Pharaoh’s army is the United States Army in Vietnam. The soldier is Toby, a late adolescent who joins the army on a whim. Despite the title’s negative association of the United States with the oppressive pharaoh of the biblical exodus, this memoir contains no vitriolic antiwar tirade. The purposelessness of the American presence in Vietnam and the young soldier’s own lack of solid dedication to the war effort are, indeed, a backdrop to events in In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War, but the real focus is the young soldier and his search for himself.
In this memoir, Tobias Wolff continues the autobiographical reflections that he began so successfully in This Boy’s Life (1989). In these earlier memoirs Wolff described his turbulent childhood, centering on his parents’ divorce, his abusive stepfather, and his disappointing career at various boarding schools. While strong maternal figures such as Toby’s real mother Rosemary and her friend Marion played a major role in This Boy’s Life, In Pharaoh’s Army deals much more with male relationships and male bonding. Indeed, except for his doomed friendship with Vera, Toby concentrates In Pharaoh’s Army on his ties with other men, with his army buddies, with his older brother Geoffrey, and especially with his geographically and emotionally distant father.
Toby’s narrative voice dominates the book and spares no one its stark criticism. Toby sees the flaws in army procedure, in American policy, and in human nature. He coldly describes a grudge-bearing fellow shipmate, who tries to kill him before his army days, and the misdeeds of his wayward former-convict father. He spares little sympathy for the likes of Pete Landon, a Foreign Service officer who demonstrates his culture and sophistication at the expense of his fellow officers, or Captain Kale, Toby’s insensitive and know-it-all replacement at My Tho. Both Landon and Kale suffer for their sins in appropriate ways but ways that implicate Toby. Landon loses a valuable antique Chinese vase, and Kale makes a gross error of misjudgment by which some Vietnamese homes are unnecessarily destroyed. In each case Toby probably could prevent disaster if he wishes to do so, but he does not.
Indeed, Toby is harshest on himself. In the opening scene, he describes himself bearing down on a group of Vietnamese peasants in his speeding armor-plated truck. His closing references are still self-critical as he mentions his aimless, postwar student days at the University of Oxford. Toby is acutely conscious of his own deficiencies, his lack of courage in war, his weakness as an officer and troop leader, and his many social shortcomings.
The first-person voice of the narrative strengthens the self-critical tone of the narrator. Recollecting events from the perspective of adulthood, Wolff is able to add the wisdom of maturity to his commentary on the deeds and misdeeds of the young Toby in Vietnam.
The only joys in this book are bittersweet. There are memories of long conversations and nights on the town with Toby’s buddy Hugh Pierce, who never makes it back from Vietnam, and of Toby’s last visit with his father before he dies. The humor is macabre and battle-scarred, as when Doc Macleod, a veteran medical volunteer in Vietnam, recognizes and mocks Toby’s naïveté. Personal relationships are frustrating: Toby’s association with Sergeant Benet cannot become true friendship because of their inequality of rank. All these events are narrated in In Pharaoh’s Army with both a sense of pleasure past and of opportunity lost.
In Pharaoh’s Army begins in medias res, with Toby’s wild adventures on Thanksgiving Day in 1967 in My Tho. The narrative takes the reader through a series of personal war stories, of Toby’s near-misses with death, of life in a provincial Vietnamese city, and of the crude behavior of fellow Americans toward Vietnamese civilians and military. The infamous Tet Offensive of January, 1968, is the only significant historical event that intrudes into Toby’s story. As My Tho is destroyed, mostly under American fire, Toby realizes that in the eyes of his fellow Americans, there is little difference between the Viet Cong enemy and the South Vietnamese civilian. Both are Asian. Both are foreign. The lives of both are dispensable.
Only a few months following...