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My Detachment: A Memoir Hardcover – September 6, 2005

3.7 out of 5 stars 49 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The author of The Soul of a New Machine put in a year during the Vietnam War; he was a reluctant warrior. Kidder joined ROTC in his junior year at Harvard as a way of avoiding the draft's uncertainties. Two years later he was taking part in a war that he found "unnecessary, futile, racist," serving as a lieutenant commanding an Army Security Agency detachment of eight enlisted men inside a well-fortified infantry base camp. As a shaved-headed ROTC cadet and later as an army officer, Kidder felt "separated from my social class, from my student generation"; in Vietnam, he detached himself emotionally from the mind-numbing army bureaucracy, from his ticket-punching career officer superiors and from his iconoclastic, work-shirking enlisted men. For Kidder, there are no heroes, and, in fact, few "war stories"; he presents, instead, realistic day-to-day reports on what happened to him at his posting: the mission was to interpret enemy troop movements using raw intelligence data supplied by eavesdropping technology. His account is an introspective, demythologizing dose of reality seen through the eyes of a perceptive, though immature, army intelligence lieutenant at a rear-area base camp. War isn't hell here; it's "an abstraction, dots on a map."
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From Bookmarks Magazine

At its best, My Detachment resembles classic wartime satires like Catch-22 and M*A*S*H in its demonstration that the worst battles many soldiers face are against boredom and mindless military bureaucracy. Critics appreciated Kidder’s eagerness to probe his lack of valor and his candor in disclosing his habit of inventing combat experiences to compensate for his unglamorous army career. It’s an honest account of his military life. Yet it’s also one that some critics considered pointless, as though time had failed to give Kidder the perspective to appreciate his sacrifice in fighting a war he could easily have avoided, as well as his good fortune in avoiding the combat that cost 58,000 American lives.

Copyright © 2004 Phillips & Nelson Media, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: Random House (September 6, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375506152
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375506154
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (49 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #3,764,645 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Richard L. Pangburn VINE VOICE on October 1, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This excellent author, who has deservedly won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, has nothing to prove. He is a writer's writer and this book reads like it is from the heart. He deconstructs his unpublished novel, written after his return from Viet Nam, as he desconstructs his life during that time. It is a tale, a tale of a tale, and a warning that all war books exist in a shaky reality.

It is not a heroic tale, except that the author's intelligence and honesty is heroic in the face of temptations to make all military service heroic.

I doubt that it will be among the author's most popular books, but it will probably remain my favorite. It is not overtly pro-war nor anti-war, but strives toward a realism (which never ceases to shake) and a dark sense of humor, pointing out that the domino theory was a stupid concept to die for, and that the war was fought stupidly by a self-serving bureaucracy, by men who were simply men following the logic of their time.

Kidder puts some of the literary personalities he knew at the time in here, Robert Fitzgerald (who translated THE ODYSSEY) and Sam Toperoff (whose own memoirs are also little known gems). In Viet Nam, Kidder was reading Joseph Conrad's HEART OF DARKNESS and LORD JIM, and other books he quotes from or at least mentions include THE GREAT GATSBY and A FAREWELL TO ARMS. It is understated, but you can tell that he admired Hemingway in the typical macho way back then, but when he looks back at himself now, he sees how foolish he was. Kidder may have written this as a kind of catharsis.

It is honest and wise, and we need all the honesty and wisdom we can get.
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Format: Hardcover
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 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.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
As someone who served as a U.S. Army lieutenant in Vietnam (June 1968-June 1969), I am an eager buyer of any book about similar experiences, especially those by writers as good as Tracy Kidder. This book is interesting, well-written, and psychologically and historically accurate in most ways. You will enjoy it even if you have no direct experience of Vietnam or the war America fought there and don't know a REMF from a grunt wearing a CIB (all terms explained in the book). The author does not spare himself (giving us chunks of his wince-making adolescent novel written immediately after his return) and can be searingly honest about some of his experiences, such as those with the prostitutes in Singapore on his R&R and his description of the NVA's dominance of the war and its Cambodian sanctuaries, which are likely to get him tarred and feathered in the circles in which he hangs out in Northampton and Cambridge. There is a particularly interesting interplay between his Harvard (1963-67) and Army (1967-69) experiences which can be summarized as the Army seen through the lens of his Harvard education and acculturation. (I had the opposite perspective, doing the Army first and then Harvard Law School -- which is quite different from the Adams House/final club Harvard undergrad -- in 1969-72, and the contrast was very instructive). The only hesitation I have about this book is that there is a little bit too much navel-gazing and teasing of the reader (starting with the deliberately ambiguous title) which comes across as over-cleverness at times.Read more ›
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