In Pharaoh's Army

by Tobias Wolff

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

One of the main themes in Tobias Wolff's memoir of his year in Vietnam, In Pharaoh's Army, is that Americans in this war clearly do not belong there—the cultural and social divides are so wide that Americans and Vietnamese, whether enemies or allies, live in mutually exclusive worlds. This theme is most clearly objectified in Wolff's treatment of his white skin color, which both distinguishes him from the Vietnamese and, at the same time, renders him indistinguishable in the eyes of the Vietnamese from any other American.

When Wolff finds himself walking across a dike in a rice paddy, he feels that he is being watched by a Vietnamese sniper who is looking at him through a rifle scope. Even though Wolff has adopted an expression of "well-meaning and slightly apologetic," he acknowledges that the sniper won't notice his expression:

But at the same time I knew the sniper wouldn't notice any of that, would notice nothing but my size and my whiteness. I didn't fit here. . . . And, man was I white! I could feel my whiteness shooting out like sparks.

In Vietnam, Wolff's whiteness becomes a serious handicap to his survival not only because he is fighting against half the population of the country, but also because his whiteness separates him from even those who are his allies, who tolerate him because he is fighting with them but see him only as the "other"; in his own words, he says, "I didn't fit here."

A second episode in which Wolff's otherness comes into play centers on a bar fight he has with a group of South Vietnamese soldiers from a different unit who attack him for no apparent reason. When he asks them why they are attacking him, he realizes,

. . . this was a ridiculous misunderstanding, that they had me confused with another man, another American.

The attack on Wolff is stopped only when another American officer, the one who is the real target of the South Vietnamese, fires his pistol over the crowd's head. Later, when Wolff's assistant, Sergeant Benet, who is black, is bandaging Wolff's wounds, Wolff continues to wonder how he could have been mistaken for the crowd's actual target, exclaiming, "we don't look anything alike." Benet's response is "Why you poor nigger. . . . You poor, poor nigger." (76) It suddenly dawns on Wolff that the Vietnamese who attacked him saw not Wolff but his whiteness, and his whiteness is his identity. Benet, who has lived with the problem of color all his life, is trying to make Wolff aware of his own color problem.

Wolff explores another important theme in his recollections of his best friend Hugh Pierce, someone who would have been, had he lived, "another godfather to my children, another bighearted man for them to admire." When Wolff thinks about Pierce, he is constantly thinking about the loss of his friend and of those things Pierce will miss:

to have a child slip in beside him as he lies reading on a Sunday morning. To work at, and then look back on, a labor of years.

In short, Wolff is feeling sorry for his own loss, and he eventually decides that he is making "selfish use" of his friend, and he decides to remember Hugh as he was, not as he is. Wolff's last entry in this memoir is of his friend exiting an airplane during paratrooper training:

He laughs at the look on my face, then turns and takes his place in the door, and jumps, and is gone.

Wolff's decision to mitigate loss by deciding to remember his friend at his happiest is a profound turning point in his ability to objectify his experience in Vietnam—memory, for Wolff, then becomes a solace rather than a nightmare, and his war experience is seen through a different lens, a softer view of horrific experience, one that he can recall without flinching.

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