- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 3, 2005


By Tracy Kidder

Random House, $24.95, 192 pages


For those of us whose military service during the Vietnam War was less than glorious, Tracy Kidder’s memoir, “My Detachment,” is the book to make us understand that the complex and sometimes contradictory emotions we feel about that service are quite natural. For everyone else, its candid look at part of one man’s life becomes an equally candid look at us as a society.

Mr. Kidder, author of several acclaimed, prize-winning nonfiction works, most notably “The Soul of a New Machine,” went to Vietnam for a year’s tour as an Army lieutenant in 1968. A prep school graduate from an affluent family, he had joined a special one-year ROTC program during his junior year at Harvard as a way of dealing with the draft that he otherwise would face upon graduation. That was 1966, as the Vietnam War was heating up but protests against it at Harvard were not. “I think most of us assumed that whatever the ruling class of America did was essentially correct, for the simple reason that we belonged to that class.”

His book’s title has two meanings, one explicit, the other not. Explicitly it is the small detachment of eight enlisted men he commanded — “in a manner of speaking” — performing a mostly non-dangerous and boring classified mission called communications intelligence, which involved reporting on enemy radio locations, in support of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division at Chu Lai.

The deeper, not-directly-expressed meaning reflects a personal detachment, a sense of noninvolvement. Along with millions of other young Americans, he resented the draft’s coercing him into the military, and a controversial war, and dealt with it through an attitude of nonengagement. This attitude was reflected in the civilian populace, which ignored when it did not disdain the military. How different that is from now; though the current war grows increasingly controversial, the volunteer military remains remarkably cohesive and the populace approves of and even admires it.

When he goes to Fort Benning, Ga., for training as an intelligence officer, Mr. Kidder felt scorn from the infantry lieutenants. Upon returning to Harvard, with opposition to the war intensifying, he felt scorn from others. “I had separated myself from my social class, from my student generation.” He did not know, because he had never had been told, how to handle troops. Pancho, an enlisted man in his detachment with a measure of influence over his comrades, warns Mr. Kidder that they can shoot him anytime they want. “Evidently there was a war within a war out here … a war between enlisted men and officers.” Eventually he and Pancho come to an unspoken agreement. When Pancho’s tour is up and he departs for the United States, Mr. Kidder is sad, believing that he somehow failed to measure up to Pancho’s standards, weird as they were. Years after they were both out of the Army, he would from time to time hear from Pancho.

These complex feelings and motivations can be understood by almost anyone who has been in the military under compulsion. Mr. Kidder hated the war, but wanted to do a good job. “I didn’t want to feel that I hated being a soldier only because I couldn’t be a good one.” And eventually he and his men reached a mostly amicable working arrangement. Together they got the job done, drank and watched “Combat!” on TV, despised ticket-punching career officers, and counted down the days until they could go home.

Interspersed throughout this book are excerpts from a never-published war novel that Mr. Kidder wrote not long after getting out. Actually, the novel sounds pretty good; perhaps it simply couldn’t flourish in the hostile intellectual climate of 35 years ago. The author, always rueful and honest, hints that to some extent the novel can be viewed in the light of veterans who feel the need to embellish their “war stories.”

It is worth noting here “P. S. Wilkinson,” a prize-winning 1965 novel by C.D.B. Bryan, for the strong echoes of it in Mr. Kidder’s book. Lt. Wilkinson, its perhaps partly autobiographical protagonist, returns from undistinguished Army duty in Korea in the late 1950s to find himself restless, out of touch — detached, one might say — from his privileged background and from society and the country in general. Like Lt. Wilkinson and millions before him, Mr. Kidder wanted military service to lend his life some meaning, but realized this is expecting too much of it, and had to settle for the experiences it gave. And that, “My Detachment” suggests, in the end was quite enough.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, graduated from the U.S. Army’s Infantry Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning,Ga., and served in West Germany from 1967 to 1969.

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