Philip Caputo’s increasing anger over the apparent futility of the Vietnam War leads to his eventual disillusionment with the war effort and his purpose there. This disillusionment begins when he is reassigned as an assistant adjutant, or “the officer in charge of the dead” at regimental headquarters. This responsibility forces him to confront for the first time the war’s staggering human cost, which affects both sides. When Caputo is next reassigned to his rifle company, he becomes indifferent to death and sees himself within a context of “insect-like pettiness.” He concludes that if the deaths of admirable men like Levy, Simpson, and Sullivan make no difference, along with the thousands of people who die each week, then his death would not matter much either. Caputo’s expression of disillusionment in his memoir demonstrates how the perpetual shocks of war can result in the loss of all feeling, an event that destroys his humanity and empathy.
Caputo defines himself at one point as a “beetle,” who, like the other soldiers, is merely “scratching for survival in the wilderness.” This attitude of indifference toward the prospect of death is liberating for Caputo; for, if no great change would result from his demise, then he reasons that he has no need to fear the loss of his life. There is some comfort in imagining himself as a miniscule being of little importance because he knows that he will be replaced, and life and the war would continue without him.
Caputo experiences his existential crisis while marching through the jungle, alongside the Song Tuy Loan, a river in Da Nang. He compares himself to an insect that could be eliminated at any moment, which also relates to the way in which the dense forest of this foreign land overwhelms him—it is a place where leeches “[drop] off of the dripping leaves and [fasten] on [the soldiers’] necks,” and where it takes a long time to hack through the bush with their machetes. Caputo’s very environment is indifferent to his existence and fosters conditions—blood-sucking insects, overwhelming heat, and disease—that seem to precipitate his demise.
Though Caputo becomes indifferent toward his own well-being, he remains fiercely dedicated to that of his fellow soldiers. As a result, he also becomes increasingly merciless toward the enemy, losing his capacity to empathize even with innocent civilians. When two of his comrades—Corporal Rodella and Corporal Greeley—are seriously wounded during an attack, Caputo destroys half a village in retaliation. However, he notes that he commits this act with no feeling at all and no “sense of vengeance.” Caputo’s ability to divorce his action from any feeling is also an indication of his disillusionment in response to the war. Caputo has been so conditioned to destroy life that he can fulfill this function both thoughtlessly and remorselessly.
This coldness, however, does not impact his fidelity to his fellow marines. While carrying Corporal Greeley, whose left arm has just been blown apart, Caputo shares in the wounded marine’s anger and “hatred for everything in existence.” Caputo’s only love, in this instance, is for his fellow marines, whom he deems “better than all the men who had sent them to the war.” Here, Caputo expresses his cynicism toward figures of authority, particularly the now deceased John F. Kennedy, who sent the marines to a war in which they seem to suffer for no noble or winnable purpose.
After Caputo secures evacuation for the wounded and prepares his platoon to resume their march, someone discovers “a length of electrical detonating cord lying in the grass near the village.” The cord is connected to the mine which has recently exploded, injuring Corporal Greeley and several others. The sight of it prompts Caputo to order rocket launcher teams “to fire white phosphorus shells into the hamlet.” He watches half the village go up in flames and listens to people screaming and “running through the white smoke.” Caputo’s anger at the suffering of his comrades starkly contrasts with his indifference toward the suffering of the Vietnamese civilians. Thus, while he is contemptuous of the war, he continues to fulfill its function in killing as many of the perceived enemy as he can. He performs this act in an automaton-like manner, without regret or empathy.
Throughout the course of his memoir, Caputo goes from being an idealist with a deep admiration for American values and respect for authority to a hardened cynic who blames those in power for the suffering and death that he witnesses (and perpetuates) daily. As a result of the constant sight of corpses and mangled bodies, Caputo grows less affected by the prospect of death and becomes a shell of a person, apathetic about death and even more callous toward the enemy. Caputo thus illustrates how war can kill the human spirit as easily as it does a human body.
War and Disillusionment ThemeTracker
War and Disillusionment 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.
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.
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.
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.
There was murder in my heart and, in some way, through tone of voice, a gesture, or a stress on kill rather than capture, I had transmitted my inner violence to the men. They saw in my overly aggressive manner a sanction to vent their own brutal impulses. I lay there remembering the euphoria we had felt afterward, the way we had laughed, and then the sudden awakening to guilt. And yet, I could not conceive of the fact as one of premeditated murder. It had not been committed in a vacuum. It was a direct result of the war. The thing we had done was a result of what the war had done to us.