Searching for meaning in his Vietnam tour of duty

September 11, 2005|By Robert Timberg | Robert Timberg,Special to the Sun



By Tracy Kidder. Random House. 192 pages.

Tracy Kidder doesn't know quite what to make of himself in this introspective memoir of his year as an Army intelligence officer during the Vietnam War. At times he sees himself, correctly, as the barely competent leader of a detachment of eight enlisted men safely nestled in the rear (to the extent that there was such a thing in Vietnam) eavesdropping on Viet Cong and North Vietnamese radio transmissions. He also ascribes to himself the obscene atonal acronym REMF, a term that combat troops used for soldiers like Kidder who never smelled a firefight. (Any Vietnam vet can decode.) He's often confused, about the war, about his standing with his troops, about whether he is doing anything of value. The word "detachment" does double duty here.

The one emotion that eludes him is one he has every right to feel: Pride. Kidder, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his first book, The Soul of a New Machine, enjoyed a privileged childhood and youth, growing up on the North Shore of Long Island, prepping at Andover, then on to Harvard. He took a year of ROTC so that he would not suffer the supposed indignities of an enlisted man if drafted upon graduation. He could have gotten out of serving. Fake mental illness, homosexuality, any of the smorgasbord of deferments available to those who could find a friendly doctor. So many at the Ivies came up with something. Read James Fallows' powerful and perceptive 1975 article "What Did You Do in the Class War, Daddy?" Author and decorated Marine James Webb says the Army got stuck with Lt. William Calley because all the Ivy Leaguers ran for the hills. Or faked egg allergies. Kidder was part of that privileged class. And he went into the Army and served in Vietnam. Some portion of his fractured generation would say he should take pride in that.

Sadly, this book does not measure up to Kidder's best work. It is hard to feel much sympathy for a lieutenant whose eight-man detachment runs all over him when hundreds of his peers were leading rifle platoons in almost daily combat. "We can shoot you anytime we want, Lieutenant," says Pancho, one of his more obstreperous troops. Kidder's lame response: "Oh, yeah?" Or Kidder's disdain for his seniors, primarily career officers who take their jobs more seriously than he takes his. At times, as he describes the failings of some major or colonel, you want to remind him of The Caine Mutiny, when Barney Greenwald, who defended the mutineers, throws a drink at the manipulative Tom Keefer and loudly points out that career officers, occasionally even those like Queeg who crack under the dual pressures of combat and command, had been leading the nation's military since its birth.

This is not the usual Vietnam book. No firefights. No atrocities. No drugs. Kidder is a graceful writer who neither boasts of nor apologizes for his service. In a way, he seems to be trying to understand it. But he is fully aware of what he did by joining the Army. "I had separated myself from my social class, from my student generation," he writes. Along the way, he learns things about himself and relates them in an engaging and often charming way. And as he stumbles through his year in Vietnam, we find ourselves rooting for him, not to become a hero, which he sometimes longs to be, but to find some meaning in the experience.

In the end he does. Pancho, his old tormentor, visits him years later, regaling him with tales of roaming the world for the CIA. When they had been soldiers, Kidder writes, Pancho "had wanted to have an interesting life. I had wanted to be interesting." He was 22 then, a youthful romantic who wrote his senior thesis on Gatsby and went off to war. Now nudging 60, he has satisfied both Pancho's desire and his own.

Robert Timberg, a U.S. Naval Academy graduate who served in the Marines during the Vietnam War, is the editor-in-chief of the U.S. Naval Institute's magazine, Proceedings. In April, he retired from The Sun after 33 years, mostly in the Washington bureau. His latest book is State of Grace, A Memoir of Twilight Time.

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