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Kidder’s ‘Detachment’ recalls Vietnam service

Charles Matthews San Jose Mercury News

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Soul of a New Machine” in 1982 to the engaging and inspiring “Mountains Beyond Mountains” in 2003, Tracy Kidder’s books have focused on computer scientists, a dedicated physician, schoolteachers, home builders, the residents of a small town, and patients in a nursing home.

He has been a discreet presence throughout, mostly maintaining the persona of the bright but impartial observer and doing what a good reporter does – asking the questions that the reader wants answered.

In his new book Kidder turns the focus on himself. It’s a memoir of his experiences as a soldier in Vietnam, though it’s not what you may expect from a Vietnam memoir. There are no violent deaths, no atrocities, no druggy interludes.

Kidder spent the war in a backwater: “I commanded, in a manner of speaking, a detachment of eight enlisted men who performed an indoor sort of job, a classified mission called communications intelligence. … Our compounds were off-limits to most American soldiers, and we never saw the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese.”

The perfect title, “My Detachment” refers not only to the men Kidder commanded, but also to his detachment from civilian life, from his anti-war friends back home, from the war itself. It’s a book suffused with the absurdity of his wartime experience – the needless bureaucracy, the meddling and posturing superior officers, the folly of putting a green lieutenant in charge of a group of bored and disgruntled enlisted men.

The central tension of the book comes from his relationship with the men – Spikes, Schulzie, Tex, Pancho – he nominally commands, all of whom are tougher and more experienced than Kidder, whose Andover-and-Harvard education and ROTC training haven’t given him much preparation for command: “I had gone to training camps for over a year and learned to avoid venereal disease and march and make my bed and fire weapons, but I had never received a single instruction in how to handle troops.”

But once he has finally established a camaraderie with the men, in sweeps the officious Major Great (a pseudonym, like many others in the book, and in this case maybe a sly nod to Joseph Heller’s Major Major), who insists that Kidder enforce spit-and-polish discipline, undermining all his efforts to earn the men’s respect.

Kidder’s father served in the Pacific in World War II and “had a collection of stories, which he loved to tell and which, as the years went on, I liked more and more to hear.”

His hopes of getting a novel out of his own Vietnam experiences were dashed; he wrote one, but burned the manuscript after 33 publishers rejected it.

Yet even while he was in Vietnam, Kidder tells us, he was fictionalizing the war. He wrote his parents about befriending two Vietnamese boys, Go and Hanh, who didn’t exist. He invented an “inscrutable and lovely” Vietnamese girlfriend in a letter to a friend – but didn’t mail it.

A decade later, when Kidder was interviewing Vietnam veterans for a magazine article, one of them confessed that he always stretched the truth when he told stories of his war experiences: “It takes the place of things you didn’t do.”

So Kidder may be salving his conscience by telling us his true war stories, which are mundane rather than terrible. The lack of life-or-death tension sometimes makes for a book that many readers will find uninvolving.

But it may be significant that this memoir appears in the midst of another war that we can’t help seeing through the lens of Vietnam. Muted, ironic, thoughtful, “My Detachment” is a meditation in a time of war – and a candid depiction of how the misdirections of youth can shape and haunt a life.

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