Out Of Vietnam A Decade Ago, Philip Caputo's Macho Mamoir Was The First Vietnam Best Seller In His Latest Book, He Seems To Have Found Some Peace

Posted: May 20, 1987

NEW YORK — He survived the grenades, the booby traps, the land mines, the jungle heat, the swamp snipers, the mud sucking at his boots, the weeks of nerve-racking boredom broken by bursts of orgiastic mayhem - he survived it all because he had become a competent killer, a predator, and it's no wonder that those 16 manic months still live deep down in his gut.

Twenty years after this trial by fire, Philip Caputo is not the kind of man who chants a mantra. Rather, he's like one of those spray cans with the contents under pressure, the kind that spews gases when the shell is pierced. He smokes a lot and talks a lot about "the dark side of our national character," the "lust for blood" that lurks within the human heart, just beneath the thin veneer of civilization.

Actually, Caputo is referring to the male heart, because he is a very male author whose idea of a good time is to hook a marlin in the waters near his home in Key West, Fla., to fight that fish to the finish and thus experience, as he once put it, "the pleasant pain (and) the cleansing exhaustion that come after a hard-fought battle." No, Caputo will never be mistaken for Alan Alda, not with his boxer's build and the slight limp in his gait, the latter courtesy of wounds suffered in Beirut 12 years ago when a sniper felled him with rounds from a Soviet rifle.

Ten years ago this spring, Caputo published a memoir, A Rumor of War, which became the first Vietnam best seller at a time when the war was a taboo topic and vets were often treated as lepers. Today, ironically, with war books flooding the market and Platoon topping the box-office charts, Caputo vows that his fourth work (and third novel), the newly released Indian Country, is his last substantive word on what happened.

His fans might be disappointed to learn this - Caputo is our most prominent macho man of letters, the heir to Hemingway and Conrad - but now, for the first time, he appears to have found a little peace of mind. He has actually written a happy ending; the main character, a Vietnam vet, transcends his mental prison and finds the road to redemption.

This is no small literary event; as Caputo puts it, "the other books ended as horrifying downers, with no redemption in any way." Now 46 and twice divorced, Caputo was known as a guy who would stomp around his house, acting out (and living within) his profane, half-mad characters - men who were often eager to embrace the beasts within them because it felt good to flout the rules.

"I pretty much felt the need to get out of that (dark) outlook myself," said Caputo, during a visit last week to Bantam, his publisher. "Maybe I needed to come to terms with something. With that constant drumbeat of despair, you start to wonder, 'Well, if there isn't much hope, and it's all kind of bleak, why don't I just kill myself?' And then you begin to see reasons why you shouldn't. You begin to see what is life-affirming."

Fortuitously, Caputo's tale of spiritual renewal arrives at a time when, in his words, "there's a real subliminal hunger on the part of the American public to make some sense out of what happened (in the war) - to come to terms with it. But coming to terms means recognizing that we're just as capable of committing the kinds of moral evil as the great European colonial powers did in the past, and that we've got to transcend ourselves."

But he wonders whether Americans are learning this lesson. Right now, he says, there is too much evidence to the contrary. All he has to do is read the papers.


"I came out of the war with the perception that people, including myself, were capable of things that I didn't think one could be capable of doing," Caputo says. "I felt certain impulses that were kind of scary. It led me to a perception that human nature was not as fundamentally sound and good as I'd thought previously. I realized that our hold on goodness was rather tenuous, that it was contingent upon the existence of some form of civilization, without which we'd tend to run amok."

Looking back to his youth, he says, the irony is that "I had a desire to escape civilization, and that's why I went (to Vietnam) - to escape its suffocating restraints. I had kind of an American frontier outlook - to go out into the wilds, because that's where man would really flourish. But that ideal of mine was just turned on its head by Vietnam."

A product of a middle-class Italian family from the Chicago suburbs, Caputo reached manhood during Camelot, when the Kennedy goal was to pay any price and bear any burden. So the lover of romantic poets, the student of theology and metaphysics, the Catholic with the seemingly strong moral compass, became a gung-ho Marine.

He was one of the first to land in Vietnam in 1965, and before long "a callus began to grow around our hearts." He became a platoon leader, "an agent of death." His mission was to kill Viet Cong in quantity, to "stack 'em like cordwood," because war was "a matter of arithmetic."


In battle he felt elation as well as dread. He commanded a platoon that rampaged through villages, an "incendiary mob" that, at one point, murdered two innocent civilians. He was later put on trial for these murders, but a plea bargain was reached and he was reprimanded for minor offenses.

He was honorably discharged in 1967, wandered around Spain trying to put his war stories on paper, returned to Chicago, worked as an advertising copywriter, and then joined a suburban newspaper. He missed the "sheer intensity" of the war, although by this time he opposed it politically. He thought the United States should get out, although, in his civilian life, ''everything felt kind of bland and dull."

Then the Chicago Tribune hired him, and, after he shared a Pulitzer Prize for a team probe of city voting fraud, the paper sent him overseas - to Rome, then to Beirut, where he was captured by Palestinian guerrillas, then to Saigon for the American debacle in 1975, and again to Beirut, where he was wounded. By this time, his proposal for a Vietnam memoir was making the rounds in New York; while confined to a wheelchair, he learned that he had a publisher.

A Rumor of War appeared in 1977, when it was trendy for publishers to say that readers didn't care about a lost war. But Caputo's grunts-in-the-paddy perspective won an audience, and books and movies on the war became chic. Caputo quit the Tribune, moved to Key West and began writing novels. Horn of Africa took place in Ethiopia, but its themes were grounded in the war. DelCorso's Gallery featured a photographer obsessed with the horrors of

Vietnam and Beirut.

He has been able to live well by writing about death, but there are times when he is not sure the public is getting the right message. Take the Oscar- winning film Platoon, for example. "The movie has been ballyhooed as an introduction to what 'really' happened, as Vietnam Experience 101," he says. ''But it sets up a false metaphor by dividing this platoon into the forces of darkness and the forces of light. Barnes, the bad sergeant, battles archangel Sgt. Elias. Each has his followers, bad versus good. And that's just bull. It didn't happen that way, and it should offend the intelligence of the public."


"Here was Barnes, with no single redeeming virtue, and he drank whiskey. The 'bad' guys all drank, and the 'good' guys all smoked pot. That was so stupid, just idiotic. The movie is simplistic. It doesn't confront people with the very difficult truth that good and evil exist within a single human breast, that good or evil can be made manifest depending on the circumstances."

He pauses, thinking back to his war stint. "You could get a guy who might often be a perfectly ordinary man and suddenly, under extraordinary circumstances, he becomes a terrific hero or he performs a magnanimous act," he says. "Conversely, the same guy could do something brutal and evil within that same moral and geographical wilderness."

Caputo shrugs. "But hey," he says, "Oliver Stone is a filmmaker. . . . That's why the public needs literature more than ever. It's the function of literature to explore these complexities. Unfortunately, the country seems to be getting more subliterate."

Caputo denies that he writes about war because he wants to relive it or to

somehow purge himself. "I lived for that intensity," he acknowledges, "for the camaraderie, the sheer intensity of the experience, and I do think there still is some residue of that, some impulse toward the extraordinary. But now I'm getting a little too old for that. You'd have to have a shrink interview me, to say whether there's been some therapy involved. But I don't think so. I think of myself as a professional, and that takes mental discipline."

Caputo is big on personal tests. His hitch in Vietnam taught him to distrust opinionated people whose views have not been challenged, people who think and act without having searched their conscience. To Caputo, both the Iran-contra scandal and the Ivan Boesky flap on Wall Street stem from "a cowboy mentality very much in the American character, very much rooted in the desire to escape rules and regulations, to do whatever the hell you want. People get a particular end in mind that they think is so overwhelmingly necessary that they do almost anything to further it."

The arming of the contras, he says, is symptomatic of the fact that "we still have this image of ourselves as an idealistic and visionary people, and it's not easy for us to accept the dark side of our character. As the Soviet Union is now, can be just as true of us, because we're just as capable of doing (harm) as any other nation in the past."

But Vietnam, he says, was more than just a foreign war; it was an indictment of certain American values that Caputo deplores - the quest for success at all costs, the reliance on "technocratic rationalism that becomes irrational." In Indian Country, Vietnam vet Chris Starkmann serves as a metaphor for a nation in the throes of a spiritual crisis. We are a nation of lonely people, Caputo says, isolated from one another by selfishness, by a desire to flout the rules that should bind us together.

He sees a need in this nation for spiritual (as opposed to religious) renewal, much like the one Chris Starkmann finally achieves - "a return," he says, "to a form of piety, a recognition that we are all creatures of God, creatures of a higher power, and we owe something to each other and to our human race. Because when we liberate ourselves from what makes us human, we become monsters.

"I saw a lot of that with the guys in Vietnam - a recognition that if one can commit certain acts that are utterly reprehensible, it can give you a hideous but very attractive freedom, and suddenly you can snip all the bonds to what you once were. There is this inner voice, though, that can always tell you when something is morally evil. The voice was there for me, but I just failed to listen to it. The lust for blood can become so powerful that even though something is telling you 'this is a monstrosity,' it doesn't matter.

"You just have to learn to listen to that inner voice."

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