, would be a sacrifice. It would merely be a death, and not a good one either […] I was a beetle. We were all beetles, scratching for survival in the wilderness. Those who had lost the struggle had not changed anything by dying. The deaths of Levy, Simpson, Sullivan, and the others had not made any difference. Thousands of people died in each week in the war, and the sum of all their deaths did not make any difference. The war went on without them, so it would go on without me. My death would not alter a thing. Walking down the trail, I could not remember having felt an emotion more sublime or liberating than that indifference toward my own death.
Yet, he is also attracted by the danger, for he knows he can overcome his fear only by facing it. His blind rage then begins to focus on the men who are the source of the danger—and of his fear. It concentrates inside him, and through some chemistry is transformed into a fierce resolve to fight until the danger ceases to exist. But this resolve, which is sometimes called courage, cannot be separated from the fear that has aroused it […] This inner, emotional war produces a tension almost sexual in its intensity. It is too painful to endure for long. All a soldier can think about is the moment when he can escape his impotent confinement and release his tension […] Nothing matters except the final, critical instant when he leaps out into the violent catharsis he both seeks and dreads.
I wondered why the investigating officer had not submitted any explanatory or extenuating circumstances. Later, after I had time to think things over, I drew my own conclusion: the explanatory or extenuating circumstance was the war. The killings had occurred in war. They had occurred, moreover, in a war whose sole aim was to kill Viet Cong […] The deaths of Le Dung and Le Du could not be divorced from the nature and conduct of the war. As I had come to see it, America could not intervene in a people’s war without killing some of the people. But to raise those points in explanation or extenuation would be to raise a host of ambiguous moral questions. It could even raise the question of the morality of American intervention in Vietnam […] If we were found guilty, the Marine Corps’ institutional conscience would be clear.