In Pharaoh's Army

by Tobias Wolff

Hardcover, 1994

Call number

951.704

Collection

Publication

Alfred A. Knopf (1994), Edition: 1st, 221 pages

Description

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member jcbrunner
The funny and eminently readable memoir shows the best and worst of the US army during the Vietnam War. On the one hand, it lifted a failed youth out of misery and turned him into an officer and Oxford graduate. On the other hand, the US army destroyed countless lives (both foreign and American)
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and a country.
Written in 1994, the descriptions of an inept, culturally ignorant and disconnected military makes for an eery reading given the current Iraq mess.
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LibraryThing member picardyrose
Wolff was one of those green young lieutenants who need sergeants to keep their heads straight. He is sorry. He apologizes. Wolff reminds us that, tested by combat, we might prove to be clumsy, dim-witted wimps instead of hero. He was brave to say so. Lovely writing, too.
LibraryThing member kraaivrouw
I loved This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff so reading his memoir of his time in Vietnam was a no-brainer. It is well-written and tells of Vietnam in a succinct almost detached fashion that maximizes the available horror. In particular, Wolff's description of the impact of the Tet Offensive will haunt
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me to my grave in the way that Michael Herr's description of Hue has.

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.
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LibraryThing member iftyzaidi
This is a wonderfully readable account of Wolff's time in Vietnam. He served as a artillery liason officer with a Vietnamese battalion and consequently is better off than those who are out fighting in the jungles. But of course that's not saying much. Candid, intimate and filled with a grim sense
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of humour, I found it hard to put this down. I'll certainly have an eye out for more by Wolff, fiction and non-fiction.
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LibraryThing member FKarr
memoir of Viet Nam and the author's life as a soldier; contemplative, concise; remorseful but not unnecessarily apologetic
LibraryThing member ecw0647
In this extraordinary memoir of Wolff’s Vietnam experience, there is a haunting scene that reveals the major cultural differences between the American soldiers and Vietnamese culture. Wolff was a first lieutenant (he was a special forces member) assigned as an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit.
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He had spent a year at language school in the United States and was fluent in Vietnamese. He and some ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers are hanging out when two of the ARVN find a small puppy wandering around. Wolff watches, annoyed, as one of the soldiers swings the puppy by a leg around his head and then ties it to a tree. Wolff wanders over and asks what they intend to name the dog. The Vietnamese laugh bemusedly at this remark, but when Wolff persists, they laugh maliciously and reply, “dog stew.” The sergeant grabs the dog and, knowing it will drive Wolff nuts, swings the puppy slowly over the fire. Wolff tries to get them to stop, knowing they are playing with his mind, but the cultural reality and his whiteness prevent his interference.

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."
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LibraryThing member arning
I really enjoyed reading this book with all the insides Tobias Wolff was brave enough to share. It was well written, his views and reflection of his time in Vietnam really made me think. I would recommend reading this book.
LibraryThing member Luftwaffe_Flak
An incredibly honest look of a mans participation in Vietnam and his life before and after his service. While there isnt much focus on descriptions of combat, the authors haunting flow of honest writing makes up for it. He examines the human struggle involved cadidly, the good and the bad. The flux
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of emotions and the changing of how one views others during combat. Superb but short book.
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LibraryThing member Casey_Marie
Having read some of Wolff's other work, namely Old School and his childhood memoir This Boy's Life, I was eager to delve into the author's experiences with the proverbial "lost war" of Vietnam. With the same terse and declarative prose of This Boy's Life, Wolff deftly captures the elusive and,
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oftentimes, discrete sensations of war. For fan's of Wolff, this memoir will not disappoint.

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".
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LibraryThing member thornton37814
As a child, I sometimes watched the news, at least when passing the old television with the big antenna atop the house which picked up two stations--the NBC and CBS affiliates. Almost every night, at least from the age I remembered anything I saw, we heard news stories from some strange place with
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jungles where a lot of Americans engaged in war. The place, of course, was Vietnam. Tobias Wolff provides a first-hand look at his experience as an officer both before and during his being stationed there. The majority deals with time spent in the My Tho region. I enjoyed his sincere narrative which showed his development as an individual and as a soldier. He offers keen observations on both the Vietnamese and American forces. i want to read more of Wolff's work in the future.
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LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
Wolff drifted into the army at the age 18 in 1965 after dropping out of school and deserting from the merchant marine after an attempt on his life, having given little real thought to the war. During basic training he found that he was suited to the physical requirements, and he became an
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idealistic recruit but when he is recommended for officer's training school, he soon realises that he is unsuited to the rank. The US Army progressed him, anyway.

Wolff passes out as a Lieutenant in the Special Forces and spends a year learning Vietnamese before being posted abroad as a military liaison to the South Vietnamese Army. He soon realised that his posting was less hazardous than his fellow boot-camp companions' assignments in the north of the country. He has a couple of close shaves, but his main enemy was boredom.

The book is written with a non-linear narrative but is told in thirteen chapters that read like short stories. There is an economy to the prose, but Wolff still manages to capture the arbitrary nature of life during a war. So why didn't I enjoy it more?

The simple truth is I felt that the events could have taken place anywhere in the world at any time and I didn't really get a feel for the Vietnam War. Equally I didn't really see Wolff as a naive, callow youth heading off to a life altering experience. It was an OK read but I'm sure that there are far better Vietnam War books out there.
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LibraryThing member ecw0647
In this extraordinary memoir of Wolff’s Vietnam experience, there is a haunting scene that reveals the major cultural differences between the American soldiers and Vietnamese culture. Wolff was a first lieutenant (he was a special forces member) assigned as an adviser to a South Vietnamese unit.
Show More
He had spent a year at language school in the United States and was fluent in Vietnamese. He and some ARVN (Army of the Republic of Vietnam) soldiers are hanging out when two of the ARVN find a small puppy wandering around. Wolff watches, annoyed, as one of the soldiers swings the puppy by a leg around his head and then ties it to a tree. Wolff wanders over and asks what they intend to name the dog. The Vietnamese laugh bemusedly at this remark, but when Wolff persists, they laugh maliciously and reply, “dog stew.” The sergeant grabs the dog and, knowing it will drive Wolff nuts, swings the puppy slowly over the fire. Wolff tries to get them to stop, knowing they are playing with his mind, but the cultural reality and his whiteness prevent his interference.

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."
Show Less

Awards

National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 1994)
LA Times Book Prize (Finalist — Biography — 1995)
Alabama Author Award (Non-Fiction — 1995)

Pages

221

ISBN

0679402179 / 9780679402176
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