On the shelf: ‘In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War’ by Tobias Wolff


By Lisa Boss, Grand Rapids Public Library


After reading Jon Krakauer’s new book, Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman, (which is an excellent book!), I remembered that Tobias Wolff had also been in the Special Forces during the Vietnam era, and that both Tillman and Wolff were unusually honest in their thoughts about the military.  While Krakauer’s work about Tillman’s life trajectory from childhood to pro-football to Afghanistan is contemporary, Wolff needed a lot more time to distill the essence of his experience.


He begins his memoir at the wheel of his armor-plated truck, rolling along towards a chaotic street scene. He honks a warning — another one — and then, since the villagers do not get their bicycles out of the road, Wolff runs right over them.


“Seven months back, at the beginning of my tour, when I was still calling them people instead of peasants, I wouldn’t have run over their bikes. I would have slowed down or even stopped until they decided to move their argument to the side of the road, if it was a real argument and not a setup.    


“But I didn’t stop anymore. Neither did Sergeant Benet. Nobody did, as these peasants — these people — should have known.”


The parallels between then and now are thought-provoking, because while Wolff’s slim volume was written almost 30 years after his military experience of 1967-68, one wonders if it could be yesterday in Iraq or Afghanistan.


Wolff’s ultimate take on the Vietnam war was, “Here were pharaoh’s chariots engulfed; his horsemen confused; and all his magnificence dismayed.”  By contrast, Krakauer, an excellent writer and journalist, leaves us to draw our own conclusions, as to where we are headed in Afghanistan.