The writer and former Marine Corps lieutenant from Westchester commemorates the 40th anniversary of his critically acclaimed Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War.
By Mark Vruno
Alumnus Phil Caputo wrote his Vietnam War memoir 40 years ago.
(Image courtesy of Michael Priest Photography.)
Perhaps you have sweated through intense, war-inspired films such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Full Metal Jacket,” “Hamburger Hill” and “Platoon,” the latter of which won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1987. Some readers literally wept while reading Flags of Our Fathers, imagining the hell on earth that their own fathers went through during World War II. But if you’ve yet to experience Phil Caputo’s 1977 Vietnam memoir, A Rumor of War, be forewarned that it, too, can be emotionally draining.
Caputo is a Fenwick Friar, Class of 1959. He also is graduated from Loyola University Chicago with a B.A. in English. Later in life Caputo became an award-winning investigative journalist and, after that, a New York Times (NYT) best-selling novelist. In between, “PJ” Caputo served as a U.S. Marine Corps second-lieutenant on the ground in Vietnam. He was one of some 2.5 million American troops — men and boys — sent to help fight the war against communism in Southeast Asia. He thought his U.S. Marine Corps mission would be one of glory, and he admits to being unprepared for the gore of it all.
Caputo in 1959 (FHS Yearbook photo.)
Over the course of four decades, the book has had staying power, the author says, because its overtones of changing perspectives still resonate with readers young, old and middle-aged. “We have seen how the Vietnam Era, which includes the tumult of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements, is the source of most of the divisions experienced in our country today,” notes Caputo. “It’s like a windshield crack that spreads if not attended to — where was the initial break?” he asks metaphorically. “I trace it back to Vietnam and the delegitimizing of the United States’ government,” which lost much of the trust that the American people had in it, he added. The Vietnam Era is the epicenter of that thought process, Caputo contends.
Reflecting on the anti-war protests, campus sit-in’s and riots of his youth, Caputo is quick to point out that it wasn’t only the federal government that he and his peers under the age of 30 refused to trust. “There was a general distrust of every institution: business, academia. Over time, this distrust has passed from the left to the right,” he observes.