- Conversations with Caputo
Unlike the veterans from America’s “Greatest Generation,” those who fought and died in the Vietnam War have no public anniversary, such as a June 6 or December 7, to annually commemorate their service. Certainly there is extensive reminiscence for the nation’s signature conflict of the 1960s and ’70s. But the Vietnam generation’s story, unlike World War II’s collective saga of sacrifice, is more of a narrative quilt, a patchwork of individual tales, traumas, and singular triumphs.
Philip Caputo belongs to an elite fraternity of Vietnam War veteran-authors. His notable colleagues include novelists such as Tim O’Brien, Tobias Wolff, Robert Olen Butler, and Larry Heinemann. Their stories, along with those of other seminal writers of that era, including David Halberstam, Michael Herr, Wallace Terry, John Sack, and Robert Stone, remain popular today and are frequently found in the syllabi of university history and literature courses. Caputo’s most famous work, A Rumor of War, is a nonfiction account of his military service in Vietnam as a platoon leader and 2nd Lieutenant, US Marine Corps, in the mid-1960s.
Caputo, who turned seventy-three in June 2014, has written fifteen books, including best-selling novels, general nonfiction, and memoirs. [End Page 111] But unlike most of his vet-author contemporaries, he pursued a postmilitary career as a journalist and foreign correspondent for several years. Following a brutal sixteen-month tour of duty in Vietnam (he lost fifteen friends, most from his rifle company), Caputo chose repeatedly to cover war, violence, and tragedy in Africa, the Middle East, and Vietnam long after completing his three years of active military service. As he described in his 1991 memoir, Means of Escape, such reporting assignments “became an escape not from the commonplace but from fits of depression and rage that were symptoms of Vietnam’s inner wounds.”
In an April 7, 2014, New Yorker article (“Home Fires: How soldiers write their wars”), George Packer compares the attitudes of writers from Caputo’s era to today’s Iraq and Afghanistan War best-selling veterans: “the current generation can be ironic about the image of the psychologically damaged vet introduced into the culture with fear and reverence by Vietnam.” Caputo has spoken and written compellingly of the evil men do in war and the physical and emotional injuries that can last a lifetime.
As a journalist, Caputo wasn’t merely an adrenaline junkie. He shared a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 at the Chicago Tribune for investigative reporting. But he readily admits to being driven since he was a restless teen in 1950s suburbia by an attraction to challenging situations. Raised in a traditional Italian-American Catholic household in Westchester, IL, Caputo rebelled against his parents’ overly cautious attitudes and overwhelming fear of risk-taking. He says that familial fear never left him, and it had to be defied by periodically throwing himself into harm’s way. The same impetus that drove Caputo to enlist in the Marines and to seek frontline combat in Vietnam would later trigger his pursuit of hazardous assignments as a foreign correspondent in danger zones worldwide.
As a journalism professor and researcher who had spent years studying the motives and experiences of conflict reporters in writing my 2011 book, Trauma Journalism, I was interested in Caputo’s media career. But as a man who didn’t serve in Vietnam due to a student deferment (and a high draft number—262 in 1971), I also wanted to learn [End Page 112] from Caputo’s life story about the extended impact of war. In choosing to write about a Vietnam veteran, I realized that such a historic account (March 2015 will mark half a century since Caputo landed with his rifle platoon in Vietnam) is often viewed as a distant abstraction by many of my current college students. My initial response to such apathy is to become defensive about the significance of the Vietnam War and its aftermath. Yet I must now admit such an anachronistic, solipsistic attitude is misplaced. How many of us teens back in the 1960s could ever identify with tales of World War I, which had occurred...