There have been enough Vietnam memoirs, and memoirs thinly disguised as novels, to fill dozens of library shelves. Some, such as those by Michael Herr, Tim O'Brien and Philip Caputo, have become modern classics of war (or anti-war) literature. Though perhaps not destined for such enduring status, Tracy Kidder's convincing <b>My Detachment</b> offers an often brutally candid portrait of one young man who, even as he left for Vietnam, was not quite sure why he went.
Kidder won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award for <i>The Soul of a New Machine</i>, a penetrating study of the computer industry that presaged our microchip-driven world. He has applied the same mode of anthropological journalism to such subjects as education and the building of a house. So it is interesting to see how this perceptive writer, for whom the devil is always found in the details, dissects his own experience.
Fresh out of Harvard, Kidder joined the Army for reasons he still seems somewhat unsure about. It was neither the expected nor the popular thing for someone of his class and education to do. The expression baby killer had recently entered the lexicon, flung at men in uniform by protestors on college campuses across the country, including Harvard, and Kidder's liberal friends were dumbfounded by his decision. Rudderless and unhappy in love, the disconsolate young Kidder figured he might be drafted anyway, and as an officer with his elite education, he was thinking he would land a cushy desk job at Arlington Hall.
Signing on for intelligence work, Kidder endured basic training, then Army Security Agency school in Massachusetts, which allowed him to spend schizophrenic weekends in Cambridge among his old anti-war crowd. Then it was off to Vietnam, where, with nary a moment's training on how to command, he was put in charge of a small band of intractable enlisted men. Those who still believe that the picture of the Army painted in <i>Catch-22</i> was fiction need read no further than Kidder's unadorned account for proof that absurdity is a fact of life in the wartime military.
Yet while there is humor to be found between the lines and in some of the Kafkaesque situations, <b>My Detachment</b> largely captures the gloom and futility that the young soldier found far from home. He romanticizes his humdrum days in letters he never sends, imagining himself taking a pair of young Vietnamese boys under his wing, or telling of a non-existent girlfriend in a nearby village. In fits of rage directed at the girl he left behind, who is slowly breaking up with him by letter, he writes about killing men in battles never fought. In fact, Kidder never saw combat, which is both a source of relief and of disappointment. I think it might have sufficed if I'd been an infantry platoon leader, he writes. As it was, I felt, increasingly, that everything I did was worse than pointless. And still, perversely, I wanted the war, with all else it had to do, to lend my life some meaning. As an officer among enlisted men, young Kidder wants desperately to be liked, a touchy scenario when your charges are all too happy to run roughshod over you. While he establishes a certain rapport with his sergeant, it takes time for him to win the uneasy trust of his men. Still, you get the sense that Kidder, despite his background, is more comfortable with these guys than with his fellow officers, especially the lifers who take it all so very seriously. Mostly, though, one gets the sense that he is marking off the days on his calendar until he can leave.
<b>My Detachment</b> has no blood-splattered violence or foreboding sense of menace (though Kidder does include excerpts from an overwrought, unpublished war novel that he wrote after his tour of duty, which points up the marked differences between reality and the fiction writer's imagination). The menace here is in Lieutenant Kidder's muddled head. The double-edged title of this probing book expresses the state of mind of a young man eager to do what is right, what he was trained for, but in a climate less conducive than he had imagined. At a time when our military is once more engaged in a controversial war, Kidder's brooding ruminations lead one to wonder what some of today's soldiers might be thinking and ponder what books they might write 40 years from now. <i>Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel</i> The Wicked and the Dead.