In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War

In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff
Knopf; $23 hard

This slender volume may be one of the best Vietnam memoirs precisely because almost nothing happens to Tobias Wolff during his year in-country. Attached to a South Vietnamese battalion in the Mekong Delta as an advisor during 1967-68, Wolff was a lieutenant, supposedly trained as one of those quiet killers in the Special Forces. In fact, he had spent his time in Washington hanging out at George Washington University listening to Bill Clinton's mentor opine about world-historical issues and conducting an affair with a distraught Russian emigré. So when he finally shipped out to Vietnam, his commando lessons were far from fresh and his military aptitude in general none too sharp. He did have the advantage of fluency in Vietnamese.

Since Wolff is an accomplished memoirist - he was covered with hosannas forThis Boy's Life, his account of growing up with a daffy mother in postwar America - he is able to make wonderful hay out of his story's uneventfulness. He has mastered the task, never easy, of extracting from the jumble of his experience precisely the incidents and details to nail his own foibles. Or rather, he describes the foibles of the man he was 20-odd years ago. Most delightful is his relationship to one Sgt. Benet, a black soldier who plays taciturn Sancho Panza to Wolff's jittery Quixote and is convinced there is a land mine with his name on it around every bend. The account that opens the book, of Wolff and Benet's raid on the American base at Dong Tam to secure a color television - so they can watch the Bonanza Thanksgiving episode - really should stand as a classic vignette of the war.

Otherwise, Wolff avoids getting 86'd at the beginning of the 1968 Tet offensive because he's lounging around in his cot, avoids being squashed by a helicopter thanks mainly to dumb luck, encounters a hard-boiled Canadian doctor who thinks war is the great educator of our species, and is tricked into eating a dog. He effects a touching rapprochement with his con-man father (whose life is described in brother Geoffrey's fine The Duke of Deception). And like everyone who goes to war, he loses a friend of the type for which you would unhesitatingly sacrifice a body part. Wolff crowns his elegantly structured tale with an incident that goes to the core of what Vietnam meant to him. It involves an idiotic captain, a Chinook helicopter, and a few flimsy structures that some indigenous personnel called home. Your basic Chinook, it turns out, created a mighty fierce backwash.

Despite the everyday absurdity Wolff recounts, there is finally no removing the romance from war, as the great Vietnam War photographer Tim Page insisted to Michael Herr, laughing from under a skull full of steel plating. And while there is no way In Pharaoh's Army could become bloody celluloid, the intrinsic, violent glamour of war keeps Americans from coming to grips with the lost war. Books like this reach a tiny number of people compared to movies like The Walking Dead, which are seen by millions of video and cable consumers even when they flop. They all hammer the same point, historically false yet seemingly irresistible: We could have won if the politicians/generals/peacenik scum would have let us. No, this book tacitly, quietly says, the war effort was a farce, the sacrifice pointless.

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