Whether he is evoking the blind carnage of the Tet offensive, the theatrics of his fellow Americans, or the unraveling of his own illusions, Wolff brings to this work the same uncanny eye for detail, pitiless candor and mordant wit that made This Boy's Life a modern classic.
Written in 1994, the descriptions of an inept, culturally ignorant and disconnected military makes for an eery reading given the current Iraq mess.
Wolff is less the soldier and more the writer throughout the book and you wonder how he got himself there. In many ways the book is about the search for self and for manhood and all the wrong places those searches can tell you. Interspersed are stories of his family, his parolee father and his brother, academician and writer, Gregory Wolff. Wolff has a talent for relating the small detail that sets off a string of details that become a story before you know it's happened. Worth reading both for a deeper understanding of Vietnam and for a great example of good memoir writing.
Racial issues pervade the story. Wolff was attacked by a group of Vietnamese outside a bar. He keeps yelling he must be the “wrong man,” but they continue until another American steps out of the bar and the attackers realize they have the wrong person. Wolff realizes that to them all white people look the same. When he tries to explain it to his black sergeant, the sergeant understands him immediately and simply says, “You nigger.” The analogy to his experience in the United States is unmistakable.
Wolff's analysis of the Tet offensive is striking. "As a military project Tet failed; as a lesson it succeeded. The VC came into My Tho and all the other towns knowing what would happen. They knew that once they were among the people we would abandon our pretense of distinguishing between them. We would kill them all to get at one. [Iraq come to mind, anyone?:] In this way they taught the people that we did not love them and would not protect them; that for all our talk of partnership and brotherhood we disliked and mistrusted them, and that we would kill every last one of them to save our own skins. . . .They taught that lesson to the people, and also to us. At least to me."
In Pharaoh's Army recounts the author's year long tour in Vietnam, where as a Lieutenant in the Special Forces, he is ultimately assigned the privileged and comparatively "lucky" position of adviser to a South Vietnamese Army battalion stationed in the Delta region of My Tho. His memoir is broken up into 13 discrete chapters, each functioning as a stand alone short story. Although all stories relate directly Vietnam and the experiences that led him to enlistment, there is no clear linear narrative in this work. I think this narrative structure succeeds in underscoring the seemingly arbitrary and hazy nature of war itself and overall strengthens the tenor of this work. In Pharaoh's Army lacks the grittiness found in a Tim O'Brien novel. Instead, writes in a low key minimalist style with an economy of prose that is reminiscent of Hemingway (which is not surprising considering that Wolff admired all author's who served, especially Hemingway).
At the onset, Wolff was an idealistic recruit, one with a novel in his head. With his deployment orders in hand, he states, "The life around me began at last to take on form, to signify. No longer a powerless confusion of desires, I was now a protagonist, the hero of a novel to which I endlessly added from the stories I dreamed and saw everywhere." However, In Pharaoh's Army ultimately chronicles the author's growing disillusionment with the American presence in Vietnam. The title itself alludes to the absurd and doomed blind charge of the Pharaoh's chariots into the Red Sea. Though disillusioned, this year of combat nevertheless allowed to author to come into his own and find his true character. In his own words, he "Lost Faith. Prayed anyway. Persisted...That's how we found out who we are".