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Tobias Wolff must drive writing instructors nuts. His prose is easy, lucid, and wonderfully effective... but its sheer easiness, lucidity, and effectiveness makes it impossible to crack. Like George Orwells, his style is a zenlike no-style -- no splashy effects, no tricky wordplay, nothing you can latch onto and say yes, thats how he does it! Its also dangerous. Because Wolff feels like hes in your head while you read him, its so very easy to take everything he says at face value. Which is why In Pharaohs Army, Wolffs memoir of his tour of duty in Vietnam, reminds me so much of Robert Gravess World War I memoir Good-bye to All That. Gravess autobiography is full of novelistic touches, including outright lies. For instance, Graves is probably more responsible than anyone for the myth -- still widely repeated -- that British troops heated water for their tea by firing off belt after belt of ammunition until the water in their guns boiled. He tells a similar story of British and German gunners tapping out Morse code messages to each other by stripping cartridges out of the ammo belts at certain intervals. But machine guns dont work that way, as anyone who served in the trenches wouldve known.* Similarly, Wolff portrays himself as naive, a child-in-arms who wasnt really sure what he was doing and not very good at it, either. But Wolff was a Green Beret. Their washout rate is between 70-90%, and nobody who volunteers for the Special Forces, especially in wartime, can be under any illusions about where hell be going and what hell be doing when he gets there. Which is not to say Wolff is lying about what he did or didnt do; its just a word of caution. Soldiers who write well enough to get their memoirs published are already quite different from ordinary soldiers. Wolff is the rarest of the rare, an elite warrior who is also an elite writer. His experiences likely dont translate to the rank and file. One thing is probably universal, though: the boredom. In Pharaohs Army is fascinating, but its a war story only in the loosest technical sense. Wolff sees very little action; most of his time in-country is spent as a liaison with the South Vietnamese, directing artillery fire. But even the toughest troops in the hottest zones dont spend the majority of their time in combat. Its a cliche that war is ninety-nine percent boredom and one percent sheer terror, but cliches are cliches because theyre true. Wolff gives us the 99&, and he makes it fascinating. In Pharaohs Army isnt really about Vietnam, much less war in general, and its well worth a read just for the prose. But if youre interested in seeing the other side of combat through the eyes of a philosophical, wonderfully talented observer, get it right away.*the key word in water-cooled machine gun is cooled. As in, the water circulates through the gun, cooling it by evaporation. As Paul Fussell points out in his wonderful discussion of World War I literature, The Great War and Modern Memory, anyone who drank tea made from that stuff would basically be drinking machine oil. Similarly, the blowback from each expended bullet is what brings a new round into the firing chamber, so taking bullets out of an ammo belt makes a machine gun useless.

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