Reviewed by Giles Hugo
IT has taken over two decades to begin to come to terms with the trauma of the Vietnam war. Apart from the Vietnamese landscape, poisoned with defoliants, mines and munitions, and a generation of maimed and limbless civilians, the US legacy lingers on back home at the ranch in the shelters for the homeless, drug treatment clinics, mental hospitals and rural wilds where some Vets have gone bush to escape the realities of land of the brave and the home of the free.
The 'Nam legacy also deeply scarred America's cultural landscape. Much of the initial reaction came in rock music - anti-war anthems you could also dance to - plus the underground press, then movies and fiction. For my money, two of the most revelatory creations to emerge from that conflict were: Michael Herr's 'Dispatches', a gonzoid observer's view of the grunts' war; and Francis Ford Coppola's movie 'Appocalypse Now', which matched 'The Heart of Darkness', Joseph Conrad's horrific parable about European colonialism in Africa, with an acid-fuelled commentary on Uncle Sam's paranoid anti-com arrogance.
Herr was not a dateline-driven correspondent, he was collecting material for a book and had the time to deliberate, analyse and respond to the events he witnessed - and participated in. His cynicism is that of a non-combatant observer/survivor who also had come to understand the seductive nature of war and combat - and the Faustian toll it exacts from survivors.
Coming almost 30 years after the events it covers, Tobias Wolff's 'In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of a Lost War' is the considered summation on a painful and difficult period in the author's life, and one of the most insightful accounts of the 'dirty little war"'that scarred a generation even those who were not directly involved as combatants.
While Wolff's account may lack the roller-coaster passion of Herr's 'Dispatches' and the inexorable drama of Coppola's 'Apocalypse', the depth of his reflections and the storytelling skills he uses to illuminate specific incidents make 'In Pharaohs Army' a remarkably moving tale.
I doubt whether Wolff would have written so clear and compassionate an account back in the late '60s. The young Wolff isn't a conscript - he volunteers to join the army - partly on existential whim, but also because the kind of writer he wants to be must set himself a rite of passage, much like his generational heroes Hemingway and Mailer.
However, the realities of paratrooper training and officer school, and exposure to anti-war sentiments in the year he spends learning Vietnamese in Washington, make him realise that soldiering and war is not just a macho graduation course in the university of life - it is about killing people or being killed.
Wolff is also aware he is a phoney officer - he gets his commission because he is the only member of his class who could script a satirical review at short notice.
As soon as he takes command he realises his limitations. During manoeuvres he misjudges the jump point and lands his men several miles from the drop zone in a vast, pungent garbage dump - an ominous portent.
During his year of studying Vietnamese in Washington, he is exposed to the unsettling influences of lectures and teach-ins questioning the purpose and morality of the war, and reading Graham Greene's 'The Quiet American' makes him question his purpose - 'In time I lost whatever certitudes I'd had, but I didn't replace them with new ones. The war was something I had to get through. Where was the profit in developing convictions that would make it even harder?'
Unlike most Americans, he sees the war more from a South Vietnamese perspective as he spends most of his tour as an adviser at a Vietnamese artillery base at My Tho, on the Mekong River.
It was former provincial capital full of French colonial relics, a point he makes with gentle irony: 'I'd never been to Europe, but in My Tho I could almost imagine myself there. And that was the whole point. The French had made the town like this so they could imagine themselves in France. The illusion was just about perfect, except for the Vietnamese.'
It is also a focus for innovative Asian capitalism, with 'a watch repair shop famous in its own right for stealing movements from Omegas and Rolexes and replacing them with movements of more neighbourly manufacture. You could always recognise a fellow from My Tho by the wildly spinning hands of his Oyster Perpetual.'
My Tho is a centre for the manufacture of 'authentic' war trophies which US troops buy up to take back home to impress their friends and progeny - 'Vietcong flags and battle standards, all convincingly worn and shredded... bloodstained VC identity cards'. Wolff and his mate, Sergeant Benet, trade these souvenirs with US troops to improve their material comforts and to get otherwise unobtainable equipment to improve their base. Ironically, much of their trophies are made by the local Vietnamese - 'In fact, some of them must have been producing these things for the VC all along, which put the whole question of authenticity in a new light: if made by the same hands, would enemy equipment be any less real because it was ordered by us instead of them?'
Wolff gives insights into why the South Vietnamese Army was no match for the North: 'All of them (SVA officers) were political intriguers; they had to be in order to receive promotion and command. Their wages were too low to live on because it was assumed they'd be stealing, so they stole. They were punished for losing men in battle, therefore they avoided battle. When their men deserted they kept them on the roster and continued to draw their pay, with the result that the losses were never made up and the units turned into scarecrow remnants hardly able to defend themselves, let alone carry the war to the enemy.'
However, the decay in morality and morale also hits the Americans at the nearby Dong Tam base: 'I saw something that wasn't allowed for in the national myth - our capacity for collective despair. People here seemed in the grip of unshakeable petulance... a sourness had settled over the base, spoiling and coarsening the men. The resolute imperial will was all played out here at the empire's fringe, lost in rancour and mud. Here were Pharaoh's chariots engulfed; his horsemen confused; all his magnificence dismayed. A shithole.'
The force that guides Wolff through this surreal parody of glory and honour is his partner: Sergeant Benet is a delightful enigma - a veteran of Korea and survivor of a previous 'Nam tour, he reads his Bible before sleeping, quotes his grandmother's wisdom, and is an expert scrounger, pulling all sorts of numbers aided by his verbal dexterity: 'He spoke about ten different kinds of English, as occasion demanded - Cornerboy, Step'n'fetchit, Hallelujah Baptist, Professor of Cool, Swamp Runner, Earnesto Oreo Professional; Badass Sergeant.'
Between Wolff and his most competent right hand man a conspiracy of silence develops: Benet actually runs things but allows his superior officer to enjoy the appearance of command.
However, in the field with the South Vietnamese troops, Wolff realises his size and his whiteness make him a very distinct target and paranoia sets in - 'I prepared a face for the sniper to judge, not a brave or confident face but not a fearful one either. What I tried to do was look well-meaning and slightly apologetic, like a very nice person who has been swept up by forces beyond his control and set down in a place where he knows he doesn't belong and that he intends to vacate the first chance he gets.'
And when a mob of riotous Vietnamese troops nearly lynches him, he realises he has been mistaken for another American soldier who looks nothing like him - to the Vietnamese all Yanks look alike, a neat reversal of the normal racist cliche.
Another example of the cultural abyss between the allies emerges when Wolff observes a couple of Vietnamese soldiers catching and tying up a puppy. Asked what they intend to call the pup, they reply: 'Canh Cho' - Dog Stew. In order to save the mutt from a culinary grave he pays up the inflated price of about five dollars, confirming his sentimentality in the eyes of the Vietnamese. His squeamish gesture of weakness earns him further mockery, and when his tour of duty is over the Vietnamese officers concoct a farewell dinner with a macabre twist to further make the point that certain sensitivities are incompatible with a war situation.
Wolff's presents his tale in distinct, well-honed chapters, each with the structural finesse and denouement of a well-told short story. He interrupts the chronology to juxtapose his situation in Vietnam with episodes from his training and 'previous life' with others who may care for him but cannot understand what he is living through.
A stunning example from near the half-way point is the chapter entitled 'A Federal Offence', about the days immediately before his departure for Vietnam. On the bus to airport he realises a friend has deserted, possibly persuaded by his father not to go. Wolff muses on all the Deus ex Machina events that might prevent his own descent into the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Then he fantasises a bizarrely poetic way out: the bus is stopped at a barricade by figures wielding shotguns, pitchforks and clubs. They enter the bus and remove those who they are looking for - 'They call our names and then we know who it is behind the blinding lights. It's our fathers. Our fathers, come to take us home. Crazy. But not as crazy as what they actually did, which was to let us go.'
During his tour, Wolff continually dwells on mortality, and counts the 'close calls' - a mere whisper in the air and a brush of wings as the Angel of Death passes by. Every time another dies he wonders 'Why not me?' and muses: 'In a world where the most consequential things happen by chance, or from unfathomable causes, you don't look to reason for help. You consort with mysteries... They have been killed in place of you - in your place. You don't think it out, not at the time, not in those terms, but you can't help but feel it, and go on feeling it. It's the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It's the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason and probe its justice.'
Having survived, Wolff feels he is unable to return immediately to those from his former life - to his surprise he realises the only one he can tolerate is his jailbird dad who comes out of the woodwork to welcome home the 'hero'. Uncomfortably he finds that in himself there is something of the conman that he despises in his father.
His expectations of a definitive point of entry into manhood through exposure to combat have been shown to be naive. When the dogs of war are unleashed the concepts of heroism and manhood becomes something of a sick metaphysical joke when faced with the arbitrary reality of death - there are only the quick and the dead, the survivors and those they remember, those who died instead of them without answering the question: 'Why?'
He flees to England and manages to get into Oxford. There, in the Bodleian Library, while translating from Old English the portion of the Sermon on the Mount about the man who built his house upon a rock, he comes across the words that put his experience into some kind of perspective: 'And with this moment came these words, served on me like a writ. I copied out my translation in plain English, and thought that, yes, I would do well to build my house upon a rock, whatever that meant.'
However, despite this hopeful realisation in that 'other country' of youth, in the final chapter, 'Last Shot', he reflects on the ghosts that haunt the ensuing decades - the lost friends. This is a remarkable account of men at war. The boy who chose to go became the survivor who wondered why... why them and not me?
Reviewed by Giles Hugo