My previous experience with Tracy Kidder (Mountains Beyond Mountains, March 2) was all about someone else. This one is all about him. Or a version of him. My Detachment was published in 2005, thirty-five years after he finished his two-year army enlistment, so this is a man in his mid-fifties looking back at his twenty-four year old persona. Not always pleasant, but I must say he’s pretty merciless about his examination of the young man who joined the military and went to war.
Kidder joined the army out of Harvard for an array of vague and bad reasons. He knew he was against the war, but wasn’t all that sure why. He figured he would probably end up going and going as an officer would be better than as an enlisted man. He thought he wanted to be a writer and was looking for material. He thought maybe he could do some undefined good for someone. A girl friend had dumped him, and joining was a good way to earn her sympathy and effect a reunion. In everything, he is disappointed. The novel is rejected and burned, resurrected only because a friend sends him a forgotten copy. (in a piece of poetic justice, he uses passages from it in this memoir.) His girl friend sends him some sympathy letters, but is never interested in getting back together with him. Most of what he does as a second, then first lieutenant in charge of a small detachment of enlisted men seems of little or no value to the war effort, and the war itself continues to appear pointless even close to the front.
He does come under fire a couple of times, but is never in serious danger. His main threats come from the small group of bored and disorderly men he commands (or tries to) and from his own commanding officers, who think (alternately) that he’s doing fine or is too loose. According to Kidder, the kid who goes in the army does not come out a man, exactly, but he does have some maturing experiences. And it seems to me he gets through the whole thing by not involving himself too deeply. Thus, My Detachment, alludes not only to his military unit, but to his attitude, one that enables him to truthfully portray himself as a foolish, babyish youngster as well as to survive amid madness.