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In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War (1994)

by Tobias Wolff

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8251827,206 (4.16)38
Whether he is evoking the blind carnage of the Tet offensive, the theatrics of his fellow Americans, or the unraveling of his own illusions, Wolff brings to this work the same uncanny eye for detail, pitiless candor and mordant wit that made This Boy's Life a modern classic.

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In this extraordinary memoir of Wolff’s Vietnam experience, there is a haunting scene that reveals the major cultural differences between the American soldiers and Vietnamese culture. Wolff was a first lieutenant (he was a special forces member) assigned as an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit. He had spent a year at language school in the United States and was fluent in Vietnamese. He and some ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers are hanging out when two of the ARVN find a small puppy wandering around. Wolff watches, annoyed, as one of the soldiers swings the puppy by a leg around his head and then ties it to a tree. Wolff wanders over and asks what they intend to name the dog. The Vietnamese laugh bemusedly at this remark, but when Wolff persists, they laugh maliciously and reply, “dog stew.” The sergeant grabs the dog and, knowing it will drive Wolff nuts, swings the puppy slowly over the fire. Wolff tries to get them to stop, knowing they are playing with his mind, but the cultural reality and his whiteness prevent his interference.

Racial issues pervade the story. Wolff was attacked by a group of Vietnamese outside a bar. He keeps yelling he must be the “wrong man,” but they continue until another American steps out of the bar and the attackers realize they have the wrong person. Wolff realizes that to them all white people look the same. When he tries to explain it to his black sergeant, the sergeant understands him immediately and simply says, “You nigger.” The analogy to his experience in the United States is unmistakable.

Wolff's analysis of the Tet offensive is striking. "As a military project Tet failed; as a lesson it succeeded. The VC came into My Tho and all the other towns knowing what would happen. They knew that once they were among the people we would abandon our pretense of distinguishing between them. We would kill them all to get at one. [Iraq come to mind, anyone?:] In this way they taught the people that we did not love them and would not protect them; that for all our talk of partnership and brotherhood we disliked and mistrusted them, and that we would kill every last one of them to save our own skins. . . .They taught that lesson to the people, and also to us. At least to me." ( )
  ecw0647 | Nov 26, 2023 |
Wolff drifted into the army at the age 18 in 1965 after dropping out of school and deserting from the merchant marine after an attempt on his life, having given little real thought to the war. During basic training he found that he was suited to the physical requirements, and he became an idealistic recruit but when he is recommended for officer's training school, he soon realises that he is unsuited to the rank. The US Army progressed him, anyway.

Wolff passes out as a Lieutenant in the Special Forces and spends a year learning Vietnamese before being posted abroad as a military liaison to the South Vietnamese Army. He soon realised that his posting was less hazardous than his fellow boot-camp companions' assignments in the north of the country. He has a couple of close shaves, but his main enemy was boredom.

The book is written with a non-linear narrative but is told in thirteen chapters that read like short stories. There is an economy to the prose, but Wolff still manages to capture the arbitrary nature of life during a war. So why didn't I enjoy it more?

The simple truth is I felt that the events could have taken place anywhere in the world at any time and I didn't really get a feel for the Vietnam War. Equally I didn't really see Wolff as a naive, callow youth heading off to a life altering experience. It was an OK read but I'm sure that there are far better Vietnam War books out there. ( )
  PilgrimJess | Jun 28, 2022 |
Tobias Wolff is the one writer whose work I simply cannot critique. I think he's the best, and while this isn't the first title of his I would recommend, it carries an incisiveness no other writer is capable of. I wish more people read his work. I didn't love this book as much as I did This Boy's Life or The Barracks Thief, but I have a feeling that from now on, whenever I think of the Vietnam War, images from this memoir will come to mind. ( )
  greggmaxwellparker | Nov 7, 2020 |
In Pharaoh’s Army, by Tobias Wolff, is a collection of personal memoir stories, almost essays in human psychology, about the author’s experiences during the Vietnam War. They weren’t vivid and full of action as I expected from the cover blurb but dry, ironic, sometimes bitter, and often humorous. Esquire or Playboy magazine material. They was some great writing in them, and by that I mean the author could describe an event or personality precisely and concisely… prose that was liquefied almost, rendered into basic nutrients. One particular essay I’d give four stars to. It would have been great in a college-level textbook anthology. Here’s an excerpt from it where he describes a well-off friend of his who is visiting a Vietnamese elder in his home:

More than ever I was struck by his fluency, not just in the flow of his words but in the motion of his hands and the set of his mouth; the way he ate and took his tea; his elaborate courtesies. He did it all with such a flourish, such evident pleasure – how happy and assured he was in his possession of these peoples’ admiration, how stylishly at home in this alien place, on this hard floor, surrounded by wonder-struck villagers, Yet I could see that his greatest pleasure came not from mastery of this situation but from out observation of his mastery.

However, I didn’t get the war flavor that I wanted. The stories could have been happening in the present day. They didn’t convey the writer as a callow young man born in a certain time and place. They weren’t too self-reflective and didn’t come to any conclusions. The writer seemed to acknowledge that his younger self was something of a jerk, yet he came across as a far bigger jerk than what he said he was. I can guess it’s because the book was published in 1994. If he’d written it today, there’d be more about race and class and how females were treated. For example, in one essay, the author was harassing a Vietnamese woman who clearly didn’t want to talk to him, and that made me uncomfortable. There was also a part where he adopts a dog the Vietnamese soldiers he is working with want to eat, and at the end of his service there, they do cook the poor dog in a stir fry and serve it to him at his going-away dinner. That was something I did not want to read about, at all, dog lover that I am.

So, an ambiguous read for me. I did not care for the events overmuch but enjoyed the writing style. ( )
  Cobalt-Jade | Jan 4, 2019 |
As a child, I sometimes watched the news, at least when passing the old television with the big antenna atop the house which picked up two stations--the NBC and CBS affiliates. Almost every night, at least from the age I remembered anything I saw, we heard news stories from some strange place with jungles where a lot of Americans engaged in war. The place, of course, was Vietnam. Tobias Wolff provides a first-hand look at his experience as an officer both before and during his being stationed there. The majority deals with time spent in the My Tho region. I enjoyed his sincere narrative which showed his development as an individual and as a soldier. He offers keen observations on both the Vietnamese and American forces. i want to read more of Wolff's work in the future. ( )
  thornton37814 | Mar 20, 2018 |
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Whether he is evoking the blind carnage of the Tet offensive, the theatrics of his fellow Americans, or the unraveling of his own illusions, Wolff brings to this work the same uncanny eye for detail, pitiless candor and mordant wit that made This Boy's Life a modern classic.

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