My Detachment is a war story like none you have ever read before, an unromanticized portrait of a young man coming of age in the controversial war that defined a generation. In an astonishingly honest, comic, and moving account of his tour of duty in Vietnam, master storyteller Tracy Kidder writes for the first time about himself. This extraordinary memoir is destined to become a classic. Kidder was an ROTC intelligence officer, just months out of college and expecting a stateside assignment, when his orders arrived for Vietnam. There, lovesick, anxious, and melancholic, he tried to assume command of his detachment, a ragtag band of eight more-or-less ungovernable men charged with reporting on enemy radio locations. He eventually learned not only to lead them but to laugh and drink with them as they shared the boredom, pointlessness, and fear of war. Together, they sought a ghostly enemy, homing in on radio transmissions and funneling intelligence gathered by others. Kidder realized that he would spend his time in Vietnam listening in on battle but never actually experiencing it.
The author of The Soul of a New Machine put in a year during the Vietnam War; he was a reluctant warrior. Kidder joined ROTC in his junior year at Harvard as a way of avoiding the draft's uncertainties. Two years later he was taking part in a war that he found "unnecessary, futile, racist," serving as a lieutenant commanding an Army Security Agency detachment of eight enlisted men inside a well-fortified infantry base camp. As a shaved-headed ROTC cadet and later as an army officer, Kidder felt "separated from my social class, from my student generation"; in Vietnam, he detached himself emotionally from the mind-numbing army bureaucracy, from his ticket-punching career officer superiors and from his iconoclastic, work-shirking enlisted men. For Kidder, there are no heroes, and, in fact, few "war stories"; he presents, instead, realistic day-to-day reports on what happened to him at his posting: the mission was to interpret enemy troop movements using raw intelligence data supplied by eavesdropping technology. His account is an introspective, demythologizing dose of reality seen through the eyes of a perceptive, though immature, army intelligence lieutenant at a rear-area base camp. War isn't hell here; it's "an abstraction, dots on a map." Agent, Georges Borchardt. (Sept. 13) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 05, 2005
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Excerpt from My Detachment by Tracy Kidder
I AM THE AUTHOR OF IVORY FIELDS, A NOVEL. I WROTE IT SOON AFTER I came home from Vietnam. Not many have read the book. After thirty-three publishers turned it down, I lit a fire in a trash barrel behind a rented house in Iowa and burned up all my copies of the manuscript. Years and years went by, and the book became a part of my distant memories of being a soldier, memories that would creep up on me when I was washing dishes or turning a key in a lock, memories that I wished away. Then one morning another copy of the novel arrived in the mail, from an old friend who was cleaning out his files, and I realized I was glad to have it back. From time to time I look at it, and I think.
The protagonist of Ivory Fields is a strange, doomed young Army officer named Larry Dempsey. He's a second lieutenant, just as I was when I arrived in Vietnam in June 1968. But Lieutenant Dempsey is sent to Vietnam to lead an infantry platoon in combat. Whereas 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, in support of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade of the Americal Division. We belonged to the Army Security Agency, but in Vietnam we worked under the false though actually more descriptive name Radio Research.
I imagine this disguise was meant to confuse not only our enemies but also our friends who didn't have proper security clearances, but I don't know what difference it made. Our compounds were off limits to most American soldiers, and we never saw the Vietcong or North Vietnamese. At higher headquarters in Chu Lai and in small airplanes, other radio research soldiers listened in on the enemy's encrypted Morse code communications, and what they learnedýmainly locationsýwas passed to my detachment, and passed on by me to the brigade commander. I remember an article in an overseas edition of Time that accurately described what units like ours were doing. I read the article in my hootch, in my detachment's compound, which was tucked inside the brigade's fortified base camp, Landing Zone Bayonet. The camp was situated at the edge of the coastal plain, at the base of the foothills of the central highlands, in the part of South Vietnam that the American authorities had labeled I Corps. I spent most of my year at LZ Bayonet, inside the perimeter.