The best thing about Tracy Kidder's new memoir, "My Detachment," is its title, which summarizes what a reader will likely feel about this odd, remote...

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“My Detachment: A Memoir”
by Tracy Kidder
Random House, 192 pp., $24.95

The best thing about Tracy Kidder’s new memoir, “My Detachment,” is its title, which summarizes what a reader will likely feel about this odd, remote book.

Kidder’s close and objective examination of ordinary lives served him well when writing a series of best sellers about a school, a nursing home or computer development, winning him a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize. But the technique betrays him when he recounts his yearlong stint in Vietnam in a desultory military-intelligence unit.

As one of the millions of Americans who served as support troops, Kidder never saw combat, never saw Vietnam beyond his own bunkered base, never met the Vietnamese, never challenged authority and never protested the war. His job was to pinpoint enemy radio operators so artillery and warplanes could lob a few shells or bombs in that direction, collateral damage be damned.

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While strikingly candid about his youthful feelings in 1968-69, from grappling with military bureaucracy to pining over a girlfriend who keeps trying to dump him, the book lacks the combat tragedy of “Platoon” or “Catch-22,” the pathos of “Mr. Roberts,” the irreverent comedy of “Sergeant Bilko” or “McHale’s Navy,” or even the cynicism of “Beetle Bailey.” Kidder thankfully doesn’t pretend to feel sorry for himself, but he passes through Vietnam with barely a ripple.

That’s too bad, because he remains a keen observer. Some of the 3 million Americans who served in Vietnam may recognize themselves in these pages, and future historians may find this a useful account of rear-echelon life. It’s an easy, chatty read.

What this story lacks, however, are compelling human beings. Kidder, the Long Island son of a Manhattan lawyer who follows his father’s path to Harvard, remains detached from the soldiers around him. Either because of unconscious Ivy League snobbery or simple shyness, he learns little about the enlisted men he governs as a second lieutenant and views the career Army officers above him with fear and disdain.

The author has no epiphany, or even anger. He paints himself as clumsy and bemused. When his troops burn down his latrine as a joke, he simply uses the enlisted men’s. When a superior insists on more sandbags and his soldiers refuse, he fills them himself. When he braces himself to be spit on when returning to San Francisco, no one bothers.

All this is refreshingly honest, even down to his graphic disappointment with Singapore prostitutes. It just isn’t very compelling. Kidder gives no grand postmortem on Vietnam, nor does he try to transfer his experiences to Iraq.

At the end of the book, the author has a reunion with an enlisted man who tormented him, learning that “Pancho” went on to work for the CIA. “He had wanted to have an interesting life,” Kidder writes. “I had wanted to be interesting.”

A more interesting life would be way more interesting.

William Dietrich is a writer for Pacific Northwest Magazine. His most recent novel is “The Scourge of God.”