In Pharoah's Army:Memoirs of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff
One thing I’ve learned about personal Vietnam stories is that our collective memory of the Vietnam experience features platoons of American soldiers walking through the jungle, facing peril on literally from every side (including the tunnels the enemy often disappeared into). But we forget in the early years there were not so much platoons on patrol as individual advisors to the army of South Vietnam. That was Wolff’s experience as an advisor to a Vietnamese battalion in My Tho—a provincial capital of the former French Indochina where the small city gave Wolff, who had never been to Europe then, a feeling of what Europe was like. It was in the Mekong Delta. It was 1968.
Tone is crucial in this book. The writing is fine and Wolff is totally in control of tone. It is a retrospective tone—a blurb on the back of my copy says “piteously remembered”. Wolff is very good at keeping his ego out of this book. He portrays himself as something of an “accidental soldier” even though he was in the special forces, chosen for officer training and then for a year in Washington learning Vietnamese. In this book he is apolitical, self-effacing, mildly ironic, a tone that allows him to suggest the gut-wrenching emotions associated with living in danger and fear for his life, appearing the fool and seeing others as foolish, as well as interacting with an estranged father and a crazy girlfriend and other dealing with the death of a close friend from basic training.
The book begins with an adventure where Lt. Wolff and his sergeant go off to an American base where they plan to exchange a few Chicom rifles for a big color TV set on which to watch the Thanksgiving special of Bonanza. It introduces Sergeant Benet, “the biggest man in this part of the province and certainly the only black man”. Wolff respects Benet’s abilities and experience and positions him as the “brains” behind his boss. This opening anecdote is a marvelous introduction to the characters (not only Wolfe and Benet but the Vietnamese officers and the Americans on the base and those pulling the strings higher up), the landscape, the whole milieu of the war—from a physical and social but also from an emotional point of view. If you're looking for heroism in war, you know from the beginning, you'll not find it here.
Instead, Wolff describes a crazy mixed up world—“We were lied to, and knew it. Misinformed, innocently and by design. Confused. We couldn’t trust our own intelligence, in any sense of the word. Rumors festered in our uncertainty. Rumors, lies, apprehension, distant report, wishful thinking, such were the lenses through which we regarded this terra infirma and its maddeningly self-possessed, ungrateful people, whom we necessarily feared and therefore hated and could never understand.”
Subsequent sections move back and forth in time, focusing not only on what happened in Vietnam but before and after, almost like a novel where you’re introduced to a character and then skip around in his life to build up an understanding of him before returning to the present action. How Wolfe joined a Coast and Geodetic Survey ship at 18, after having screwed up a prep school career with bad grades and bad behavior. How he jumped ship because of a shipmate out to get him. But the army wasn’t just a last chance. It was a path he knew he would eventually take. He wanted to become a writer and admired those like Norman Mailer and James Jones and Hemingway for whom military service had become such a part of who they were and how they wrote.
The book is compelling (even if you’re read many other Vietnam memoirs) and surprising and emotionally understated (but nevertheless powerful).