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Alumni Spotlight: Phil Caputo, Class of 1959

December 5, 2017

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

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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.

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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.

Once a kid growing up in near-suburban Westchester in the 1950s, Caputo believes the post-WWII and Kennedy-era “Camelot” aura was authentic in our country. Before the U.S. got involved with the Vietnam conflict, “there was a unity that we were all in this together,” he recalls, “almost a covenant between government and big business and the American people. A great deal of that has disappeared.”

Caputo goes on to point out the present-day “resentment of the upper class,” as evidenced by the recent split in political culture and social structure. “Working-class kids were forced to fight in Vietnam. Now, Trump supporters are referred to as the so-called ‘white working class.’” His 40-year-old book rhetorically answers this question: What is it about the jungle war in Indochina that created such a division in American society that continues to this day?

Innocent idealism may have led him into war, but post-’Nam suspicion of authority urged the former lieutenant to investigate election fraud in Chicago. In 1973, Caputo was a journalist and part of a Chicago Tribune writing team that won the Pulitzer Prize for its report on big-city corruption. As a foreign correspondent, he returned to Vietnam to cover the fall of Saigon in April of 1975.

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Religious references & Fenwick

Caputo included numerous religious references as chapter breaks in A Rumor of War. The title itself is taken from the Gospel according to St. Matthew (24:6-13). When asked about his influential teenage years as a high-school student, the author acknowledges that “seventy-five percent of those [religious] references go back to the education I got at Fenwick.”

Being a Friar also helped to reinforce the moral compass provided to him by his parents and his upbringing, he notes. “Learning what is right and what is wrong becomes instinctive, but my [moral] compass lost its magnetism in the war,” Caputo shares. “Not until I got through it [Vietnam] and got back [home], did it begin to recover.”

It is no coincidence that Caputo tends to write about moral issues and conduct. “The president of Loyola University considered me to be a ‘very Catholic writer,’” he laughs. Readers of his work cannot deny that there are strong spiritual elements to his messages. “There is a connection for me,” he explains. “It’s sort of an ancient way of thinking, much like the Jewish writers.”

Yet it wasn’t only the religious aspects of Fenwick that influenced the young Caputo. “It was the rigor of it,” he asserts. “As I look back on it, my experiences at Fenwick taught me intellectually to be a self-disciplined writer, although at the time I had no idea that’s what I wanted to do.”

In addition to newspaper exposés, Caputo became a prolific writer who has published dozens of major magazine articles, reviews and op-ed pieces in publications such as the New York TimesBoston Globe, Washington Post, EsquireNational Geographic and the Virginia Quarterly Review. Caputo also has written a total of 16 books to date, but his first was the trial-blazer: a pioneering work. According to a 1987 NYT article published 10 years after its original release, “Publisher after publisher rejected [the] manuscript for A Rumor of War …. The editor who finally accepted it told [Caputo] later she had refused to read it for three weeks because it was about the Vietnam War. ‘It was unfashionable in 1977,’ Mr. Caputo said.”

The book since has been published in 15 languages, sold more than two million copies, and is widely regarded as a classic in the literature of war. In 1980 the book was made into a two-part TV movie starring Brad Davis, Keith Carradine, Brian Dennehy and Michael O'Keefe. This past summer, a 40th Anniversary Edition of A Rumor of War was reissued.

Well written but not “nice”

Extremely well written and critically acclaimed, the book is not “nice” primarily because there is not much that is nice about war. “To call it the best book about Vietnam is to trivialize it,” wrote John Gregory Dunne in his Los Angeles Times Book Review. “... A Rumor of War is a dangerous and even subversive book, the first to insist — and the insistence is all the more powerful because it is implicit — that the reader ask himself these questions: How would I have acted? To what lengths would I have gone to survive? The sense of self is assaulted, overcome, subverted, leaving the reader to contemplate the deadening possibility that his own moral safety net might have a hole in it. It is a terrifying thought, and A Rumor of War is a terrifying book.”

In a 1977 Memorial Day review for the NYT, Theodore Solotaroff reflected: “Out of the force of his obsession with the war and his role in it, Caputo has revealed the broken idealism and suppressed agony of America’s involvement. A Rumor of War is the troubled conscience of America speaking passionately, truthfully, finally.”

In the New York Review of Books, William Styron wrote: “Caputo’s troubled, searching meditations on the love and hate of war, on fear, and the ambivalent discord warfare can create in the hearts of decent men, are among the most eloquent I have read in modern literature.” And in Texas Monthly, William Broyles praised, “Not since Siegfried Sassoon’s classic of World War I, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, has there been a war memoir so obviously true, and so disturbingly honest.”

The book 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 himself explains, of “the things men do in war and the things war does to men.” Today, Caputo is 76 years old and resides in Connecticut; he was in his mid-30s when he wrote the now-famous, autobiographical account that would become a best-seller. When PJ went to war, he was 24 years young. During idle time while soldiering in Vietnam, he day-dreamed of a career in journalism and as a writer: thoughts that were realized for him but a future that many of the young men with whom he fought never lived to see.

Why read it now?

Why should current Fenwick students and fellow alumni invest the time and energy to read A Rumor of War? “It presents the experience of war in a very graphic, emotionally and psychologically true light,” Caputo told me. “A lot of Fenwick graduates assume leadership roles in society. In the future, there will be more wars. People need to know what it [war] does to people’s minds, to their psyches, to their bodies.

“Knowledge acts as a restraint for bellicose leaders who may have belligerent impulses,” he hopes, adding that those wielding political power should think at least twice before declaring war. “We must learn from the past, so we don’t make the same mistakes,” Caputo concludes.

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Fenwick’s own Phil Caputo ’59 is featured in “The Vietnam War,” the 10-part documentary series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, presently re-airing on PBS, the Public Broadcasting Service. View the 30-minute preview. 

Fenwick’s Veterans Day Tribute

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