Beginning with his fantasy of the Marine Corps as they relate to “Beowulf’s warriors,” Philip Caputo expresses a vision of life in the Marines as one that would reinforce male bonds. Part of this desire is likely due to Caputo’s feeling of rootlessness in his youth—belonging neither to Westchester, Illinois nor to collegiate life. The enforced brotherhood between marines, which brings together young men of different races and backgrounds, provides Caputo with connection. This loyalty also explains why many men remained committed to a war effort some knew would be fruitless: they simply could not abandon their comrades-in-arms. The memoir illustrates how loyalty and camaraderie were key to the effort in Vietnam and to Caputo’s own well-being.
Caputo observes early in his career how the Marines form a unique bond due to the unique conditions of the war. While Caputo notices that even though the Vietnam War brings out the most beastly traits in some soldiers, it also enforces fraternity and love among men who might have been afraid to demonstrate such emotion in normal circumstances. Caputo goes with Corporal Parker to the division field hospital to visit PFC Esposito. Esposito is seriously ill but “regrets having to leave the battalion and Parker, who has been his buddy since boot camp.” Esposito’s dismissal of the seriousness of his illness in favor of the well-being of the Marines reveals the extent of his commitment. By downplaying the importance of his own health over that of the organization, he expresses an understanding of himself as less of an individual and more a part of a collective body. Although this ironically goes against the grain of the American value of individualism, it is compatible with the military’s enforcement of loyalty to the organization and to other soldiers as imperative to the military’s functioning.
Caputo feels slightly embarrassed listening in on the conversation between Parker and Esposito, who seem to him like “two lovers who are about to be separated.” Parker’s “eyes are damp” and “his voice is cracking with emotion.” This display differs from social codes for men at the time, which encouraged them to mask their emotions from each other. Caputo reveals the irony of war, which is a very masculine world, but also one in which expressions of friendship are more intimate because of the heightened levels of danger and trauma involved.
Caputo experiences this kind of intimate friendship for himself with First Lieutenant Walter Neville Levy. Levy is killed in action after trying to save a corpsman, “not knowing that the man was beyond saving.” The portrait that Caputo paints of Levy is of a man committed to self-sacrifice, as well as that of a long-lost brother whose qualities complement those of Caputo, while also encouraging him to strive to be a better version of himself. Caputo recalls how he “always liked Levy and sometimes envied him.” He reveals the contrasts in their personalities and backgrounds—Caputo is “hot-tempered and impulsive” while Levy is “quietly deliberate”; Levy’s family is “well-off” while Caputo’s “recently struggled out of the working class.” Finally, Levy joins the Marines out of patriotism and has “no personal ambition,” while Caputo’s reasons are “mostly personal.” Caputo portrays Levy as a more mature version of himself, someone who has acquired the better character that Caputo still seeks to attain. Levy joins the Marines not to give himself a sense of identity, but because he perceives it as the right thing to do. Caputo suggests that Levy’s loyalty to the institution and its values surpasses his own, for he seems to give himself to the institution without expecting anything in return.
It is this commitment to self-sacrifice which causes Levy’s death. Caputo relates Levy’s rescue of the dead corpsman to the Marines’ commitment never to leave their “wounded on the battlefield,” but to bring them “out of danger and into safety, even if [they] had to risk their own lives to do it.” This standard expectation is a testament to the Marines’ unconditional loyalty to each other, which is both personal, given the relationships that they build with each other, as well as institutional.
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Loyalty and Camaraderie Quotes in A Rumor of War
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.
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.