“In Pharaoh’s Army” By Tobias Wolff (Knopf, 221 pages, $23)
Writing memoir is a murderous exercise. And the first victim is always truth.
No one can remember exactly what happened last week, much less two decades ago. And aside from the fact that each of us sees the same events from different perspectives, thus altering the very essence of so-called factual experience, we tend to make over those events in our minds as the years pass.
The big, green yard of our youth, after all, is the ratty, small lawn of adulthood.
This is both the strength and the weakness of memoir. The very best autobiographies combine what we want the past to be with what it actually was. Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” is brilliant as literature but second-rate as a trustworthy account of Maclean’s past.
Which begs a question when it comes to Tobias Wolff: What is this man working out that causes him to represent himself so negatively in two novel-length reminiscences?
In “This Boy’s Life,” Wolff spares no one, especially himself, as he documents his teen years dealing with a broken family, living with his neurotic mother and fending off the attempts of her brutal boyfriends (and the occasional husband) to break his rebellious spirit.
At the end of that book, Wolff appeared to have won a triumph of sorts. By lying, a practice at which he apparently was adept, he won acceptance at an exclusive prep school. It was not to last, of course, but at least the indication was that he was finally pointed in the right direction.
“In Pharaoh’s Army,” which Wolff has subtitled “Memories of the Lost War,” he continues his tale of self-denigration - every bit as unmercifully.
Having jumped ship in 1965, deserting his menial job with the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey, Wolff decided to enlist in the Army. In quick order, more because he was following the currents of fate than any sense of divine design, he ended up becoming a paratrooper, a member of Special Forces, an officer, an expert at speaking Vietnamese and a prime candidate for transfer to Vietnam.
But once there, Wolff became the epitome of most things that went wrong with that sad conflict. As adrift in purpose as U.S. leaders were in their overall war policy, Wolff adopted one ambition: to live. He did not do so proudly.
As an illustration: Caught up in the adrenalized atmosphere of a firing mission on just his first night in country, Wolff was petrified at the notion that no one cared whether he lived or died.
“It wasn’t true that not one person cared,” he writes. “I cared. It seemed to me I cared too much, cared more than was manly or decent. I could feel my life almost as a thing apart, begging me for protection.”
As it turned out, Wolff decided to live as well as possible. Assigned as an adviser to a Vietnamese battalion stationed outside the Mekong Delta village of My Tho, Lt. Wolff and his sergeant - a black man named Benet, “like the writer” - began to acquire things.
“By the end of the year Sergeant Benet and I were living in a wooden hooch with screens on the windows,” Wolf writes. “We had bunks with mattresses. We had electric lights, a TV, a stereo, a stove, a refrigerator and a generator to keep it all running.”
That was how Wolff spent his year: Hiding. Knowing that he could be killed should the always-present Viet Cong want him dead, Wolff retained some comfort in the fact that he was too unimportant to attract their attention.
So he dodged the occasional “close call” (three of them, actually), made it through the infamous 1968 Tet offensive (by helping his Vietnamese allies shell the surrounding countryside into rubble) and held on until his rotation back to the world and a waiting discharge.
An artist at heart, Wolff does place his Vietnam tour within the context of his civilian life. He explains about his ambivalence toward war while training with John Wayne types, about his relationship with a troubled woman, about his non-relationship with his alcoholic charmer of a father and about how far, following the war, his facile intelligence (and the GI Bill) would get him (an Oxford degree).
And he waxes philosophical when the need arises, whether chastising fathers for letting their sons go off to war or remembering a friend as a brave companion instead of just another battlefield corpse.
But his self-loathing tends to wear, especially when it forces his book along the same path that numerous other Vietnam War memoirs have taken: self-pity masked as confession.
What Wolff fails to recognize is that there were good men who served in Vietnam. And regardless of whether their mission was noble, they themselves were. Maybe the untenable base upon which the war was fought defeated them in the end, but it didn’t - and it still doesn’t - make their efforts any less worthy.
Caught in a battle with his inner demons, Wolff, a talented and troubled man, sees his past with an honesty only he, or those closest to him, can judge.
It’s important to remember, however, that this is only his version of history. It is hardly a depiction of universal truth.