Detachment is a word with multiple meanings. In My Detachment: A Memoir, Tracy Kidder uses several of them. Lieutenant Kidder and the handful of enlisted men that he commanded in Vietnam were a detachment; they were stationed in a separate compound apart from the company, assigned to plot the coordinates of enemy movements using special radio intelligence equipment. Detachment also refers to the separation the author felt from the war and most of the officers to whom he reported; he had decided that the war was wrong before he left the States. He was doing only what he had to do, only following orders when necessary, eager for his tour to end. He was also detached from the men he commanded, but he was trying not to be. Detachment also means without bias. As a Harvard graduate with a liberal philosophy, he liked to think he saw all races as equal, including the enemy that he was sent to fight. In his compound, which he rarely left, he never saw any Vietnamese.
While reading My Detachment, I had to laugh at Kidder sometimes. When he arrived in Vietnam, he had no assignment. No one was expecting him, so he was told to settle into a non-air-conditioned hotel to wait for a position to be found for him. What did he do with his humid, sweaty time? Already having thoughts of writing a novel, he started reading the works of Joseph Conrad. This was years before the film Apocalypse Now.
In his book, Kidder states that he was never in much personal danger during his year in Vietnam. He and his men fled to their bunkers once when targeted by mortar fire. This danger was quickly forgotten and most of their sandbags were never filled. On most days, he plotted enemy radio locations and saw the jets heavy with bombs passing overhead. Every morning he attended a briefing at which a tactical officer reported the previous day’s tonnage of arsenal expended, results mostly unknown. This was as close as he got to learning whether his work mattered. Known now for his nonfiction writings, he spent his off-time in his hooch writing fiction – mostly letters full of lies about experiences he never had.
Scattered throughout My Detachment, Kidder has inserted portions of his never published novel Ivory Fields, which contrast greatly with his real experiences. His greatest challenges came during the visits by higher ranking officers, who had a tendency to notice non-regulation haircuts and unpolished boots. War was just a rumor. Instead, alcohol, prostitution, disease, self pity, boredom, and senseless protocol plagued the detachment. In its own way, this book is just as disturbing as battle line stories. It should be popular in most libraries.
Kidder, Tracy. My Detachment: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 2005. ISBN 0375506152