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Once young and at war

'My Detachment' recounts lieutenant Tracy Kidder's Vietnam days, marked by fear and friendship

My Detachment: A Memoir
By Tracy Kidder
Random House, 192 pp., $24.95

More than a decade ago, I came across a catalog of Vietnam War literature compiled by a Massachusetts bookseller, Ken Lopez. In the introduction, Lopez remarked, ''No other American war has generated the outpouring of literary effort that Vietnam did." The collection then contained over 3,500 titles. The list must be considerably longer today, for the outpouring continues, even though the Vietnam War is as distant from the present as World War I was from the Battle of the Little Big Horn.

The newest addition is Tracy Kidder's ''My Detachment," a poignant memoir of his yearlong tour of duty in the late 1960s. A winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, Kidder is the author of six acclaimed nonfiction books, including ''House," ''The Soul of a New Machine," and ''Mountains Beyond Mountains."

''My Detachment" is his first published war story, but not his first venture into the genre. As we learn in the opening sentence, he is the author of a war novel, ''Ivory Fields." Completed shortly after he returned to the United States in 1969, it was rejected by 33 publishers before Kidder set a match to the manuscript.

His fans should be grateful for all those rejections; if ''Ivory Fields" had been accepted, he might not have been driven to write this small but remarkable book. It's remarkable as much for what is not in it as for what is. There are no ambushes or firefights, no fiery blooms of napalm amid the jungle greenery; no mud-caked grunts humpin' through the boonies. It is a war story without war because Kidder was an REMF, the combat soldier's pejorative acronym for anyone who served in a noncombat unit. (It stood for ''Rear Echelon" -- and guess the rest.)

Suffering from unrequited love, Kidder left Harvard (as one of the few Ivy League grads to serve in Vietnam) and took an ROTC commission as a second lieutenant, despite profound doubts about the rightness of the war. He was shipped overseas as a communications intelligence officer, commanding a detachment of eight unruly enlisted men whose job was to pinpoint the locations of North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong units by monitoring the enemy's encrypted radio traffic.

Most of the novels and memoirs of Vietnam, whether grimly realistic (John Del Vecchio's ''The 13th Valley") or startlingly surrealistic (Tim O'Brien's ''Going After Cacciato"), echo the pantheon of America's warrior-poets from Hemingway to Heller. Michael Herr's superb ''Dispatches" created a style all its own, one that I call neo-Beat, as if Jack Kerouac's Dean Moriarty had left the road and shipped out for Danang in uniform.

Reading the first two chapters of ''My Detachment," which recount Kidder's boyhood in Oyster Bay, Long Island, his years in prep school and at Harvard, and his painful love affair with a shallow coquette named Mary Anne, I heard faint reverberations from ''The Great Gatsby."

An odd juxtaposition, Vietnam and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I thought I was imagining things until Kidder reveals that he had written his honors thesis on ''The Great Gatsby" and that he often saw himself in the title role. Though the setting soon changes to Fort Benning, Ga., and then to a dusty, heat-stricken base called Landing Zone Bayonet near Chu Lai, the Jazz Age overtones of those early chapters, alternately sweet, sad, and comic, are maintained as Lieutenant Kidder tries to cope with military life while pining for his Daisy Buchanan, the elusive Mary Anne.

As ill-suited for the Army as Jay Gatsby himself, Kidder struggles through the tough infantry school at Benning (''A new Army intelligence officer got trained as an infantry officer first, on the theory that he should know what the intelligence was for," he explains) and is then sent to Fort Devens, in Massachusetts, for training in communications intelligence. After receiving orders for Vietnam, he meets an Army outlaw named Dennis Morrisseau.

Morrisseau has disobeyed his orders to Vietnam and is under house arrest at Devens, awaiting his fate. Kidder admires his brother officer's steadfast act of conscience, but realizes that such defiance is not in him. ''In the end," he writes, ''I think I went to the war because it seemed like the safest thing to do." O'Brien, another reluctant warrior, expressed a similar sentiment in his 1974 memoir, ''If I Die in a Combat Zone": ''I was a coward, I went to war."

Kidder ends up serving in the same outfit as O'Brien, the 198th Light Infantry Brigade of the ill-famed Americal Division (one of its companies perpetrated the My Lai massacre). Kidder's detachment of radio-intelligence wizards is attached to the brigade, and in describing them and what they do, his considerable narrative gifts are on full display. He manages to make the humdrum of rear-echelon life interesting, even dramatic at times, and his depiction of a massive operation as he experiences it from behind the lines is gripping.

War literature and films have created their stock characters. World War II produced the all-American squad -- the Jewish guy from Brooklyn, the Italian kid from the Bronx, the crack-shot Southern boy. Vietnam's variation on this theme brought us the black guy from the ghetto, the Hispanic from Texas or East LA, and the battle-scarred psychopath, like the demonic Sergeant Barnes in Oliver Stone's ''Platoon." Kidder gives us, in his eight ungovernable men, a band of misfits like none you have encountered between book covers or at the movies.

There is a Jewish kid, Rosenthal, a diligent tracker of enemy movements; a phlegmatic, taciturn NCO, Sergeant Spikes; and a sometimes maudlin, sometimes violent drunk, known only as Tex. First and last names are often left out of Kidder's portrayals. He dispenses with the conventions of literary portraiture, giving us the sketchiest physical descriptions of these soldiers, telling us almost nothing about their backgrounds; nevertheless he has such a talent for making them come alive that we don't care about these details.

The most vivid, fully realized personality is Pancho. At times sinister, at times friendly, and always enigmatic, Pancho is a crafty soul with a bizarre vocabulary, an abiding hatred for the Army, and the moxie to scam the system without winding up at a court-martial. Kidder gets off to a rocky start with Pancho, who informs his new lieutenant that the men don't like the way he's doing things. Kidder replies, ''Well, that's too bad," prompting Pancho to remark, ''We can shoot you any time we want, Lieutenant."

This unpromising start somehow flowers into a comradely bond that endures long after the two men leave Vietnam and the Army. There are a lot of reasons to read ''My Detachment," but Pancho alone makes it well worth the price of admission. He's an American original, perfectly rendered by one of our most original writers.

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