This book rocked. Possibly the most honest and unflinching memoir I have ever read. This is the story of Tracy Kidder's year as a lieutenant in Vietnam.
From the facts on the surface, you might think of Kidder as a sort of hero. He studied at Harvard, volunteered for the Army, spent the war in heading up an intelligence unit that intercepted top secret radio transmissions and won a medal for his service, then returned home to become a famous author. But the real story, according to him, is less glorious. He signed up only because he was graduating and concerned about the draft. A friend convinced him he could avoid ever leaving the United States if he signed up for ROTC and went in as an officer.
Much of his time in Vietnam was spent drinking beer, sleeping and generally killing time in a remote outpost. His most valiant efforts went to appeasing his superiors so they would leave him alone. And what work he did that directly influenced the war, picking up transmissions that helped the Army figure out where the enemy was, may have made him an accessory to the killing of civilians and children.
"I felt, increasingly, that everything I did was worse than pointless," he writes. "And still, perversely, I wanted the war, with all else it had to do, to lend my life some meaning." Kidder went to Vietnam hoping the war would turn him into someone interesting and worthy of respect. Instead, it seemed to point up all his weaknesses and moral failings in sharp relief. And when he came home with no harrowing battle stories to tell at drunken parties, he occasionally implied with vague statements that he had killed and watched friends die.
There might be a temptation to judge Kidder as less worthy than other veterans, other men, other human beings. But I think he has simply told the story most of us keep hidden. We are all stumbling through life, failing to live up to our own expectations, screwing up and wanting people to think we're more heroic than we really are. To tell this story with such a complete absence of pride, I think, was an incredible act of bravery.
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