Caputo's A Rumor of War: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Philip Caputo's 1977 memoir about his experience in the Vietnam War, 'A Rumor of War', is considered one of the most important books ever written about war. It gave many readers a first-hand experience of the most controversial conflict in American history.

Memoir of a Troubled Time

Perhaps no military conflict weighs heavier on the American imagination than the Vietnam War, the United States' involvement in the civil war between North and South Vietnam between 1960 and 1973. The conflict changed American politics, and is often described as the only war the United States has ever lost.

American literature and popular culture of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s was deeply influenced by Vietnam as well. Films such as Platoon and Full Metal Jacket, songs by artists like Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard, and novels like Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried all tried to come to grips with the magnitude of the conflict.

But perhaps the most affecting material produced by the war were the memoirs by people who fought in Vietnam. Memoir, also called autobiography, is a genre of literature in which the author tells his own life story, often focusing on an important central event or experience.

Philip Caputo's 1977 novel, A Rumor of War, is often considered one of the best memoirs written about the Vietnam War due to its ambivalent, complex descriptions of the author's changing attitudes toward the conflict, the military, and war.


The book opens with a foreword in which Caputo declares that his purpose is not to produce a history book, or a political book, but to record the experiences of a single soldier. From there, the book is divided into three sections.

Part one is titled 'The Splendid Little War', and describes Caputo's experiences joining the United States Marine Corps (USMC) then leaving for Vietnam. Caputo says that as he entered the USMC and went through basic training, Vietnam was thought of as a minor and insignificant conflict. Then he describes his unit's arrival in Vietnam.

Caputo was part of the 9th Expeditionary Brigade, the first unit of regular American troops sent to Vietnam. Before then, American troops had served only as 'advisors.' Caputo describes some fierce fighting against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong, a South Vietnamese group aligned with the communists in the North, while trying to defend an airstrip, which made him and his comrades realize this war was not going to be small or simple.

Part two, titled 'The Officer in Charge of the Dead', details Caputo's change in perspective once he is transferred from his rifle company to a desk job documenting the deaths of American soldiers. He becomes skeptical of many of the commanding officers, who seem to be focused on trivial matters and not thinking of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong as serious threats. In a vivid scene, Caputo describes the officers as still holding movie nights outside, despite the risk of attack. More disturbingly, he documents examples of torture by the Viet Cong on the bodies of dead American troops, and sees American troops treating dead enemy bodies like hunting trophies.

In part three, In Death's Gray Land, Caputo is reassigned to his rifle company and sent back to the front lines. In his time away, the other Marines have come to respect the skill of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, realizing they are not going to engage in the epic battles they grew up watching in the movies. The Marines have gotten good at detecting boobytraps and finding Viet Cong hiding in the jungle.

In the book's climax, two Marines under Caputo's command defy orders and deliberately kill two Viet Cong soldiers instead of taking them as prisoners. Caputo takes responsibility for the incident and is relieved of his command, getting transferred to a training camp in North Carolina until the end of his service.

The book's epilogue sees Caputo return to Vietnam in the early 1970s as a war reporter. He witnesses the fall of Saigon, and the victory of the North Vietnamese. As he watches South Vietnam, the side the U.S. had fought for, he thinks back on the comrades he served with.

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