Saturday, July 18, 2009

Book Review: A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

A Rumor of War A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a book club selection. And not by me :-)

Philip Caputo was a marine lieutenant among the first units in Vietnam in 1965. And his unit, like all such who are the first of their generation to go to war, was unsure of what they would find, looking to their few veterans from Korea to what it would be like, and the guidance from above. And the guidance from above was that it would be easy.

It was not. And Caputo shows what it was like at the ground, the walking into the unknown, not knowing what was ahead. A war where they did not know who was the enemy, and in every village, they did not know how to tell who was who. Their good intentions on dealing with the local population, spoiled by the fact that their opposition was embedded with that same local population and using that as their striking ground for their attacks on Caputo and his marines.

It is this description of dealing with the uncertainty of war that makes this stand out. And to make the example more stark, the second part of the book takes Caputo on his next assignment, staff officer in Vietnam. Far from the unknown of the battlefield, he is now in a war that is measured in numbers on a board, where the planners of war create their plans in willful ignorance of conditions on the ground, asking for certainty that does not exist. And you realize what others like Halberstrom and McMaster have stated in their books on the same era, that this pattern of making decisions in ignorance was even higher as you got further away from the battlefield.

Caputo also shows what a difference it makes to have a commander who desires to get beyond this. He describes a change of command, where the new commander insists on recognizing the reality of war, almost in opposition to the staff that he inherited. And the two commanders contrast with Rick Atkinson's description in "In the Company of Soldiers" of the general of the 101st Airborne during the 2003 invasion of Iraq , whose recognition of facts on the ground which higher levels were denying changed the way the 101st went into battle.

This was a good war book, not one that focused on glory or horrors, but what it meant for men on a battlefield to deal with all the unknowns of war. Very apart from those who speak with assurance based on ideology instead of experience.

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