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Vietnam War and Caputos Take

Updated on July 29, 2010

Caputo was one of the first Americans to fight in Vietnam and among the last of Americans to be evacuated, thus giving him one of the longest Vietnam War experiences. He encountered many people, faced dangerous situations, went long periods without rest or relaxation and was able to survive the only war that the United States has ever lost. Caputo joined the Marines, mostly to escape the bored mundane life that he was living in Illinois, but also because of the “patriotic tide of the Kennedy era”.

War to Caputo in his pre-Marine life, was a heroic opportunity for men and was more of a romanticized view of what war really is. Wanting a chance to “live heroically” and knowing that he wanted to face things like danger, violence and have to overcome challenges rather than be ordinary, when he came across the Marine recruiting team he felt that this was the opportunity he had been looking for. Wanting to be heroic, face challenges, be something more than ordinary, these were all things that the Marines could deliver for Caputo.

After an unfortunate year at Perdue, Caputo was forced to return home, living with his parents attending school, and unable to gain employment. This experience had knocked him down a few pegs on the manhood scale. This opportunity to serve would afford Caputo the chance to prove himself as a man, and free himself from the life that he had been living. As such, Caputo decided to join the Marines, but as an Officer, he finished his Bachelors degree, attended basic training, completed an Officers course and then would act as a serving Officer for 3 years of active duty. Caputo summarized it best when he said, “enlisting was an act of rebellion, and the Marine Corps symbolized an opportunity for personal freedom and independence.”

The political climate at the time of Caputo’s enlistment was rather calm; there were no wars or major conflicts in the world, so there was no great risk, just reward and a chance to be heroic and live out his ambition of facing challenges and becoming a man. However while in training the situation in Vietnam began to form and become a possible place of interest for the US Marine Corps. It still was of little consequence to Caputo and he regarded it as a place where he could possibly find some of that danger that he had been hoping to find. Little did he know that going to Vietnam would change him; forever. While in training Caputo developed a “fear of criticism and, conversely, a hunger for praise”. Caputo attributes his attitude in Vietnam to this specific training where they chanted sayings such as “AMBUSHES ARE MURDER AND MURDER IS FUN!”

In early February of 1965 the Viet Cong attacked an American air base at Pleiku, killing and injuring many soldiers which brought a swift retaliation from the US. Shortly after this attack Caputo received word that he would be heading to Vietnam to aid the US in this fight against the Vietnamese. As he prepared to leave and head to Vietnam his attitude still did not reflect fear, when asked where he was headed he even responded in an “offhandedly, [manner], as if [he] commuted there once a month”. As he headed to Vietnam, Caputo felt happy and had a sense of belonging with his men, as if his battalion belonged to him, and he to them.

During the first couple of months in Vietnam, Caputo’s desire to face danger was little more than fighting a war against the insects of Vietnam. There was the occasional night attacks by snipers, but had faced little more until late April when they walked into an ambush. This was the first time Caputo really faced the war, but it was a short fight that ended without consequence, and again Caputo and his battalion fell into the monotony of the Vietnam war, that consisted of waiting; waiting for something to happen, for some adventure to begin. Later there was an incident where Caputo was shot at and rather than feeling scared or being afraid for his life he described his feeling as perplexed. Caputo could not understand why someone would want to kill him personally. Quickly, he realized that it was not personal, rather it simply came down to he was on the opposite side of the fight.

As Caputo’s service took him around Vietnam, he encountered many people. He was able to observe Vietnamese people in their villages going about their daily lives. However, he also saw them injured after attacks by the Viet Cong. There were times where Caputo felt sympathy for the Vietnamese and even the Viet Cong at times. When he would see how young the soldiers were, he wondered if their families were being notified of their deaths. Though he was brought there with the simple mission of killing the Viet Cong, he would see how young they were and almost felt a sense of sympathy for them, I would say. However, the training that the Marines had provided Caputo with, and the need to make this war easier, kept this sympathy at a distance. Instead of looking at the dead bodies as people with identities, he would simply view them as enemies.

During the war, Caputo was sent to Japan for training for a short period of less than two weeks. Upon returning to Vietnam, Caputo felt like he was returning home, he felt like he belonged in Vietnam. The war was giving him this sense of purpose and belonging that he had so longed for earlier in life. When he returned to Vietnam he was given a new mission though, now he was in charge of the deceased soldiers. However, Caputo had never really known any one that had died in Vietnam; until the day he returned to Vietnam from Japan. In a conversation with a fellow soldier, he learned that a sniper had shot at his men while they were out on a mission. The sniper injured one of his men and killed another. This was the first time Caputo tasted death up close and personal to him. It hit him hard. “That emotional wire inside me tightened again and broke. I felt it break just as surely as you can feel a bone or a tendon break; and afterward, there was only a cold, empty, sick feeling in the pit of my stomach,” Caputo said. While he “had heard that word so many times [he] had never known its meaning” until this day.

The image of this soldier that he knew, a colleague, a friend, was in his mind and changed him. It put the fear of death into Caputo, realizing that he, too, could die there in Vietnam fighting in this war against the Viet Cong. This is where his attitude about not only the war, but his attitude towards his enemies began to change as well. Caputo said that he felt that the war in Vietnam aged him, not physically, but emotionally; he felt as though he had aged three decades emotionally due to all the stress and worry that he felt as he watched people around him get killed. This war was different from other wars, Caputo said, it lacked order and rules and was fought as a war for survival. It was “a war in which each soldier fought for his own life and the lives of the men beside him, not caring who he killed in that personal cause or how many or in what manner and feeling only contempt for those who sought to impose on his savage struggle.”

As the days of the war dragged on and more people died, Caputo’s borderline sympathy and lack of feeling for his enemies changed and he developed a hatred for them; a deep and seething hatred that ran deep within him. Boredom and lack of feeling was replaced by this hate and a desire for vengeance against the Viet Cong. This need for revenge spurred Caputo to volunteer to be a part of a line company, to give him the opportunity to kill someone.

One of the biggest impacts on Caputo in the Vietnam War came near Christmas. Caputo and his team were ordered a cease fire, and Caputo told the troops, who cheered in response, “We’re gonna get some slack. Merry fuckin’ Christmas”. As Caputo and his team headed back during this cease fire they came upon an ambush mine that detonated injuring many of his men. It was almost like a switch was flipped within Caputo, in an instant he went from ordering his men to put out a fire in a hut of the village they were near to ordering its demise. As he carried his men out of the mine field, Caputo was overrun with anger that was deeper than anything he had felt before. This anger “had no specific object. It was just an icy, abiding fury; a hatred for everything in existence” except for his men.

Caputo felt that he and his men had followed the rules, made all the smart choices, and still they were hit and hit hard. The revenge he had felt boiled over within him, and he ordered both of his rocket launcher teams to fire on the nearby village. For rockets were discharged on the village in total, and he could hear screaming voices and see people running in and out of the smoke, though his actions brought him no peace. This act did not bring him the sense of revenge that he had hoped for; rather he felt nothing.

Earlier in the book, Caputo ignored the threat of his enemies for the most part. Yes they were there and yes they would attack, but most of the attacks were mild and easily survived. However as the fighting became worse and more soldiers were injured and people he knew were being killed, his feelings about the war and outlook on the war changed. There were periods of boredom and monotony where his desire for adventure just stirred and grew larger. Then there were times where in the midst of the war, he found that adventure and in the end he began questioning the validity of the war; why was he there fighting, losing men. Caputo could not make sense of why these men were giving up their lives, for what? No longer could Caputo ignore his enemy or ignore the fact that yes he was their fighting for life; both for his and his men’s.

As you can see this war clearly changed Caputo; both emotionally and psychologically. He went from seeking a sense of adventure to finding said adventure, and rather than it fulfilling the desire within him it left him with a desire for revenge. Then when he was able to exact his revenge, he was left feeling empty. His once romanticized view of the war went through an evolution during his experience in the war as well. In the end he lost control of his own feelings and in turn lost control of his company as well. They killed people without any order, simply to fulfill a desire for revenge and a deep-seated hatred for anything that was not American.

Caputo enlisted in the Marines searching for a sense of purpose, belonging and to be beyond the ordinary. Vietnam, and the Marines, gave this to Caputo, but it was not necessarily a positive gain for him. In the end it was almost his demise, if you really think about it. The monotony wore him down, as did losing many of his friends. The people he fought alongside were family to him, and the Viet Cong threatened his family. Caputo responded as the Marines had trained him too. “Murder is fun” they engrained in Caputo. In the end the murder may not have truly been fun, but he did what he was “breed” by the Marines to do; to murder. Ambushing a village, allowing his men to burn it to the ground; this is what the Marines had trained him not only how to do, but trained his mind to want to do it.

From a young man in search of adventure and belonging, to becoming a trained killer; Caputo was a changed man forever as a result of the Vietnam War. Caputo is not alone in his experiences, there were many there just like him. He watched them change too, noticing the changes within them as they occurred, but unable to keep those same changes from occurring within himself.


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      Robert Day 

      7 years ago

      That is a great book. Good Report. Caputo won the Pulitzer Prize.


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