Wednesday, November 2, 2011

A Rumor of War

Recently I read A Rumor of War, the memoir of Phil Caputo of his time as a young Marine officer in Vietnam.  Caputo had joined the Marines as an officer candidate while still a college student, primarily out of desire to break out of his suburban middle-class background and to experience adventure in his life.  He spent roughly one and one-half years he spent in Vietnam and learned that the dreams of glory fueled by his imagination and the cultural portrayals of American military success, like those found in any war movie of the 40’s and 50’s, came at a cost he could never have imagined, and that in fact there was little glory and much sorrow to be found in the act of war.  

Caputo divides his story into three parts.  The first part tells of his early Marine training and then the arrival of his unit in Vietnam, in April, 1965, at the very beginning of the build-up of American forces.  He, and the country at-large, felt confident, that the US military presence would be a decisive one.  This sense of optimism, and the idealism that underlay it, was confronted by a harsh reality.  One result of that reality was that the initial 5,000 troops of April, 1965 increased to 200,000 by year’s end.  Caputo was part of an infantry company and he describes their day-to-day struggles with the climate, the Vietnamese they were fighting against, and the bureaucracy in graphic vignettes.

In the second phase of his Vietnam experience Caputo was reassigned and given a primarily administrative role, one that he defines as “the officer in charge of the dead.”  He had the responsibility of keeping the official records of dead and wounded soldiers for each side, which included a ratio of American to Vietnamese casualties as a measure of the war’s “progress.”  Another part of this job included completing the paperwork, and learning the details, for each American fatality.  His previous experience as a field officer gave him a graphic understanding of the real meaning of the euphemisms that were used as descriptive terms for the reports.  It is a task that placed an increasingly heavy load on his psyche.

In the last phase Caputo was transferred back to a combat unit and was again immersed into an environment where the physical and emotional toil never seemed to end.  It’s only variation was found in whom, and by what means, another person on either side would become dead or wounded.  And it is at this point in the story where he has his perhaps, and this is in my view as the reader, defining episode of his Vietnam experience, the time where in his words he “breaks” and finds himself crossing a psychological line that he would have never thought possible of a person of his background before coming to Vietnam.  As this happens he realizes that such a possible inner change, and its consequent external results, could happen to virtually anyone.

Caputo’s memoir was written 10 years after his service in Vietnam, and I remember first hearing of it around the time it was published and then turned into a mini-series, about 30 years ago and roughly the same time as I was ending my own four years of military service, all of which was in the immediate post-Vietnam era of 1976-80.  My service was in the Navy and I had little contact with people who had served on the ground in Vietnam, so I don’t personally know anyone who had a first-hand experience in a combat setting.  But while I was in the Navy I did have the opportunity to travel widely, including to several places that have had significant exposure in world news in the intervening years as places of strife and conflict.

While Caputo tells a story that is based on events that happened 45 years ago much of what he experiences internally is relevant today, i.e. that “ordinary” people under profound physical and emotional stress can find themselves capable of thoughts and behavior they would consider impossible in the “ordinary” circumstances of their lives.  Sadly, we hear of examples of such things all too often.  They happen in distant lands and they happen in our own towns, sometimes even our own homes. 

Something that I, as a Christian, find absent from Caputo’s memoir is any kind of reference to God, or even a higher moral truth in the most generic sense.  I have heard the phrase “There are no atheists in foxholes” but in his extensive reflection on his Vietnam experience, which includes many occasions in foxholes, as well as other things that surely must have been as intense and terrifying, both god and God appear to be absent.

While I hope that in profound adversity, such as what Caputo describes in Vietnam or that can be found in a myriad of difficult situations that a person could encounter, I would place my trust in God, the fact is that even the strongest and deepest Christian faith is still imperfect.  I don’t really know if or where I would break under the stress.  I do know that God has made a claim on me, a claim that is sealed in his promise and that cannot be broken, and that he will always be present, whether I can discern it at the moment or not.  And that same promise belongs to all who call in faith on the name of Jesus. 

Last night at my Bible study we happened to be singing the hymn This Is My Father’s World, which has lots of imagery of God’s world as a beautiful and peaceful place.  And we often experience God’s world in that way.  But the song also says this in its third verse: 

This is my Father’s world. O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.
This is my Father’s world: the battle is not done:
Jesus Who died shall be satisfied,
And earth and Heav’n be one.

The promise, not of the hymn but the very promise of God in the words of the Bible, is that whatever happens to us, be it good or bad, happens within a world that is always in God’s control, and I praise God that the last word will not be mine, but his.

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