In A Rumor of War, Philip Caputo recalls how the United States’ political ambitions during the Cold War and the idealism of John F. Kennedy’s presidency fostered the belief among teens and young adults that they played a particularly vital role in determining the nation’s political future and legacy. That legacy was defined by a commitment to spread democracy throughout the world and stamp out Communism. Caputo reminisces about how he and his fellow marines entered Vietnam in 1965, believing that they were performing a social good. Caputo joined the Marine Corps to find a sense of purpose and identity outside of the conventional comforts of middle-class Middle America. For Caputo, joining the Marines was also a rebellion against his parents’ expectations that he would choose a life of ease over challenge and personal sacrifice. However, joining the military didn’t allow Caputo to completely divorce himself from the trappings of middle-class America; Caputo’s aversions to his cookie-cutter suburb and to the stuffy rituals of military balls indicate his wish to form a heroic, masculine identity that is removed from middle-class comforts and the conventions of the post-World War II era.
Caputo uses his idyllic hometown of Westchester, Illinois as the backdrop against which he recreates his adolescent discontent and sense of purposeless. He contrasts this vision of stagnant, small-town America with exciting historical fantasies of the Midwest in the early days of settlement, which catalyze his quest for adventure and a heroic identity. Caputo’s hometown is characterized by “sleek, new schools smelling of fresh plaster and floor wax,” supermarkets full of processed foods, and “centrally heated split-levels.” The prosperity of post-World War II America created both greater ease but also “dullness,” which makes Caputo feel bored and antsy.
To escape this dullness, Caputo frequents the Cook and DuPage County forest preserves, “a belt of virgin woodland.” This wild and untouched swath of land contrasts with the artificiality and tidiness of Westchester. Here Caputo can express himself freely; back in his home suburb, he feels pressured to conform to certain tastes and behaviors. In the forests, Caputo also fantasizes about a time “when moccasined [sic] feet trod the forest paths and fur trappers cruised the rivers in bark canoes.” This contrasting vision of both indigenous people and European profiteers reveals how Caputo longs to find heroic purpose in the contexts of conquest and colonization. His discovery of “flint arrowheads” then leads him to dream of a “savage, heroic time,” which he finds preferable to his contemporary world. The arrowheads reflect Caputo’s tendency to define heroism and masculine identity within the context of battle, an attitude that will inform his choice to join the military.
Even when he’s in the military, Caputo longs to define himself as a war hero but feels stifled by the formal manners and codes of behavior that young officers are expected to adhere to. Shortly after he is sent to training in Quantico, Virginia, Caputo attends a Marine Corps birthday ball. In keeping with Caputo’s nostalgic visions of American life and the military, he fantasizes about raucous soldiers engaged in “beer-swilling camaraderie, something like the gatherings of Beowulf’s warriors in the mead hall.” His fantasy is rooted in a masculine, Anglo-Saxon tradition in which battle is routine and clannish. Caputo envisions a more brutal world, in which men were driven by instinct and survival—a world far removed from sanitized suburbs and offices. This fantasy contrasts, too, with the ball, which is more akin to a “senior prom at a military academy.” Caputo’s disappointment results from his inability to divorce himself from the staid world of formalities and good manners, which defined his early suburban life, in favor of more authentic self-expression.
The military ball appears to be something out of the “nineteenth century.” He sees “officers [wearing] white gloves and Prussian-blue, Prussian-collared tunics.” Some generals wear “capes” and “wives and girl friends [glide] with a rustle of expensive gowns.” This image of regality contrasts sharply with Caputo’s desire for a more “savage” and “heroic” life and identity, though neither Caputo nor the other marines have yet seen any combat. The gentlemanly behavior among the young male officers reinforces the expectation that they are to conform to codes of behavior. Caputo, meanwhile, seeks to reject this, as this code of conduct is merely a reminder of his upbringing in the suburbs, in which appearances mattered more than the quality of one’s lived existence.
Caputo’s comparisons of the military ball to “a debutante cotillion” and a “senior prom” also reveal the event as a setting that reinforces gender conformity. The men “in baroque uniforms” and the “fashionably dressed women” are reminders of the gender norms in middle-class white suburbs, like Westchester. This is a setting that reinforces courting rituals, as well as the expectation that young men will find nice young women with whom to settle down. This reality differs from Caputo’s fantasy of the mead hall, in which the focus is exclusively on male bonding at the exclusion of women, whom Caputo likely associates with domesticity.
Caputo’s naïve belief that the key to his identity formation lies in foreign exploration and battle mirrors the innocent atmosphere of the ball, where the neat orderliness of the soldiers and their companions suggests an unawareness of the violent horror and ultimate dishonor that will characterize experiences of the Vietnam War. Caputo cannot yet envision the mutilated bodies he will later witness on the field. He has no concept at this time of the seediness of Da Nang, where many of these same soldiers at the ball will indulge in vices that they will never speak of if they return home. Caputo’s romantic fantasies of war and traditional heroism are, thus, just as artificial and contrived as the suburbs in which he grew up. The fantasies are representative of the world as he would like it to be, not the world as it actually is.
Heroism and Identity ThemeTracker
Heroism and Identity Quotes in A Rumor of War
War is always attractive to young men who know nothing about it, but we had also been seduced into uniform by Kennedy’s challenge to “ask what you can do for your country” and by the missionary idealism he had awakened in us.
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.
Stumbling forward, I almost tripped over the VC […] An enormous amount of blood had poured out of him and he was lying in it, a crimson puddle in which floated bits of skin and white cartilage. There was nothing on him, no photographs, no letters or identification. That would disappoint the boys at intelligence, but it was fine with me. I wanted this boy to remain anonymous; I wanted to think of him, not as a dead human being, with a name, age, and family, but as a dead enemy.
One photo showed the VC wearing their motley uniforms and striking heroic poses; another showed one of the guerrillas among his family. There were also several wallet-sized pictures of girl friends or wives. The notes written in the corners of these were probably expressions of love and fidelity, and I wondered if the other side had a system, as we did, for notifying the families of casualties […] What we had found gave to the enemy the humanity I wished to deny him.
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 horror lay in the recognition that the body, which is supposed to be the earthly home of an immortal soul, which people spend so much time feeding, conditioning, and beautifying, is in fact only a fragile case stuffed full of disgusting matter […] The sight of mutilation did more than cause me physical revulsion; it burst the religious myths of my Catholic childhood.
Their flat, steady gazes had the same indifference I had seen in the eyes of the woman whose house I had searched in Hoi-Vuc. It was as if they regarded the obliteration of their village as a natural disaster and, accepting it as part of their lot, felt no more toward us than they might feel toward a flood […] Americans would have done something: glared angrily, shaken their fists, wept, run away, demanded compensation. These villagers did nothing, and I despised them for it […] Confronted by disease, bad harvests, and above all by the random violence of endless war, they had acquired a capacity to accept what we would have found unacceptable […] Their survival demanded this of them. Like the great Annamese Mountains, they endured.
At the same time, I knew I had become less naïve in the way I looked at the men in the battalion. I now knew my early impressions had been based not on reality but on a boyhood diet of war movies and blood-and-guts novels […] I now realized that some of them were not so decent or good. Many had petty jealousies, hatreds, and prejudices. And an arrogance tempered their ingrained American idealism (“one marine’s worth ten of these VC”) […] Rather, I had come to recognize them as fairly ordinary men who sometimes performed extraordinary acts in the stress of combat, acts of bravery as well as cruelty.
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.
I would be deserting them, my friends. That was the real crime a deserter committed: he ran out on his friends. And perhaps that was why, in spite of everything, we fought as hard as we did. We had no other choice. Desertion was unthinkable. Each of us fought for himself and for the men beside him. The only way out of Vietnam, besides death or wounds, was to fight your way out. We fought to live. But it was pleasant to toy with the idea of desertion, to pretend I had a choice.
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.