This time they got it right.

It's a TV movie called "A Rumor of War," and it's about as true as a movie is going to get.

It looks right. They shot most of it in Mexico, and it looks so much like I Corps, South Vietnam, that it's eerie -- all that soggy green . . . a green so green it was brown, a thick, dead tropical green going on and on, and then a bunch of palm trees booming up under a sky so hot it seemed like no color at all, and this raggedly strip of asphalt with phone poles, called Route One, running through it all . . . They got that.

And being scared all the time, nothing you could do about it, just say "Sorry 'bout that," when somebody got greased, as we used to say in one of those ironies of understatement that Marines loved. The TV movie even gets that: A sergeant says that a helicopter landing zone "can get real morbid, Lieutenant."

And the anger, the boredom . . .

I can't talk about the combat scenes in "A Rumor of War," because I didn't see a lot of that, just some stuff where the VC would come in at night and throw some grenades and lie low while we spent the rest of the night moving about a ton of metal over their heads.

Which is to say I did get a look at the crazy, stupid, frustrating, dirty, dusty, muddy world of harassment and diarrhea and pointlessness that Vietnam, and "A Rumor of War," were/are all about.

I was a marine in Chu Lai when Philip Caputo, who wrote the book they made the movie from, was in Da Nang, about 60 miles to the north. I'd been in one of his outfits, 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, and I knew a lot of the guys he wrote about in the book. I even went to see him one time in Key West to tell him he'd gotten it right.

The book and the TV program are the history of a guy, Caputo, who becomes a Marine officer, very gung-ho, a little romantic, a little too imaginative and hotheaded, probably, to be a great officer. He goes to Vietnam in 1965, and ends up being charged with and acquitted of the murder of two Vietnamese civilians.

That's it. No drawing of morals. No discovery of great mythological themes. No meaning of war and peace, metaphorical psychobabble or warmed-over Joseph Conrad.


There are a couple of tiny technical errors -- we didn't use that kind of helicopter, for instance, at that stage in the war -- and a couple of the minor actors come on a little too theatrical. But this book and movie have done our effort in Vietnam the courtesy, if not the honor, of showing it the way it was, more than anything I've seen so far.

They made the lieutenants look like guys just out of college, which is what they were, not the grim-eyed, grizzled John Wayne types we've had to put up with for years.

They made the smart guys the staff sergeants, and it's about time.

Then they left it alone.

Left it alone: When I got back in 1966, the curate from my parents' church stopped by. He was just out of Yale Divinity School, the antiwar movement was getting big, and he wanted to find out what Vietnam was like.

He asked the dumbest question I'd ever heard. This put him ahead of 99 percent of the rest of the antiwar movement I encountered, which never asked any questions at all of people who'd actually been in the war, but it astonished me, at the time.

He asked me: "How did the people you were with feel about the war?"

I asked him what he meant.

He said what he meant was, did we talk about the morality of it, was it a just cause and so on.

I told him I'd never even thought of such a thing. Why the hell would anybody talk about that? What good would it do you?

"Surely, they must wonder . . ."

No, I said. They didn't wonder. They complained about the food and they talked about being scared, but they didn't wonder.

He didn't understand. A lot of people didn't understand, but they wouldn't leave it alone.

Sometimes it seemed as if it were Vietnam veterans who didn't understand, and everybody else who did. Imagine it: People used to say that TV had brought the war into our living rooms. How much did they know about war, any war, if they could seriously say a thing like that? The crap we put up with . . . Walter Cronkite saying "And that's the way it is . . ." Time magazine writing something about the Marines landing and being "lean, hungry and looking for a fight . . ."

And then the antiwar movement: I remember one college kid telling me I hadn't been on a Marine pacification team because it was a contradiction of terms.

And the journalists hanging around Saigon and officers' clubs. . .

The first stuff I ever saw that was good on the war -- or at least the tiny piece of it that I saw -- was Michael Herr's pieces for Esquire, eventually collected under the title of "Dispatches." The next thing was "A Rumor of War."

Herr was a correspondent who was good enough to understand that the war was hellish, but he gave it the glamor of hell, too. There was no glamor from Caputo.

I remember reading the book when it came out, and I hit a passage that described a friend of mine named Pete Dunne getting hit by a mortar. I called Pete up to read it to him, and I was going fine till Caputo started talking about a machine gun going "dit-dit-dit" in the tree line. I apologized to Pete. I said: "Man, every war story you ever read has a machine gun going dit-dit-dit in the tree line."

But Pete, who was there, said "No, man, I remember that gun!"

And it turned out that Caputo had that combat scene exactly right.

I know he was great on the stuff I knew about.

The movie did about as good a job as we're apt to get of showing what Caputo wrote about.

It's a nasty story, is all it is. It shows the war with no more moral or meaning to it than there is to an earthquake or lung cancer.

It's about time.