In March of 1965, Lieutenant Philip J. Caputo landed at Danang with the first ground combat unit deployed to Vietnam. Sixteen months later, having served on the line in one of modern history’s ugliest wars, he returned homephysically whole but emotionally wasted, his youthful idealism forever gone.
A Rumor of War is far more than one soldier’s story. Upon its publication in 1977, it shattered America’s indifference to the fate of the men sent to fight in the jungles of Vietnam. In the years since then, it has become not only a basic text on the Vietnam War but also a renowned classic in the literature of wars throughout history and, as the author writes, of "the things men do in war and the things war does to them."
"Heartbreaking, terrifying, and enraging. It belongs to the literature of men at war." Los Angeles Times Book Review
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Let the boy try along this bayonet-blade
How cold steel is, and keen with hunger of blood. . . .
“Arms and the Boy”
At the age of twenty-four, I was more prepared for death than I was for life. My first experience of the world outside the classroom had been war. I went straight from school into the Marine Corps, from Shakespeare to the Manual of Small-Unit Tactics, from the campus to the drill field and finally Vietnam. I learned the murderous trade at Quantico, Virginia, practiced it in the rice paddies and jungles around Danang, and then taught it to others at Camp Geiger, a training base in North Carolina.
When my three-year enlistment expired in 1967, I was almost completely ignorant about the stuff of ordinary life, about marriage, mortgages, and building a career. I had a degree, but no skills. I had never run an office, taught a class, built a bridge, welded, programmed a computer, laid bricks, sold anything, or operated a lathe.
But I had acquired some expertise in the art of killing. I knew how to face death and how to cause it, with everything on the evolutionary scale of weapons from the knife to the 3.5-inch rocket launcher. The simplest repairs on an automobile engine were beyond me, but I was able to field-strip and assemble an M-14 rifle blindfolded. I could call in artillery, set up an ambush, rig a booby trap, lead a night raid.
Simply by speaking a few words into a two-way radio, I had performed magical feats of destruction. Summoned by my voice, jet fighters appeared in the sky to loose their lethal droppings on villages and men. High-explosive bombs blasted houses to fragments, napalm sucked air from lungs and turned human flesh to ashes. All this just by saying a few words into a radio transmitter. Like magic.
I came home from the war with the curious feeling that I had grown older than my father, who was then fifty-one. It was as if a lifetime of experience had been compressed into a year and a half. 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.
I was left with none of the optimism and ambition a young American is supposed to have, only a desire to catch up on sixteen months of missed sleep and an old man’s conviction that the future would hold no further surprises, good or bad.
I hoped there would be no more surprises. I had survived enough ambushes and doubted my capacity to endure many more physical or emotional shocks. I had all the symptoms of combat veteranitis: an inability to concentrate, a childlike fear of darkness, a tendency to tire easily, chronic nightmares, an intolerance of loud noises—especially doors slamming and cars backfiring—and alternating moods of depression and rage that came over me for no apparent reason. Recovery has been less than total.
I joined the Marines in 1960, partly because I got swept up in the patriotic tide of the Kennedy era but mostly because I was sick of the safe, suburban existence I had known most of my life.
I was raised in Westchester, Illinois, one of the towns that rose from the prairies around Chicago as a result of postwar affluence, VA mortgage loans, and the migratory urge and housing shortage that sent millions of people out of the cities in the years following World War II. It had everything a suburb is supposed to have: sleek, new schools smelling of fresh plaster and floor wax; supermarkets full of Wonder Bread and Bird’s Eye frozen peas; rows of centrally heated split-levels that lined dirtless streets on which nothing ever happened.
It was pleasant enough at first, but by the time I entered my late teens I could not stand the place, the dullness of it, the summer barbecues eaten to the lulling drone of power mowers. During the years I grew up there, Westchester stood on or near the edge of the built-up area. Beyond stretched the Illinois farm and pasture lands, where I used to hunt on weekends. I remember the fields as they were in the late fall: the corn stubble brown against the snow, dead husks rasping dryly in the wind; abandoned farm houses waiting for the bulldozers that would tear them down to clear space for a new subdivision; and off on the horizon, a few stripped sycamores silhouetted against a bleak November sky. I can still see myself roaming around out there, scaring rabbits from the brambles, the tract houses a few miles behind me, the vast, vacant prairies in front, a restless boy caught between suburban boredom and rural desolation.
The only thing I really liked about my boyhood surroundings were the Cook and DuPage County forest preserves, a belt of virgin woodland through which flowed a muddy stream called Salt Creek. It was not too polluted then, and its sluggish waters yielded bullhead, catfish, carp, and a rare bass. There was small game in the woods, sometimes a deer or two, but most of all a hint of the wild past, when moccasined feet trod the forest paths and fur trappers cruised the rivers in bark canoes. Once in a while, I found flint arrowheads in the muddy creek bank. Looking at them, I would dream of that savage, heroic time and wish I had lived then, before America became a land of salesmen and shopping centers.
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.
I had no clear idea of how to fulfill this peculiar ambition until the day a Marine recruiting team set up a stand in the student union at Loyola University. They were on a talent hunt for officer material and displayed a poster of a trim lieutenant who had one of those athletic, slightly cruel-looking faces considered handsome in the military. He looked like a cross between an All-American halfback and a Nazi tank commander. Clear and resolute, his blue eyes seemed to stare at me in challenge. JOIN THE MARINES, read the slogan above his white cap. BE A LEADER OF MEN.
I rummaged through the propaganda material, picking out one pamphlet whose cover listed every battle the Marines had fought, from Trenton to Inchon. Reading down that list, I had one of those rare flashes of insight: the heroic experience I sought was war; war, the ultimate adventure; war, the ordinary man’s most convenient means of escaping from the ordinary. The country was at peace then, but the early sixties were years of almost constant tension and crisis; if a conflict did break out, the Marines would be certain to fight in it and I could be there with them. Actually there. Not watching it on a movie or TV screen, not reading about it in a book, but there, living out a fantasy. Already I saw myself charging up some distant beachhead, like John Wayne in Sands of Iwo Jima, and then coming home a suntanned warrior with medals on my chest. The recruiters started giving me the usual sales pitch, but I hardly needed to be persuaded. I decided to enlist.
I had another motive for volunteering, one that has pushed young men into armies ever since armies were invented: I needed to prove something—my courage, my toughness, my manhood, call it whatever you like. I had spent my freshman year at Purdue, freed from the confinements of suburban home and family. But a slump in the economy prevented me from finding a job that summer. Unable to afford the expense of living on campus (and almost flunking out anyway, having spent half my first year drinking and the other half in fraternity antics), I had to transfer to Loyola, a commuter college in Chicago. As a result, at the age of nineteen I found myself again living with my parents.
It was a depressing situation. In my adolescent mind, I felt that my parents regarded me as an irresponsible boy who still needed their guidance. I wanted to prove them wrong. I had to get away. It was not just a question of physical separation, although that was important; it was more a matter of doing something that would demonstrate to them, and to myself as well, that I was a man after all, like the steely-eyed figure in the recruiting poster. THE MARINE CORPS BUILDS MEN was another slogan current at the time, and on November 28 I became one of its construction projects.
I joined the Platoon Leaders’ Class, the Marines’ version of ROTC. I was to attend six weeks of basic training the following summer and then an advanced course during the summer before I graduated from college. Completion of Officer Candidate School and a bachelor’s degree would entitle me to a commission, after which I would be required to serve three years on active duty.
I was not really ambitious to become an officer. I would have dropped out of school and gone in immediately as an enlisted man had it not been for my parents’ unflinching determination to have a college graduate for a son. As it was, they were unhappy. Their vision of my future did not include uniforms and drums, but consisted of my finding a respectable job after school, marrying a respectable girl, and then settling down in a respectable suburb.
For my part, I was elated the moment I signed up and swore to defend the United States “against all enemies foreign and domestic.” I had done something important on my own; that it was something which opposed my parents’ wishes made it all the more savory. And I was excited by the idea that I would be sailing off to dangerous and exotic places after college instead of riding the 7:45 to some office. It is odd when I look back on it. Most of my friends at school thought of joining the army as the most conformist thing anyone could do, and of the service itself as a form of slavery. But for me, enlisting was an act of rebellion, and the Marine Corps symbolized an opportunity for personal freedom and independence.
Officer Candidate School was at Quantico, a vast reservation in the piny Virginia woods near Fredericksburg, where the Army of the Potomac had been futilely slaughtered a century before. There, in the summer of 1961, along with several hundred other aspiring lieutenants, I was introduced to military life and began training for war. We ranged in age from nineteen to twenty-one, and those of us who survived OCS would lead the first American troops sent to Vietnam four years later. Of course, we did not know that at the time: we hardly knew where Vietnam was.
The first six weeks, roughly the equivalent of enlisted boot camp, were spent at Camp Upshur, a cluster of quonset huts and tin-walled buildings set deep in the woods. The monastic isolation was appropriate because the Marine Corps, as we quickly learned, was more than a branch of the armed services. It was a society unto itself, demanding total commitment to its doctrines and values, rather like one of those quasi-religious military orders of ancient times, the Teutonic Knights or the Theban Band. We were novitiates, and the rigorous training, administered by high priests called drill instructors, was to be our ordeal of initiation.
And ordeal it was, physically and psychologically. From four in the morning until nine at night we were marched and drilled, sent sprawling over obstacle courses and put through punishing conditioning hikes in ninety-degree heat. We were shouted at, kicked, humiliated and harassed constantly. We were no longer known by our names, but called “shitbird,” “scumbag,” or “numbnuts” by the DIs. In my platoon, they were a corporal, a small man who was cruel in the way only small men can be, and a sergeant, a nervously energetic black named McClellan, whose muscles looked as hard and wiry as underground telephone cables.
What I recall most vividly is close-order drill: the hours we spent marching in a sun so hot it turned the asphalt field into a viscous mass that stuck to our boots; the endless hours of being driven and scourged by McClellan’s voice—relentless, compelling obedience, a voice that embedded itself in our minds until we could not walk anywhere without hearing it, counting a rhythmic cadence.
Wan-tup-threep-fo, threep-fo-your-lef, lef-rye-lef, hada-lef-rye-lef, your-lef . . . your-lef . . . your-lef.
Dress it up dress it up keep your interval.
TothereAH HARCH . . . reAH HARCH . . . bydalef-flank HARCH!
Dress it up keep your dress DRESS IT UP SCUMBAGS.
Lef-rye-lef. Dig those heels in dig ’em in.
Pick-’em-up-and-put-’em-down DIG ’EM IN threep-fo-your-lef.
DIG ’EM IN LET’S HEAR IT DIG ’EM IN.
Square those pieces away SQUARE ’EM AWAY GIRLS. YOU, SHITHEAD FOURTH MAN IN THE FRONT RANK I SAID SQUARE THAT FUCKIN’ PIECE, SQUARE IT AWAY Wan-tup-threep-fo.
YOU DON’T SQUARE THAT PIECE I GONNA MALTREAT YOU BOY KNOCK UP UP THE SIDE O’ THE HEAD threep-fo-your-lef SQUARE THAT PIECE! YOU FUCKIN DEAF? EYES FRONT! DON’T LOOK AT ME NUMBNUTS! EYES FRONT! SQUARE YOUR PIECE! Now you got the idea, nummie Wan-tup-threep-fo.
Threep-fo-your-lef, lef-rye-lef, hadalef-rye-lef, lef-rye-lef. Lef-rye-lef, lef-rye-lef, your-lef, your-lef YOUR OTHER LEF SHITHEAD. Lef-rye-lef, lef. . . lef . . .
The purpose of drill was to instill discipline and teamwork, two of the Corps’ cardinal virtues. And by the third week, we had learned to obey orders instantly and in unison, without thinking. Each platoon had been transformed from a group of individuals into one thing: a machine of which we were merely parts.
The mental and physical abuse had several objectives. They were calculated first to eliminate the weak, who were collectively known as “unsats,” for unsatisfactory. The reasoning was that anyone who could not take being shouted at and kicked in the ass once in a while could never withstand the rigors of combat. But such abuse was also designed to destroy each man’s sense of self-worth, to make him feel worthless until he proved himself equal to the Corps’ exacting standards.
And we worked hard to prove that, submitted to all sorts of indignities just to demonstrate that we could take it. We said, “Thank you, sir” when the drill sergeant rapped us in the back of the head for having a dirty rifle. Night after night, without complaint, we did Chinese push-ups for our sins (Chinese push-ups are performed in a bent position in which only the head and toes touch the floor). After ten or fifteen seconds, it felt as if your skull was being crushed in a vise. We had to do them for as long as several minutes, until we were at the point of blacking out.
I don’t know about the others, but I endured these tortures because I was driven by an overwhelming desire to succeed, no matter what. That awful word—unsat—haunted me. I was more afraid of it than I was of Sergeant McClellan. Nothing he could do could be as bad as having to return home and admit to my family that I had failed. It was not their criticism I dreaded, but the emasculating affection and understanding they would be sure to show me. I could hear my mother saying, “That’s all right, son. You didn’t belong in the Marines but here with us. It’s good to have you back. Your father needs help with the lawn.” I was so terrified of being found wanting that I even avoided getting near the candidates who were borderline cases—the “marginals,” as they were known in the lexicon of that strange world. They carried the virus of weakness.
Most of the marginals eventually fell into the unsat category and were sent home. Others dropped out. Two or three had nervous breakdowns; a few more nearly died of heatstroke on forced marches and were given medical discharges.
The rest of us, about seventy percent of the original class, came through. At the end of the course, the DIs honored our survival by informing us that we had earned the right to be called Marines. We were proud of ourselves, but were not likely to forget the things we endured to claim that title. To this day, the smell of woods in the early morning reminds me of those long-ago dawns at Camp Upshur, with their shrill reveilles and screaming sergeants and dazed recruits stumbling out of bed.
Those who passed the initial trial went back to Quantico two years later for the advanced course, which was even more grueling. Much of it was familiar stuff: more close-order drill, bayonet practice, and hand-to-hand combat. But there were additional refinements. One of these was a fiendish device of physical torture called the Hill Trail, so named, with typical military unimaginativeness, because it was a trail that ran over a range of hills, seven of them. And what hills—steep as roller coasters and ten times as high. We had to run over them at least twice a week wearing full pack and equipment. Softened by the intervening two years of campus life, dozens of men collapsed on these excursions. The victims were shown no mercy by the DIs. I remember one overweight boy lying unconscious against a tree stump while a sergeant shook him by the collar and shouted into his blanched face: “On your feet, you sackashit. Off your fat ass and on your feet.”
Excerpted from A Rumor of War by .
Copyright © 1996 by Philip Caputo.
Published in 1996 by Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Table of ContentsCONTENTS
Introduction to the 40th Anniversary Edition
Part One: The Splendid Little War
Part Two: The Officer In Charge Of The Dead
Part Three: In Death’s Grey Land
Reading Group Guide
1. Why does the author write, "America seemed omnipotent then"? (p. xiv) He also allows that he and his fellow soldiers thought they were champions of "‘a cause... destined to triumph.'" (p. xiv) Why did they have such faith in the American cause?
2. What do we learn from the Prologue about the author's view of the Vietnam War? What are his attitudes toward combat?
3. Caputo describes the scene on the main line of resistance as "the dawn of creation in the Indochina bush, an ethical as well as geographical wilderness." (p. xx) What does he mean by this?
4. What is the relationship the author portrays between soldiers and the American population?
5. What are Caputo's goals in writing this book?
PART ONE: THE SPLENDID LITTLE WAR
1. "At the age of twenty-four, I was more prepared for death than I was for life." (p. 3) Why do you think the author opens the first section with this statement? What is he foreshadowing?
2. How does he describe himself as a young man released from the Marine Corps? (p. 4) What is his relationship to killing? (pp. 3-4) How does he feel about it?
3. The author writes, "The future would hold no further surprises, good or bad." (p. 4) Why does he feel this way? What is he trying to communicate?
4. Why did Caputo join the Marine Corps? (pp. 5-7) Do you imagine his instincts toward heroism were common among young men at that time? How do you think this compares to today's outlook?
5. He writes, "Throughout, we were subjected to intense indoctrination." (p. 12) Describe this process. Why do you believe marines are trained in this manner?
6. How did basic training change the author? (pp. 21-22)
7. Describe the Marine Corps birthday ball. (pp. 22-24) What importance does it have for the author? (p. 24)
1. What are the author's memories of his first command? (pp. 25-30) What problems does he face? (pp. 31-33)
2. How is Caputo described in the fitness reports of his commanding officers? (p. 35) What does this tell us about him?
3. How are the young soldiers and officers further indoctrinated in the art of war on Okinawa? (p. 36)
1. What illusions did Caputo have about war when he was sent to Vietnam? (p. 43) Do you believe this was typical of soldiers at the time? Why or why not?
2. Where in Vietnam is Caputo sent? What is the mission? (p. 46)
3. What are the author's first impressions of Vietnam? (p. 54)
4. How do the soldiers feel upon arrival? (p. 56)
5. What do they experience during their first night on watch? (p. 58)
1. What is the author's view of the counteroffensive staged by the ARVN? (p. 62) What do we know about the ARVN soldiers?
2. The author describes the Viet Cong as phantoms. Why?
3. Who was the battalion's first casualty? How does it occur? (p. 63)
4. Where does the title for Part One, "The Splendid Little War," come from? (p. 66)
5. Caputo meets two Australian commandos whose patrol had taken a "souvenir" off the body of a dead Viet Cong. What is the "souvenir" and what is the author's reaction to it? (pp. 66-67)
6. "Since the landing, we had acquired the conviction that we could win this brushfire war, and win it quickly, if we were only turned loose to fight." (p. 69) The author makes this assertion about his and his fellow soldiers' views at the time. Do you think Caputo still believes this? What was holding them back?
7. What is the author's reaction to "contact," as he calls confrontation with the enemy? What does he learn from the experience? (p. 71)
8. Are the officers in Caputo's battalion clear about their mission? What are they supposed to accomplish and how? (p. 74)
9. Sergeant Colby has a very different take on the coming search-and-destroy mission. What is it, and why does he have this reaction? (p. 75)
1. The author writes, "When the helicopters flew off, a feeling of abandonment came over us." (p. 83) Why? How was this different from the previous firefight? What did they face?
2. The author recalls, "The patrol that morning had the nightmare quality which characterized most small-unit operations in the war." (p. 85) What does he mean by this? What is the origin of this nightmare quality?
3. Describe the village of Hoi-Vuc. (pp. 87-89) How is it unusual?
4. What happens in Hoi-Vuc? (pp. 89-93) The author writes, "For the first time in my life, I had the experience of being shot at by someone who was trying to kill me specifically." (p. 93) How does this affect him?
1. Chapter Six opens with a description of the war as initially experienced by the author. How does he describe it? How does he describe camp life? How does he describe the fighting?
2. Caputo recalls a series of events from this part of the war. What are these events? Can you speculate why he remembers and records them? What ties them together?
3. On hearing Parker and Esposito reminiscing about their long friendship, the author feels embarrassed, "As if I am listening in on the conversation of two lovers who are about to be separated." (p. 103) Why do you think he feels this way?
4. What happens to Powell? How does the loss of Powell affect the author? (pp. 105-6)
5. As they set out on a mission Caputo describes his company. "With our helmets cocked to one side and cigarettes hanging out of our mouths, we pose as hardbitten veterans for the headquarters marines." (p. 106) What is he telling us about his battalion and their reaction to the war?
6. "We have learned that, in the bush, nothing ever happens according to plan. Things just happen, randomly, like automobile accidents." (p. 106) What do you suppose causes the author to make this observation?
7. What happens at the hamlet of Giao-Tri? (pp. 109-110)
1. How does Caputo react the first time he sees the body of an enemy while on patrol? Describe and explain this reaction.
2. Describe the Viet Cong camp that the author's platoon discovers. (p. 123) How does Caputo react to finding letters and photographs in the camp? What do they mean to him? (p. 124)
3. On page 127, the author talks about being aware of a "subtle difference" among his men after this action. What was it? How does he describe it?
4. What are his impressions of this first major firefight? (pp. 127-28)
5. What are his reactions to encountering the bodies of the dead Viet Cong? (p. 128) When discussing them he uses the first person plural, "we." Can you explain why, in this instance, he includes all of his men in his own personal thoughts?
6. The author ends this chapter, which describes his first major firefight, thus: "Finally, the sun dropped below the notched rim of the mountains, the Asian mountains that had stood since the beginning of time and probably would still be standing at the end of it." (p. 131) Why do you think he chose this image to end the chapter?
1. The author's platoon passes through Giao-Tri, the village that had been destroyed earlier. What are the villagers' reactions to the soldier's return? How does it affect him? (pp. 133-34) Why?
2. Caputo describes his soldiers as "fairly ordinary men who sometimes performed extraordinary acts in the stress of combat, acts of bravery as well as cruelty." (p. 137) Is this how they seem to you? Defend your answer.
3. Caputo is sent on liberty to Danang. What is Danang like? Has the presence of American soldiers changed the character of the town? If so, how?
4. What happens to Lemmon toward the end of the author's first combat command? How does it affect Caputo?
5. How does the author feel about the war at the end of his first combat command? (pp. 149-50)
PART TWO: THE OFFICER IN CHARGE OF THE DEAD
1. How does Caputo feel about being reassigned to headquarters? Why? (p. 154)
2. How is life at headquarters different from the front lines? (pp. 153-55)
3. Why does Caputo visit C Company? How have things changed since he left for Japan? Why? (pp. 155-57) How does the author react to news of Sullivan's death? (pp. 158-63) Why does he suppose his old platoon is treating him differently? (p. 162)
1. Where does Caputo get the title for Part Two, "The Officer in Charge of the Dead"? (p. 175) What does this position entail? (pp. 165-66) How does he describe (and feel about) his new job? (p. 169)
2. Caputo muses on the phrase "traumatic amputation." (p. 167) Why? What does it mean?
3. On his first day as Officer in Charge of the Dead, the author is ordered to leave the bodies of four dead Viet Cong in the camp. Why is he given this command? Discuss the impact of this experience on Caputo. (pp. 173-77)
4. What does Chaplain Ryerson say to the author? (p. 178) What is Caputo's reaction? (p. 179) How does this communication affect his attitude toward the war?
5. How do the events concerning the Viet Cong corpses affect Caputo's religious beliefs? (p. 179)
1. How does Caputo describe being a staff officer? (pp. 184-85) Does this seem like essential work to you? Explain.
2. Does Caputo see the attack on the airfield coming? (p. 184) Is anything done to prepare for it? Why or why not?
3. Describe the attack on the airfield. (pp. 186-90) What impact do you think it had on the soldiers stationed at Danang?
1. In Chapter Twelve we begin to see the effects counting bodies has on Caputo. Describe these effects. Do you think it made a difference that he served on the main line of resistance beforehand?
2. Caputo goes to the hospital to identify three bodies from C Company. What does he discover? (pp. 198-99) Describe the dream he has in the wake of this experience. (p. 199) What does it show about his state of mind?
3. The author writes, "In war, a man does not have to be killed or wounded to become a casualty." (p. 207) What does he mean by this? What does he stand to lose?
4. Describe the questioning of Viet Cong suspects by the ARVN. (pp. 204-8) What happens to the old man at the end of this chapter? How does Caputo describe it? Does it seem to be a commonplace experience?
PART THREE: IN DEATH'S GREY LAND
1. How has the war changed since Caputo first landed at Danang? (pp. 211, 218) Is anything different at headquarters? (pp. 211-15) What, exactly?
2. Caputo uses the departure of his old battalion, the One-Three, to reflect on the war and its meaning. What are his thoughts? (pp. 215-16)
3. Caputo's old battalion is replaced by the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines. How does he describe these soldiers? He admits that he "was both charmed and saddened by their innocent enthusiasm." (p. 217) Why?
4. Amid all the killing, why does Levy's death affect the author so much? He even steps out of the narrative to address Levy directly: "As I write this, eleven years after your death, the country for which you died wishes to forget the war in which you died." (p. 223) What is the author trying to achieve in this passage?
1. Caputo talks about the unwritten rule, "‘If he's dead and Vietnamese, he's VC'." (p. 229) What does this tell us about the war? He says, "The fighting had not only become more intense, but more vicious. Both we and the Viet Cong began to make a habit of atrocities." (p. 228) Why do you suppose this was the case?
2. Why did Caputo return to a line company? Did he request it? Why or why not? (pp. 230-31)
3. Caputo writes, "That is the secret to emotional survival in war, not thinking." (p. 231) Why is this? What precisely can the soldiers not afford to think about?
4. In his new platoon, Caputo describes the soldiers under his command: "Looking at them, it was hard to believe that most of them were only nineteen or twenty. For their faces were not those of children, and their eyes had the cold, dull expression of men who are chained to an existence of ruthless practicalities." (p. 235) Describe the lives of infantry soldiers in Vietnam at the time.
5. What does "Situation remains the same" mean in the context of the front line? (p. 240) Does its repetition imply that it has a different or more important meaning in the context of this account? What does it mean for Caputo, and for his story?
6. Caputo reports, "At the end of the month, the Viet Cong staged a small attack on the village." (p. 240) Describe that attack.
7. What does the author find in a "quiet quarter" of Saigon while on leave? (p. 245)
8. The old gunnery sergeant whom Caputo meets while waiting for his transport back to the front is a veteran of Iwo Jima and Korea, yet he says, "Goddamn this war. Goddamn this war." (p. 248) What is the importance of this statement for the larger narrative?
1. The author recalls, "Two weeks had passed since Saigon, but I was as tired now as I had been before the R-and-R. No, more tired. It was as if I had had no rest at all, as if no amount of rest could overcome my fatigue." (p. 250) Why is he so exhausted? Is this true of the men serving under him as well?
2. The author's platoon is assigned to clear the village of Hoi-Vuc. How does the author feel at the start of this mission? He says he had "a sudden and mysterious recovery from the virus of fear." (p. 260) What does he say accounts for this? Why?
3. The author writes, "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." (p. 261) What does this say about the author's changing attitude toward the struggle?
1. What happens at the pagoda? How do Caputo and his soldiers respond to the action at Hoi-Vuc? How does Caputo perform as an officer?
2. Caputo writes, "Perhaps that is why some officers make careers of the infantry... just to experience a single moment when a group of soldiers under your command and in the extreme stress of combat do exactly what you want them to do, as if they are extensions of yourself." (p. 268) Comment on what he is describing here.
3. What does the author experience in the foxhole on the night of shelling? (pp. 272-73) Explain this scene.
4. Later, during a cease-fire, Caputo and his men encounter a mine. (pp. 279-85) What happens? How does the author respond?
1. How does Caputo view the dangers of land mines and booby traps? (p. 288) How do they, in the author's view, influence or mirror the emotional impact of the war?
2. How does Sergeant Horne respond to one marine's breakdown? (p. 289) Why do you think he responds in this way?
3. Caputo talks about crossing that line between "stability" and the "unstable." (p. 293) What does he mean by this? What does this distinction say about the war?
4. What do you think about the destruction of Ha Na? Why did it occur? Was this an inevitable part of the war, or could it have been avoided? Are Caputo and his troops to blame? And, if so, in what way? What does the author think about it? What does Captain Neal think?
1. The author reports, "That is the level to which we had sunk from the lofty idealism of a year before. We were going to kill people for a few cans of beer and the time to drink them." (p. 311) What has caused this change in attitude? Why does the captain choose to adopt a new policy? What does this say about how the war was fought?
2. The author writes, "I was outwardly normal, if a little edgier than usual; but inside, I was full of turbulent emotions and disordered thoughts, and I could not shake that weird sensation of being split in two." (p. 314) What is the author's state of mind? What role does it play in his command? Give examples from the text.
3. Caputo also writes, "Hatred welled up in me; a hatred for this green, moldy, alien world in which we fought and died." (p. 315) What is the origin of this hatred? Who is it directed at? What role does it play in the events to follow? Earlier, the author had confessed the hatred he developed for the enemy, "a hatred buried so deep that I could not then admit its existence." (p. 231) Why did he have so much hatred? Is this a normal part of war? How do you think Caputo feels about the enemy today?
4. The author writes, "In my heart, I hoped Allen would find some excuse for killing them, and Allen had read my heart." (p. 317) Why does the author want these two men dead? What fuels his desire?
5. What happened when they tried to capture the two Viet Cong at Giao-Tri? Was the mission successful? Who was killed in the end? (pp. 317-21) What are the repercussions for Allen, Crowe, and Caputo? (pp. 321-22)
6. Caputo recollects, "They had taught us to kill and had told us to kill, and now they were going to court-martial us for killing." (p. 322) What does he mean by this statement?
7. What does Caputo consider the explanatory or extenuating circumstances of the incident at Giao-Tri? Does the Marine Corps accept his thinking? (p. 323) What defense does Caputo's lawyer use? What do you think about this application of the rule of law in wartime? Is it fair? Why or why not?
8. Caputo writes, "And so I learned about the wide gulf that divides the facts from the truth." (p. 329) What does he mean by this? What are the facts of the case? What is the truth of it? How do, and how should, facts and truth apply to men at war?
9. What is the outcome of the trial? Do you think it is just? (p. 336)
10. Describe the South Vietnamese insurrection. (p. 334) What does it tell us of the war?
1. What purpose does the Epilogue serve? How has Caputo changed since his time as a soldier?
2. How does Caputo relate the final month of the war? (pp. 341-42) Do you think the outcome was inevitable? Or could it have been avoided? Explain.
3. What was the author's "grand gesture of personal protest?" (pp. 341-42)
4. How is the evacuation of Saigon described? (p. 344)
1. What does Caputo tell us about the difficulty of writing this "intensely personal and private experience?" (p. 352)