Executive Times






2005 Book Reviews


My Detachment by Tracy Kidder


Rating: (Recommended)




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Tracy Kidder is an outstanding writer whose latest book, My Detachment, provides an introspective, shy, reluctant and honest recollection of the author’s service in Vietnam. There’s been controversy about almost every author’s contribution to the collection of stories about Vietnam and that war. No matter what your position was or is over that war, and no matter what you conclude about what Kidder has to say, you’re likely to appreciate his fine writing and be able to listen to his story. Here’s an excerpt, from the chapter titled, “Pancho,” pp. 57-65:


I had already been issued my .45 and other battle gear. Around noon on a hot day in July, glad that I would finally have something to do, I strapped on my gun belt, donned my camouflage steel helmet and my flak jacket, tossed my electric fan, which had at last arrived from home, and my duffel into a jeep, and was driven away from Chu Lai. We went out the base camp’s main gate and turned south on Highway One, South Vietnam’s and the war’s main road. It ran from Saigon to Hanoi, they said. Along this stretch at least, it was two lanes wide and well-paved, a comfort to a mind looking for familiar things. On one side lay the huge Chu Lai airfield. On the other, I remember rice paddies and women with pointy-topped hats at work, a boy with a switch walking behind a pair of water buffalo, and also provisional-looking settle­ments, hovels made of packing crates and flimsy metal with the names of American soft drinks stamped on them. In my mind I composed fierce lines, fiercer than I felt, for a letter to Sam or David about the real Vietnam, the pastoral Vietnam that our war debased.

To my disappointment and relief, the drive was short, only ten or fifteen minutes. Just beyond the southern edge of the airfield, the jeep turned right and passed through a gate in barbed wire, a wooden arch with a sign affixed, a picture of a bayonet surrounded by flames, the em­blem of the 198th Light Infantry Brigade. Spotting an officer, the black MP on guard came smartly to attention and raised his right fist. It looked like a crisply executed version of the black power salute. I won­dered, Why is that permitted? I felt a momentary impulse to return it, but I replied in the usual way, my opened right hand snapping up to my right eyebrow.

Inside Landing Zone Bayonet, the streets were made of oiled dirt. The camp wasn’t huge; it looked as though I could walk its barbed-wired and bunkered perimeter in about fifteen minutes. It was a patch of mostly denuded, dusty, ocher-colored ground, a fortified American shantytown. To the west, on the inland side, those thickly wooded hills hovered above us, green and forbidding. To the east, the sandy coastal plain stretched out toward the sea. The enlisted driver left me standing in the sun in the midst of my detachment.

I looked around. I was going to spend a long time in this place. If I close my eyes, I can see it now, as clearly as the bedroom of my child­hood. To my right was a row of four one-story hootches, unpainted, walled with screen and plywood, roofed with corrugated metal anchored down by sandbags. In front of me was a somewhat larger wooden building, the operations hootch. A tall fence of concertina wire surrounded it, and above the doorway in the wire a sign read RESTRICTED AREA KEEP OUT. A latrine and outdoor shower lay over be­yond the hootches, beside a small, steep wooded hill with antennas sprouting from the top.

There was nobody in sight. I stood beside a garbage pail overflow­ing with beer cans and empty C-ration containers at the near corner of a hootch. I lit a cigarette. I bit at a fingernail, that old habit flourishing again. In a moment, a young man came out of the operations building and turned toward the enlisted hootches, glancing at me. He wore a T-shirt and no helmet. It looked as though he hadn’t shaved. I thought I must look preposterous to him, standing there sweating under my steel pot and flak jacket.

“Excuse me. Where can I find Lieutenant Pease?”

“I don’t know. He’s probably in his hootch.”

The soldier didn’t even call me sir.

He pointed left, downhill, at another little metal-roofed house, set apart from all the others, in a patch of weeds, the quarters of the com­mander of the detachment, soon to be mine. I found Lieutenant Pease inside taking a nap. He was a burly, handsome black man in his early twenties. I woke him up, but he didn’t seem to mind. One was bound to feel glad at the sight of one’s replacement. He told me to look around the detachment. He said I should meet the detachment’s sergeant, Sergeant Spikes. But first I should take off that flak jacket.

I took off my fatigue shirt as well. I was wearing just a T-shirt when I went looking for Sergeant Spikes, so he had no way of knowing my rank. I heard voices from one of the hootches. I knocked. Through the screen door, I saw a bunch of men playing cards. One of them came to the door, beer can in hand.

“Is Sergeant Spikes around?” I asked.

“Yup’ he said. “What the fuck do you want?”

“I’m the new lieutenant” I said.

He stood a little straighter and smiled—wryly, I thought, and this worried me. “Sorry about that, sir,” he said.



Lieutenant Pease knew how to look elegant in uniform, an enviable knack to me. At the briefing the next morning, when Pease stood up, Colonel Mahoney, the brigade commander, the local eminence, smiled and said, “Good morning, Stan.” Making just the slightest bow, Lieutenant Pease brought his heels together. He could have been a West Point cadet in his pegged fatigue pants and lustrous boots. After Pease introduced us, Colonel Mahoney said, “Sorry to see you go, Stan’ and then said hello to me. The colonel didn’t ask for my first name. You could see why he liked Pease. But that military bearing of his was all a front.

Pease said he already had a place in business school. I think he couldn’t wait to leave the Army. Once, I began to repeat to him some of the company commander’s complaints about him. His expression didn’t change at all. He said something like “Let’s get some of that Officers Club’ as if he hadn’t heard. I could imagine our company commander chewing him out, saying, “Dammit, Pease, you get those men cleaned up~’ Pease would have said, “Yes, sir. Outstanding’ and then done nothing at all. From him, I felt polite wariness. When I confided my views about the war, he readily agreed. Oh, yeah, it was wrong. It was a bad war. But his mind seemed to be elsewhere. He didn’t talk much to the men either. And as far as I could see, he didn’t do anything except deliver the colonel’s morning briefing. Afterward he’d go to his hootch and relax.

A rumpled, intellectual specialist fifth class, a spec. 5 named Rosen­thal, prepared the briefing for him. Spikes minded the men, more or less. The day after I arrived, Lieutenant Pease said sternly, “Sergeant Spikes, let’s get this trash cleaned up~’ Spikes looked startled. I got the feeling that he hadn’t heard an order from Pease in months. You could say my predecessor was adept at delegating authority, the only difficulty being that in departments such as group hygiene and appearance, no one at the detachment felt like accepting it, and Sergeant Spikes, I imag­ined, didn’t see much point in enforcing policies that his lieutenant didn’t care about. I don’t think Pease cared about anything by now ex­cept getting out of there.

He showed me around the base camp, introduced me to my men and to Colonel Mahoney’s staff, took me out drinking at a nearby fighter pilots’ club—where he stayed unobtrusively sober—and then, after five days, turned the detachment over to me. However, he didn’t leave. He still had a week and a half in country, and that company com­mander back in Chu Lai, the one who had told me I needed only to ask for his help, decided to have Pease spend his last days in country with me. I began to think the commander hated Pease, maybe because he was black. All the men in the detachment were Caucasian, but they clearly liked their old lieutenant. He didn’t mind if they went without haircuts or grew long, drooping Fu Manchu—style extensions to their mustaches. I didn’t mind either, in theory. Why should I care if some of the men didn’t shave some mornings or the jeep needed paint? I hadn’t come here to harass troops. I opposed this war. But I wanted to do a good job. I didn’t want to feel that I hated being a soldier only because I couldn’t be a good one.

Besides, almost from the moment I took over, my superiors back at Chu Lai began making demands on me that they’d never managed to make effectively on Pease. And it didn’t help having Pease languish at my detachment, a constant reminder to my men of how easygoing a lieutenant could be.

I was working in the operations hootch when I heard commotion outside. Pease had retired a few days ago—literally retired, to the hootch that we shared (“Gonna get some of that sleep”) and to the pi­lots’ bar most evenings. I came outside. A first lieutenant from company headquarters stood by the porch in front of the building. One of my men stood at attention before him, with his heels locked. “Look at your uniform, soldier! You haven’t shined your boots! You haven’t even shaved! When the hell did you last get a haircut?” Out in the parking area, the second lieutenant who ran the company’s motor pool was snarling at Sergeant Spikes. “Look at this garbage! Look at the dirt on these vehicles! You better get your defecation together!”

I couldn’t let them do this. I pretended to a stronger passion than I felt as I called the first lieutenant aside and said, holding my hands up and shaking them, as if they wanted a neck to choke, that I was in charge here, that I would have no authority over my men if he didn’t leave these problems to me, and that I couldn’t do anything about those problems until he got Lieutenant Pease out of there. “You’ve got to get him out of here!”

“All right’ the first lieutenant said. “Just trying to help you out.” He and the motor pooi lieutenant rode away, back to Chu Lai.

I regretted those remarks I’d made about Lieutenant Pease. One of my men had been standing nearby and overheard, and I knew he told the others, and I knew they liked their old lieutenant’s style of com­mand too much not to tell him. And anyway, what I’d said didn’t do any good. The company commander just didn’t want Pease around his headquarters, I guessed, and Pease stayed on, right up until a few days before his date of estimated return from overseas, his DEROS. I pre­tended to be glad he was around, and he pretended to believe me. When at last I watched him swing his duffel bag into the jeep, then wave good­bye to a couple of drowsy-looking men who’d gotten up to see him off, my spirits drooped. They always did thereafter when someone departed for home and left me there. But this time I also felt nervous. Suddenly, I knew I shouldn’t have been in a hurry to be alone with my men.

Rosenthal was teaching me my technical job, and I knew he liked me. But some of the others didn’t like him. Maybe he was as lonely as I was. We had some long bull sessions late at night after preparing the colonel’s briefing. Large and rather slovenly, belly folded over his belt, Rosenthal would stroke his mustache and begin, “But by the same token. . . .“ I pretended to listen attentively when he told me once again about dropping his Army-issue sunglasses several stories onto pave­ment and finding them unbroken. “You can criticize these Army glasses, Lieutenant, but I’ll tell you a little story. . . .“ He seemed older than I somehow, though he wasn’t. But almost all my men seemed older, they’d all been in country so much longer.

I seemed to be hitting it off all right with Sergeant Spikes, too, in a more distant way. “We have to make some changes’ I told him. “I’m not saying anything against Lieutenant Pease. I know you liked him and all.”

“Some did’ Spikes said.

I realized I’d suspected that my sergeant disliked Pease, maybe from little movements in his face when Pease had spoken to him. I was glad.

I told Spikes I wanted him to draw up duty rosters, for trash and la­trines and for vehicle maintenance.

Yessir’ he said. He added, “It’s a good idea.”

But, I went on, he should leave Rosenthal off half the rosters.

Rosenthal himself may have suggested this. It seemed like a good idea, to give him more time to work on our primary mission.

Spikes said, “Yessir.” But later on I would realize he had stared at me a moment too long when I gave this order.

That night I decided to join the rest of my men in the hootch where they did their drinking. They were laughing when I came in, and they didn’t stop right away, but laughter gradually petered out. I was sur­rounded by bare-chested teenagers, faces reddened with sun and liquor, the sheen of sweat on everyone gleaming under a few bare lightbulbs. A couple of them were staggering drunk. I sidled up to Spikes and chatted with him for a time. I could feel the others eyeing me.

I left their hootch smiling and went down the hill to my own private hootch, in order to think. Eventually, we’d get to know one another. To­morrow would be better. But I was having a hard time acting naturally. Everywhere I went around the detachment, I felt as if I was being stud­ied.

There was a man the others called Pancho, and he stared at me openly, with his head cocked to one side, as if I were a curious variation of the species lieutenant. He was short and smooth-skinned and slightly round in the middle, not fat at all but round in the belly like a baby. He had jet-black hair, always longer than anyone else’s. I noticed that right away, but something had kept me from mentioning haircuts to him during those first days of my command. I couldn’t see his eyes because he wore sunglasses, day and night, it seemed. He’d look me over, then amble away, dragging his heels, a compact, graceful package, brushing his sleek hair off his forehead. Sometimes I’d hear him laughing softly to himself.

On a day during that first week after Pease had left, I woke up feel­ing tired and ornery, and then, on the way back from briefing the colonel, I noticed that the jeep was almost out of gas. The men seemed to use the thing whenever they wanted, heading off to a place they called “the ville’ and it seemed to me they ought to be grateful that I let them use it, or at least considerate enough to fill up the tank. The time had come to draw some lines. When I got back to the detachment, some of them still hadn’t gotten up, and a couple were wandering back from the shitter in their underwear and Ho Chi Minh sandals.

“I want some men to come with me and fuel up this jeep, god­dammit’ I said through the screen door of one of their hootches. Even­tually, a couple of them came out and climbed aboard. They seemed sullen to me, though they may have just been sleepy. I hadn’t been to the fuel depot before, but when we got there, I assumed command. The brigade’s fuel was stored in huge black plastic bladders, as big around as backyard swimming pools. I saw a hose connected to one, and I grabbed it and stuck the nozzle in the jeep’s fuel tank, turning back to glare at the men.

They both looked startled.

I thought, That’s good. I’ve made my point.

“Lieutenant’ one of them said. “I think you got the wrong hose. That’s diesel fuel.”

He got out and found the proper hose. I stood aside. “God, I hope I didn’t wreck it.”

The jeep sputtered a little on the way back to the detachment. A week in command and already I had wrecked the jeep. “What do you guys think? Think it’ll be all right?”

“Yeah, no biggie, Lieutenant.”

“Jesus’ I said, when we’d dismounted. “You really think it’ll be all right?”

“Don’t worry about it, Lieutenant,” one of them said. As he turned away I saw the flash of his teeth, a piece of a grin he hadn’t meant me to see. When I passed by their hootch that night, I heard what seemed like more laughter than usual from inside.


Kidder uses the many meanings of detachment throughout this book to describe his experience and his psychological state. I recommend My Detachment to any reader who appreciates fine writing.


Steve Hopkins, November 21, 2005



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the December 2005 issue of Executive Times


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