Tour of Duty by William H. Coles is a historical novel set in post-war France in the 60s, principally on an American airbase, part of Europe’s defensive strategies against the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation from the Soviet Union. Miles Ballard was a newly graduated doctor, drafted into the United States Air Force and posted to the Châteauroux Air Base in France. He immediately struggles with the strict military protocol and the apparent clash between the physicians’ commitment to do what is best for their patients and the military’s focus on budgets and discipline. After befriending a fellow doctor, Oliver, he discovers in Oliver’s wife, Ingrid, a common interest in art, French culture, and history. Miles, though, struggles to make romantic connections with anyone in France, still suffering from the recent rejection by his fiancée whose aristocratic and old-money Boston family determined that he was simply not of good enough stock for them, let alone a suitable husband for their daughter. Determined to do his best for his patients, Miles constantly finds himself at odds with the hospital administrator Colonel Springer whose bad temper and arrogant, misogynistic behavior were in direct conflict with Miles’s beliefs of patient care first and foremost. We follow Miles’s adventures in France as he tries to fit into a country and a culture, where, as an American military officer, he often seems despised and unwanted.
Tour of Duty is a deeply character-driven book that gives us an insight into the conditions and attitudes of post-WWII Europe. Author William H. Coles has done a good job of creating an eclectic web of characters and relationships who often feel trapped in a foreign land and unable to adapt to the culture and the animosity frequently aimed at them. I was surprised, that for the Americans on the airbase, many turned inward and sought solace amongst themselves, rather than experiencing the different and exciting cultural opportunities that Western Europe had to offer. For many of the dependants of military personnel, the harsh reality was often loneliness and isolation which led to disproportionate occurrences of 3 suicide, especially among military wives. I was pleased the author expanded on this and included it in Miles’s story. The tensions and fears of living in Western Europe, under the direct threat of imminent nuclear attack by the Soviets during the Cold War, is something that people struggle to understand these days, so I particularly appreciated the author’s touching on this tension and pressure in his narrative. Ultimately, this novel is a literary exploration of cultural mores of the time through the vehicle of relationships and love and also highlights the juxtaposition of military efficiency and expediency against the medical profession’s sworn commitment to their patients. I felt the author did a good job of exploring these two aspects. This is a gentle, enjoyable read and I can recommend it.