When the story starts, Caputo is a twenty year old young man from a small town in Illinois. He, like many of his peers, is inspired by the opportunity to fight for their country and to protect the ideals that America represents. One of the main reasons for the common misconception that the war would be over in a few weeks or just a bit longer was the fact that the Viet Cong were underestimated. In Caputo's training in the ROTC program at Loyola College, he was taught the basics and the rules of war. Yet, upon arriving in Vietnam, it soon became clear that the Viet Cong did not fight by the rules; in fact, they were very good at neglecting the rules of war.
After spending most of his life living in a rural town of Westchester, Illinois, Caputo, like many young men of twenty years of age, was ready to prove to those around him that he was indeed coming into manhood. He was ready to get away from the comforts of home and to prove himself on the frontlines of a battle that should not take too long to win. After hearing President John F. Kennedy's inaugural speech about conquering the spread of communism, Caputo felt a sense of duty and felt that this was his chance to stand up for his country and to prove to everyone that he was ready to take on the challenges that come along with entering into manhood.
All of these feelings of good at the chance of going to war and to prove himself as a man dedicated to his country were too much at first. In January 1965, Caputo and his Third Marine Division were deployed to Okinawa, Japan. Yet, for the first few months, until early March 1965, Caputo and his division do not see any action. Even so, their dreams of the battle field and the excitement are still mounting. When the Third Marine Division was deployed to Vietnam, Caputo and his men soon realized that their dreams of glory on the battlefields were simply just dreams and not a reality. They worked on the defensive; they were forced to dig foxholes in case of an ambush while they were forced to be conscious of sniper fire that they could never find. They were not magnificently defeating the Viet Cong; in fact, they were fighting the elements and mosquitoes more than the perceived enemy for a while.
Leading up to the war, it seemed that many of the young soldiers that dreamt of proving their worth by fighting for their country overlooked many of the things that they would be up against in Vietnam. This lead to low morale and disunity in many cases. Instead of being brave by putting their lives on the line while battling the Communist enemy, they were forced to recognize malaria as a formidable opponent as well as the enemy Viet Cong which was underestimated as well.
After about a month and a half of little actual war scenarios, Caputo's division started to see a bit more action. While their feelings of optimism that they shared before arriving in Vietnam were diminishing, this seemed to spark a fire beneath them at first. Yet when the reality set in that after every skirmish or every battle someone, friends that is, were left wounded or dead, a different type of thrill came about. It was no longer the thrill of fighting for their country and against communism; it was more the thrill of looking death in the eye and getting even with those who have killed their friends and comrades.
Caputo mentions many of the things that really troubled many of them: lack of sleep, lack of cold food, fear of ambush, seemingly constant rain, non-stop bighting bugs, etc. He mentions that the lack of sleep that was mainly caused by being on edge because of fear of being ambushed in the night and that this had a very weighty effect on their moods and the way they interacted with one another. All of these things led to psychological trauma along with the fact that there was just so much death around them. Caputo learns early on that in the true ways of war, the soldiers were merely just pawns. In fact, he says of those who were not of high ranking, "As for the rest, they are now just names without faces or faces without names" (27). In saying this, Caputo is portraying the idea that even as a young man new to the ways of war; it was plain to see that if you were not wearing certain stripes, you were seemingly expendable in a certain, inhumane way.
Later, Caputo takes this idea even a step further. He says, "The horror lay in the recognition that the body, which is supposed to be the earthly home of an immortal soul, which people spend so much time feeding, conditioning, and beautifying, is in fact only a fragile case stuffed full of disgusting matter. Even the brain, the wondrous, complex organ that generates the power of thought and speech, is nothing more than a lump of slick, gray tissue. The sight of mutilation did more than cause me physical revulsion; it burst the religious myths of my Catholic childhood" (page 128). This is one of the most unnerving and most important quotes in the book for the reason that this sums up the idea that no matter what these soldiers were taught back at home in the states, absolutely nothing could compare to what they would face during war time.
Everything that they thought they had believed, in Caputo's thought the idea of the soul "passing on" was much easier to believe before they saw friends and comrades of theirs annihilated after they may have been playing cards twenty minutes earlier. This powerful quote is clear that at this point, there is absolutely no optimistic feelings left in Caputo's mind, in fact, it seems that everything that he had believed in about the purpose of life, the war, and his role in the war was questionable and that he may never be able to answer these questions. While it is clear that the feelings of optimism were extinguished very early on, this segment in chapter seven is the point in which it is absolutely clear that Caputo has been forever changed and that there was no way he would ever be the same person he was before the war, whether he wanted to go back to that time or not.
The climax of the book comes at the point when Caputo orders his men to capture or kill two young Viet Cong soldiers that were living in a nearby village. At this point, Caputo says that he did this because he was told to kill the Viet Cong soldiers just as they were instructed to kill the Americans and those others that were opposed to their Communistic ways. Nearly half a year after the event took place, Caputo and another fellow soldier are summoned to trial for the murder of the two Viet Cong soldiers that were killed because of his orders. This sums up what the Vietnam War meant to many of the soldiers in the sense that it really was not clear what direction the United States was going in the war.
When speaking of this particular court ordeal, Caputo says, "If the charges were proved, it would prove no one was guaranteed immunity against the moral bacteria spawned by the war. If such cruelty existed in ordinary men like us, then it logically existed in the others, and they would have to face the truth that they, too, harbored a capacity for evil. But no one wanted to make that recognition. No one wanted to confront his devil" (page 331). Here is where Caputo makes one of his most important stands and makes it clear that he believes that everyone involved in that war, everyone that saw the carnage, the death, and the effect that it had on the soldiers involved, was a product of a war that could have no winner. It is clear that at this point, after everything he had been through, the fact that the government who had sent young men overseas to kill the Viet Cong soldiers could be tried for murder was completely and utterly ridiculous.
It is clear that from the point when Caputo joined the ROTC at Loyola College to the trial that should never have happened that the feelings of optimism were felt by many of the young soldiers that were aspiring to become great young men were completely wiped out shortly after their arrival in Vietnam. His feelings toward the trial in the end show that he believes that no one wanted to recognize what the war was doing to the young men that fought it, and the effect that it would have on their lives if they would be so fortunate to make it home alive at all.