Thursday, August 12, 2010

Two Vietnam Memoirs

My armchair and I continue to spend a lot of time in war zones, mostly Vietnam. (I also recently read the pretty good Battle of Mogadishu book, Mark Bowden's Black Hawk Down, but I won't comment on it here.)

Back-to-back, I read two well-respected Vietnam memoirs, Tobias Wolff's In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Last War and Philip Caputo's A Rumor of War. These two books provide an interesting contrast because the Vietnam experiences of the authors were significantly different.

At loose ends, Wolff volunteers without a lot of ideological commitment. He comes from a broken family background (father in prison) and has an ironic understanding of his position in the military from the get-go. For instance, he is kept in OCS to help put on a theatrical show. Wolff studied Vietnamese for a year, and then primarily served within an ARVN unit. He saw little combat, though had some close calls and certainly lived in some fear. Still, the memoir has a M*A*S*H-like feel to it: the book opens with 2nd Lt. Woolf and his sergeant attempting to procure a TV on Thanksgiving to watch Bonanza. (They eventually steal a TV.)

Caputo, on the other hand, entered the Marines and the war with significant dedication to their causes. He was among the first combat troops in Vietnam in 1965 and saw the war quickly escalate. This memoir's greatest strength is Caputo's examination of himself and others as line soldiers (platoon leader) under ongoing deployment and combat stress. In this regard, the second half of the book reminded me a bit of Karl Marlantes's recent Marine combat novel, Matterhorn. In the course of his time in Vietnam, Caputo came to see the war as terribly misguided, if not criminal. I couldn't help drawing imperfect but telling comparisons to Afghanistan -- civil war, assistance to local troops, fighting in or near villages, ambivalent civilian populations, etc.


Evan Lewis said...

I eat up books about old wars (just read great ones on the Siege of Yorktown and the Monitor and the Merrimack), but nothing in the last hundred years grabs my imagination. Maybe 20th Century warfare is just too real.

Doug Levin said...

Is there a good novel about the Battle of Plattsburgh? I've read my Cooper so that covers some of the French and Indian War. I think the only Civil War novel I've read is The Red Badge of Courage. (There is also a pretty good modern novel, The Night Inspector, with a disfigured Civil War sharpshooter; Herman Melville is a character.)