When the conversation turns to the military, it’s easy to identify the assholes. They want to bomb the shit out of a country they can’t find on a map. They vote for every candidate who talks big but never wore a uniform. They start a sentence about America’s role in the world with “What we ought to do…” And because loving war without getting close enough to smell it is the final tip-off to assholery, they thank soldiers “for your service.”
This book is sanity.
It’s not really a memoir, it’s not really non-fiction. It’s…a situation. Consider: Vietnam. 1967. What would a correspondent for Esquire Magazine do there? Well, anything he wanted. He wasn’t expected to file regularly. Or cover the Big Topics. So of the 600 accredited journalists in Vietnam that year, it’s just possible this ignored, mostly unknown writer had the plum job.
Michael Herr, Esquire’s 27-year-old man in Vietnam, chose to write about the troops. And why not? In Vietnam, he notes, “we could have choppers like taxis.” He took hundreds of them, often right into battle zones, just as often out of battle zones with dead soldiers as his fellow passengers. Occasionally he would find himself in rooms with generals and strategists and dignitaries, but they were of little interest. Herr’s obsession — his total focus — was on the guys who did the fighting. As he writes, “I stood as close to them as I could without actually being one of them, and then I stood as far back as I could without leaving the planet.”
The relationship was of ultimate intimacy: “They were my guns, and I let them do it.” Did he go out on missions? Yes, and there were nights when “I smoked a pack an hour all night long.” And did he, on occasion, pick up a gun? Yes, because he wanted to live.
Mostly, though, Michael Herr hung out — if, that is, your definition of “hanging out” includes a stint at Khe Sanh during the siege. Hung out, and collected stories. A few are charming: the soldier who carried a cookie baked by his wife. Some are Zen and mystifying: “Patrol went up a mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.” And some are just appalling, like the time reporters asked a helicopter crew’s door gunner, “How can you shoot women and children?” and he replied, “It’s easy, you just don’t lead ’em as much.”
Well, what did you expect? On page after page, Herr pushes you against that question: What did you expect? We went into Vietnam for reasons that were somewhat less than sound. When victory was not swift, we poured more soldiers in. When the enemy refused to engage, we changed the rules of engagement to make pretty much any Vietnamese an enemy, a target, a potential casualty. There’s no uglier kind of war than this.
It’s the disconnect in this kind of war that makes a book like Herr’s more valuable. We said the real battle in Vietnam was for “hearts and minds,” and that all our efforts were to stave off Communism and bring democracy to Vietnam, but our methods made that difficult in the extreme. Which left the troops as the only Americans hard-wired to reality. They fought. They killed. They got killed. It doesn’t get more reality-based than that. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here.For the Kindle edition, click here.]
If you were around in 1967, you recall that many of us were looking at the world that year through a haze of music and marijuana smoke. Soldiers were hardly exempt. Or correspondents. Herr is an evocative writer, and then some. Like the smartest stoner, he can take you deep inside a feeling or thought, nail it and write his way out again. Like this description of a chopper being shot at:
…the space you’d seen a second ago between subject and object wasn’t there anymore, it banged shut in a fast wash of adrenaline. Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden drop and rocket rush of the hit, the reserves of adrenaline you could make available to yourself, pumping it up and putting it out until you were lost floating in it, not afraid, almost open to clear death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed.
This is life-and-death, 24/7. You feel that as you read, and then it becomes part of you — you get that these guys aren’t playing soldier. Of all the takeaways I had re-reading “Dispatches” in a time when war is sanitized and casualties hidden, this is, for me, the big one. Beyond the fancy words and the big ideas, people die. A correspondent may get used to that, but if he puts himself in danger, he never gets used to this: “The only corpse I couldn’t bear to look at would be the one I’d never have to see.”
Michael Herr delivers Vietnam in all its flavors. And as much he’s appalled by what he sees and hears, he is always respectful of soldiers. “Even though, by the time I left, I knew where all the stories came from and where they were going, I was never bored,” Herr writes. How could it be otherwise? The point of their stories: “Put yourself in my place.”
Herr did that so well that no one has done it again. That’s partly testimony to his genius as a writer, partly to decisions made in Washington. The fact is, this kind of coverage ended in Vietnam. Someone in the Pentagon or the White House or some more obscure sector of government surely read “Dispatches” and grasped its power and decided this sort of thing was not to happen again. In Iraq, we had “embedded” reporters and correspondents who rarely left the Green Zone.
Vietnam is the war where it all went wrong for us. It’s the war to read about. And just ask anyone who was there: “Dispatches” is the book to read.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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