Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977) Picador (2015) 272 pp
In his 1943 essay “Looking Back On The Spanish War,” George Orwell placed into parentheses one of the most incisive observations yet made about men at war, yet it might pass by without being noticed at all by most readers:
The essential horror of army life (whoever has been a soldier will know what I mean by the essential horror of army life). . .
Once upon a time your humble reviewer was a man at war (twice actually), and found this to be one of those moments where you point at the page and shout “YES!” After that I could never have expected another author to identify with such pithy precision the things which are found abundantly in war but nowhere else. Michael Herr, however, who died in June having bequeathed what is generally regarded as not only the best book about the Vietnam War but perhaps the best piece of work about men at war anywhere, pretty well succeeded. The credit for one of the achievements is all his — the invocation of the language, humor, and absolute insanity common to all armies and all wars. The other, however, is the extent to which those things which do alter from war to war have done so. Dispatches is a near-perfect account of what was exclusive to the Vietnam War and the Americans who fought it. But it is other wars which have since provided another method of appreciating his work. Somewhere in the space between what is universal and what is so specific to time and environment that it will never be repeated is where the triumph of this book resides.
There’s a story, possibly apocryphal, about a group of National Guard men who arrived in Fallujah to conduct some short term task or other in 2010. A number of them were Vietnam veterans and told the young Marines around them, with their X-Boxes, iPods and live NFL broadcasts on Forces TV, that things weren’t like that in their day and they didn’t know they were born. In reply they were told ‘yeah but you had whores and LSD.’ This is redolent rather of Herr’s later admission that he spent at least half his time in Vietnam stoned in his Saigon apartment. It is there that he begins, observing an out of date wall map which is captivating in spite of the reality that “for years now there had been no country here but the war.”
As a reporter for Esquire magazine Herr was free of the restraints of newspaper reportage, with its demands for daily submissions and reliance on the newspeak of official briefings. He simply made notes and then ten years laterput them together to make Dispatches. We don’t particularly get an introduction, nor the slightest clue of why he went there. It opens in the midst of war and stays there. The great war reportage cliché, usually evident once reviewers say ‘there is as much of (insert author’s here) here as there is the war…’ is avoided by there being hardly any Herr. There is no mention that one of his best friends died whilst reporting the war, nor of the personal tumult which meant ten years passed between his return to the US and publication. It is unstructured, though the year he was there happened to witness the battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive and the battle of Khe Sanh. This is no attempt to paint the history, but rather to simply give us a flavour of what it was like. There is no theme such as boys becoming men or some poor kid from the Projects performing some act of extraordinary heroism. Just the war and the men who fought it.
These are men who barely anyone ever wants to talk about, or their world explore. The ordinary soldier, or ‘grunt,’ in Vietnam (‘Toms’ for the British) is almost always ignored by war reporting. One of thousands, he goes broadly undecorated and unclaimed, no-one wants to interview him or write a book about him. Yet the sympathy and regard Herr holds for him never seems an attempt to fill this space, but is borne out of genuine fascination, never patronising or tokenistic:
. . . it was never easy to guess the ages of Marines at Khe Sanh since nothing like youth ever lasted in their faces for very long. It was the eyes: because they were always either strained or blazed-out or simply blank, they never had anything to do with what the rest of the face was doing, and it gave everyone the look of extreme fatigue or even a glancing madness.
The point is that that all of this is more than adequate subject matter without politicians, the Vietnamese perspective or the Generals. They are in other books. The trials of the grunts in Vietnam had enough to commend them to a writer without manipulating narratives. It seems to have been especially vulnerable to a galling futility, from the Search and Destroy missions covering the same territory over and over again, or the assets thrown at objectives which made no difference whatsoever, except that a few bad guys might have died as well as some Americans.
We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.
Energy, wit and brutality. A trio summed up neatly in the “special Air Force outfit that flew defoliation missions. They were called the Ranch Hands and their motto was ‘only we can prevent forests.”
Not bad, and reminiscent of an IRA bomb-maker in Belfast who used to boast that he was employed in the car-park construction industry.
The triumph is in the honesty and the hippyish, jivey prose which Herr combines with Marine talk, or what one reviewer called ‘the language of the dugouts.’ He brings us former gangster ‘Philly Dog, who’d been a gang lord in Philadelphia and who was looking forward to some street fighting after six months in the jungle’ and a Marine:
. . . Miles City, Montana, who read the Stars and Stripes every day, checking the casualty lists to see if by some chance anybody from his home town had been killed. He didn’t even know if there was anyone else from Miles City in Vietnam, but he checked anyway because he knew for sure that if there was someone else and they got killed, he would be all right. “I mean, can you just see two guys from a raggedy-ass town like Miles City getting killed in Vietnam?
There is a hint of tenderness here, which is particularly in evidence when we encounter Marine Mayhew later on, but any old solider will be glad be that significantly less regard is reserved for the officers, the kind who viewed Khe Sanh, which from the point of view of the grunts was a calamity conducted in freezing weather, but was regarded by the command ‘with great optimism,’ not least owing to warm weather. ‘You don’t have to be a seasoned tactician,’ says Herr, ‘to realise that your ass is cold.’ The optimism sounds cheery and well-intentioned enough, but in fact it was ‘the kind that rejected facts and killed grunts wholesale and drove you into mad, helpless rages.’ A military or civilian official at war will tell journalists almost nothing they don’t expect to hear. Thy also tell their men the same thing. You are told at great length how much you are appreciated and what a huge difference you are making. This, as every soldier can see, is for the most part patronising drivel, especially when a war is so profoundly unwinnable as it was in some areas of southern Afghanistan thirty-something years after Vietnam. And the young and ambitious officers are much worse to swallow than the older and more realistic.
The Vietnam War was sufficiently unique that Dispatches could only be about it. It is crammed with slang and pop culture references, in particularly to Jimi Hendrix and The Animals’ ‘We Gotta Get Out Of This Place,’ by far the grunts’ favourite song but one which, as Herr observes, never made it anywhere near the Armed Forces Radio Network broadcasts. And obviously we don’t escape Graham Greene and Saigon’s Continental Hotel, but a possibly unintentional, and very un-Vietnam, reference to Brigadier Apthorpe’s thunderbox in Evelyn Waugh’s Men At Arms is made in describing the death of a Marine in a portable toilet at the hands of a grenade someone had rigged up to the door. The officers cannot believe that the Vietcong could infiltrate a camp in that way, but of course the grunts understand that one their own went crazy.
Like a gook is really gonna tunnel all the way in here to booby-trap a shithouse, right? Some guy just flipped out is all.
The music is one tool which characterises the manner in which Herr combines vivid specific detail with broader observations which seem to symbolise the whole affair; each helicopter ride he takes draws together ‘until they formed a collective mega-chopper…sometimes they were so plentiful and loose you could touch down at five or six places in one day, look around, hear the talk, catch the next one out.’ The helicopters in southern Afghanistan operated in much the same way, only with more paperwork, and do be sure you get off at the right stop, because some of those places might not get another flight for a week and you do not want to get stuck . . .
The fascination with helicopters is unbounded, sending Herr into some sort of fugue, though one particular instance unveils something of the unprofessionalism of the war. It can similarly be seen in the slogans written on helmets in all Vietnam movies, but details of which Herr was the first to bring. It wouldn’t happen today and anyone who did do it would be laughed at for indulging in such a cliché (though granted it may not explained to the offender in those terms by his fellow grunts or Toms). The idea that nowadays a member of helicopter crew would fly without safety lines is preposterous, but here it is:
The crew chief was a young Marine who moved around the chopper without a safety line hooked to his flight suit, so comfortable with the rolling and shaking with the ship that you couldn’t even pause to admire his daredevil nerve . . .
Daredevil nerve or stupidity, or both. Herr himself is guilty at times. In Hue one day the grunts “tried to give me their helmets and flak jackets because I turned up without my own.” Nowadays he wouldn’t have got near a military camp, never mind a helicopter, without sturdy footwear, long sleeves, helmet, body armour, hearing protection and ballistic glasses. Standards have somewhat risen since the point that:
. . . every day people were dying there because of some small detail that they couldn’t be bothered to observe. Imagine being too tired to snap a flak jacket closed, too tired to clean your rifle, too tired to guard a light, too tired to deal with the half-inch margins of safety that moving through the war often demanded, just too tired to give a fuck and then dying behind that exhaustion.
The amount of health and safety regulation at work in modern warfare, incidentally, is an interesting irony. In southern Afghanistan in 2008 / 9, in a camp which was slap bang in the centre of the town which was the Taliban’s most sought after objective for scores of miles, people weren’t allowed to use the gymnasium, which consisted of a few mats, four running machines and a lot of weights, until they’d been formally inducted and signed the appropriate paperwork. At the vast Camp Bastion / Leatherneck complex in Helmand province in 2012 / 13, people had to wear high-visibility belts for running outdoors. Even in daytime. The British called them “little gay belts.”
But as another anecdote evidences, the most extraordinary tribulations can be survived. A Rasputin-like Vietcong sniper emerges from each mortar, napalm and airstrike thrown at him.
When all of it cleared, the sniper popped up and fired off a single round, and the Marines in the trenches cheered. They called him Luke The Gook, and after that no one wanted anything to happen to him.
It is in these vignettes where Herr revels. One chapter, titled Illumination Rounds, is entirely given over to a couple of dozen one paragraph stories, amongst them the Special Forces soldier who killed one Vietcong and freed one prisoner on a patrol, only to return to camp to be told by his Major that he’d killed six and freed four: ‘Wanna see the medal?’ There is no unifying narrative to add to; he just has to get this stuff down.
Perhaps the biggest thing is the language. All armies have their own, but to a considerable extent they are identical. It is just the words which are different. Enemy killed in Vietnam were ‘greased’ or ‘whacked’, to the British in Afghanistan it was more likely to be ‘slotted’ or ‘got the good news.’ It sounds trivial, but the way people speak is surely a decent way of detecting a particular war’s zeitgeist, though it is not something which the academic or heavy historical study will broach. My experiences at war were mostly spent well out of harm’s way and were a sight more prosaic than those of Herr’s grunts or our Toms, but what stand out from over twelve months of memories are images and sounds. An Apache helicopter firing bursts of tracer fire above my head into crowds of enemy attackers who were rampaging across the outskirts of the town (fun night that was), of a suicide bomb which detonated fifty yards away (this is shamefully unexciting given the number of those killed or maimed by such bombs), endless helicopter traffic and the incredible heat they emit as you climb onto one, the first rounds that fizzed past much too close nearby, the buzz of the most febrile, testosterone-rammed and competitive headquarters imaginable, the smell of the sand after rain. Dispatches is crammed with energetic prose detailing phenomena like these. This, to the grunts and Toms who have experienced it, is more like war, not the politics, the Generals saying how well everything is going and obscene euphemisms such as ‘collateral damage’ (killing people accidentally) and ‘kinetic strike’ (killing someone or destroying something deliberately, usually from the air).’ As Orwell (again), put it, ‘a mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.’ Not in Dispatches they don’t. Michael Herr paid the men he encountered a substantial tribute by reporting the details as they would understand them. Just the truth, no message.