Tracy Kidder's tour of duty in Vietnam may have unfolded to a soundtrack of Creedence Clearwater Revival songs, but that's about all it shares with Hollywood portrayals of that war. In fact, Kidder's experience as a young army lieutenant is notable for what it lacked. There were no blazing firefights, no elaborate crying jags beneath slowly turning ceiling fans. He was even turned down by one prostitute and never once fired his gun.
"That thing got pretty rusty," Kidder says today, referring to the .45 he was issued at the start of his tour.
Thirty-seven years later, Kidder has finally decided to "own" his experience, as we Americans like to say, and the result is My Detachment (Random House, hardcover, $24.95), one of the most unusual Vietnam memoirs to be published in recent years.
As the title's double meaning suggests, the book is a meditation on disconnection in a war that has been written about almost exclusively in terms of its deadliness (Larry Heinemann's Paco's Story), frustration (Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army), drugginess (Tim O'Brien's Going After Cacciato) and outrage (Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War). Kidder acknowledges that all of these reactions are valid but that none speak for the war as he experienced it.
"From my experience, sure, if you were a truck driver, you could be incredibly unlucky," says Kidder. "But I had the feeling that I was safer than I would have been back here as a late adolescent with a car."
Some of this insulation comes, Kidder writes, from the protection of his class. The son of a lawyer and a high school teacher, Kidder was educated at Andover Academy in Massachusetts, where the current president was a grade below him. He went on to Harvard University, where Henry Kissinger was then simply a professor of international relations.
Kidder suspects that had he been just a year older, he might not have enlisted, but the heavy casualties of the war had not yet hit, nor had the public outcry. As a result, Kidder drifted in and out of the war unperturbed. "I was really young," he says now, "even for my age."
He arrived in country in June 1968 and spent the next year doing little. Kidder and one other soldier occasionally radioed in enemy positions, after which bombing runs were—or were not—conducted. The explosions were so far away he didn't even know they were happening.
For a year, a group of eight men—known as a detachment—were his world, his only responsibility. They greeted him at first with skepticism, then outright hostility. One night shortly after he arrived, a man who went by the name of Pancho came to Kidder's tent to give some direct feedback.
"We can shoot you any time we want, lieutenant," Pancho said. To which Kidder recalls offering a lame, "Oh, yeah?"
They eventually got over their differences and bonded, so to speak. Over the next year, they built a bar in their hooch, erected a pornographic cinema and traded for Swedish firearms with shadowy Cambodians.
Looking back on those experiences, Kidder is all chuckles because he has two records to consult. One is his memory; the other is Ivory Fields, a novel he wrote and tried to get published shortly after returning from Vietnam. Thirty-three publishers turned it down.
Not surprisingly, Ivory Fields was full of action, death, bravado and grim recognitions of life's finitude. "That's the part that embarrasses me still," Kidder says laughing. "I was really so afraid. Of my own shadow practically."
If Kidder was detached while in the armed forces, that did not last once he got home. Long before he won a Pulitzer and wrote The Soul of a New Machine, his prescient 1981 book about the dawn of the computer revolution, Kidder worked exclusively as a magazine journalist, and his earliest assignments involved tracking down the war's wounded. "We forget how shabbily they were treated," says Kidder.
They slipped into America and into VA hospitals, some of them descending into bitter alcoholism. One of them he profiled was Max Cleland, the future Democratic senator of Georgia, who had lost three limbs and miraculously survived.
After talking to these men (and they were only men back then), Kidder grew impatient with absolute resistance. "One thing that used to gall me was my friends who had stayed behind, crowing about their anti-war activities, which had cost them nothing. I thought to myself, yeah, 'Let the working class bear the burden for you.'"
Throughout the conversation, Kidder draws comparisons between Vietnam and the current war in Iraq, not from a soldiers' perspective—“the one thing war taught me is that you can never know what another one is like," he says—but from the way the government is behaving.
"You think about how it started," he says, his voice climbing its register two rungs at a time. "The same false pretenses! Although I think they are more egregious in this case than in that case. There was a lot of confusion about the Gulf of Tonkin, whereas I don't think there was any confusion with Iraq at all."
For a brief moment, Kidder bemoans the way the current war seems to continue with little or no protest at all. Then he adds, "You have to remember it didn't get traction then. When the literati talk about the '60s in this country, they are really only talking about one segment of this country. There were a lot of people saying the same things they are now: That it's unpatriotic to talk against the war."
Kidder sighs briefly and then shrugs his shoulders. Having seen a war up-close once before, he doesn't put much stock in promises of a shiny future in Iraq. He only hopes that we don't make the same mistake again.
"You have to remember that when [President Lyndon] Johnson left the White House, not even half of the casualties had occurred. [President Richard] Nixon's war was the one that was really lethal. And for what? They knew they were going to lose. It's just sinful."