I picked out the book, ” A Rumor of War”, from the base library yesterday. It is a well-known Vietnam classic, written by Philip Caputo, a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam.
I’m only a short way into the book, but I’d like to make some comments because I sense where the book is going. First, Caputo is an excellent and powerful writer. He presents his experience in Vietnam with emotional impact–the best kind of writing. But there is a cynicism from page one and it isn’t just a cynicism about how the war was fought, it’s a generalized cynicism which has its roots in the anti-war movement of the time, which Caputo admits he was a part of.
Caputo begins the book by saying that he joined the Marines as a way to escape the hum drum of life at home, where crossing the street was the most danger he’d face in a day. I suspect that this is a normal reason that many young men join the military. However, the best Soldiers and Marines are those whom find in their “job” a higher purpose. Soldiering is too difficult and trying at all levels for it to be just another job or a mere source of excitement. It is also too important. The higher purpose in everything a serviceman does must remain at the forefront of his mind, or else everything will seem useless and tedious. It should be apparent to everyone that the Spartans did not stand to the last man at Thermopylae with the same motivation they carried while tilling their fields and the Athenians did not save Western civilization at the Battle of Marathon while merely punching a time card.
In reading some of the reviews of a Rumor of War on Amazon, many reviewers carry on about the horrors of war, and use the book’s theme to reinforce what I suspect they already believe; that Vietnam was a bad war, while WWII was a good war. To me, the biggest difference between the two wars is that we lost in Vietnam and won WWII. Our mission was essentially the same in both wars. We felt no real threat to the American mainland during WWII, though Pearl Harbor set the United States in motion. Still, our goal in both wars was clear: Prevent a totalitarian regime from crushing free nations. And there is almost no difference as to the evils presented by the Soviets and Red China when compared to Nazi Germany. Basically, the Soviets became what the Nazi would have become had they not been confronted early enough.
Early in the book, Caputo has hinted at terrible changes he saw take place in soldiers over the course of the war. Some of them lost their sense of compassion and found joy in killing the enemy. Again, this is no different than in WWII.
Caputo admits that he came to enjoy aspects of combat, a sentiment expressed by many soldiers, if only in hushed tones. History bears witness that this is true. What soldiers truly hate is not war per se, but losing at war. Soldiers are supposed to fight wars, that’s what they do. They are also supposed to win wars. My own cynicism stems not from the Afghan war, not from any sentiment that Noam Chomsky would find heartening, but from the fact that most politicians are liars, idiots and scoundrels. They have no idea what a good war looks like, no sense of strategic realities, and almost all of them can be classified as careerists worried more about losing the vote of the 21 year old undergrad than the life of a 21 year soldier sent in to battle for the vote the politico worries about losing. I generalize, and to those government officials who do not meet these criteria, I commend you. But speak up and be heard.
The Afghan war has been handled more poorly than Vietnam. Fortunately the jihadists are amateurs compared to the hard corp communists of the 50s and 60s. In Vietnam there were real reasons for not attacking ,directly, North Vietnam. The Soviet Union and China were very powerful militarily, ruthless, cunning and frankly, both had a large number of political allies in the United States. In Afghanistan, we let Pakistan kill our soldiers because politicians are politicians. See above.
As for the behavior of soldiers in war that Caputo speaks of, I can say that I never once saw any actions by US soldiers against our enemy that was illegal or evil. In fact, our soldiers treated the Afghans better than fellow troops in most cases. This did appal me. Because of Hearts and Minds, soldiers shook hands with and smiled at they knew helped the insurgency to kill fellow Americans. The Afghans knew no consequences for actions against the US military in most cases. There were benefits to helping both the insurgents and the Americans, but always the insurgents knew when to apply force and so in most districts, progress was an apparition. When Americans weren’t around, things deteriorated very quickly.