In Pharoah's Army: Memories of the Lost War

In Pharoah's Army: Memories of the Lost War



The Pequod Review:

Tobias Wolff's second memoir may not be quite as good as his first (This Boy's Life, 1988) but it is nonetheless a highly realistic and intense account of Wolff's tour in Vietnam. Not much actually happens to Wolff in the book — as a military advisor to the South Vietnamese, he never saw combat — but he describes the psychological impact of war quite powerfully:

Several men I’d gone through training with had been killed or wounded in recent months, overrun in their isolated outposts, swallowed up while on patrol, betrayed by the mercenary troops they led. My best friend in the army, Hugh Pierce, had been killed a few months before I shipped out, and this gave me a shock I’ve never really gotten over. In those days I was scared stiff. The feeling was hardly unique over there, but I did have good reason for it: I was completely incompetent to lead a Special Forces team. This was adamant fact, not failure of nerve. My failure of nerve took another form. I wanted out, but I lacked the courage to confess my incompetence as the price of getting out. I was ready to be killed, even, perhaps, get others killed, to avoid that humiliation.

So this personnel officer gave me a way out: if not with honor, at least with the appearance of it. But later that day, drinking in the bar at the receiving center, I changed my mind. After all, it was honor itself that I wanted, true honor, not some passable counterfeit but the kind you could live on the rest of your life. I would refuse the Delta post. I would demand to be sent to the Special Forces, to wherever the latest disaster had created an opening, and hope that by some miracle I’d prove a better soldier than I knew myself to be.


In a world where the most consequential things happen by chance, or from unfathomable causes, you don’t look to reason for help. You consort with mysteries. You encourage yourself with charms, omens, rites of propitiation. Without your knowledge or permission the bottom-line caveman belief in blood sacrifice, one life buying another, begins to steal into your bones. How could it not? All around you people are killed … but not you. They have been killed instead of you. This observation is unavoidable. So, in time, in the corollary, implicit in the word instead: in place of. They have been killed in place of you — in your place. You don’t think it out, not at the time, not in those terms, but you can’t help but feel it, and go on feeling it. It’s the close call you have to keep escaping from, the unending doubt that you have a right to your own life. It’s the corruption suffered by everyone who lives on, that henceforth they must wonder at the reason, and probe its justice.

This is one of the best (and best written) Vietnam War memoirs.