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Descent Into Darkness

February 12th, 2014 Leave a comment Go to comments

Review of A Rumor of War by Phillip Caputo.

My interest in reading this book was really two-fold. On the one hand, as I age the military experience of my youth looms larger in my consciousness. I come from this generation. And even though as I said I wasn’t in ground combat I feel I should try and understand the experience in order to be able to better understand my peers. Secondly, as a history professor at a college in a military town I interact with a number of vets of more recent wars. Their presence in my classroom reminds me that though we have gone through the motions of contrition after Vietnam we really haven’t learned anything. I feel compelled to honor their service and I think one way to do that is to expose the lingering systemic disease. So I must try to understand it.

I want you to know that I really am not a fan of war stories. Even as a veteran I have always had a kind of a pacifist streak and the more so now that I am also engaged in Christian ministry. So I really had to force myself to read this book. I have to admit that the graphic descriptions of the action and the carnage held a certain fascination. But if that was what was at the heart of this book I would never have finished it.

In his postscript the author signals that he hopes his memoir will contain some kind of a universal appeal. He wants to show what happened in Vietnam, but he also wants his readers to ask larger questions. Questions that strike at the heart of what it means to be human. He succeeds brilliantly. Caputo vividly recounts the remarkably quick journey of an ordinary, good-natured American kid to a bloodthirsty soulless savage. We watch with fascination and we are not unsympathetic. We are forced to ask ourselves if we would have, or could have, behaved any differently. We have to ask ourselves what separates us from the savagery we paint our “enemies” with.

In the end we cry. We cry for the author’s suffering and sad awakening. We cry for our brothers and sisters who too had to suffer so much tragedy. We cry for the innocents. And if we are honest we cry for our own condition. Toward the end of the book the author recounts that he sought to single-handedly bring about an end to all of the uncertainty and fear by a single act of retaliation. Caputo describes this, I think, as a kind of madness: an instinctive rebellion against the status quo brought on by exhaustion and stress. If Caputo and those like him who seek to shine light on this darkness are to be successful, I believe their accounts must bring about something like that strained condition in our own moral consciousness. We must be jarred from middle class apathy and indifference to jingoistic fear-driven interventions so that we can also begin an instinctive rebellion, not of violence, but of love.

I hope you read his book. And I hope it disgusts you. I hope it instigates a rebellion against a cruel normality. And I hope it makes you yearn, and finally work, for something higher and better in our world.

Read the review online here.

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