Book Essay - Spring 2007

War Weary

If Iraq is not another Vietnam, why do I find myself rereading Dispatches?

By Wendy Smith | March 1, 2007

Last fall, everyone I knew was talking about Vietnam. Not that we hadn’t been talking about it before. Ever since the invasion of Iraq, those of us old enough to remember had been unpleasantly struck by the parallels: blundering engagement in a country of whose history and culture our government was largely ignorant, a country unilaterally declared vital to our national interests by an administration that hustled Congress into supporting intervention based on falsehoods. (Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda not specious enough for you? Try Robert McNamara’s characterization of a 1964 North Vietnamese attack on a U.S. destroyer secretly gathering intelligence in the Gulf of Tonkin as “unprovoked.”) By late 2006, as the disconnect grew ever wider between the Bush administration’s assertions and what was actually going on, as “stay the course” began to sound a lot like “light at the end of the tunnel,” Vietnam loomed larger and larger. Suddenly, I found myself rereading Dispatches.

Michael Herr’s brilliant, bitter, and loving book was hailed as a masterpiece when it was published in 1977, and the critical consensus has held steady ever since. Somehow, a young journalist whose previous experience consisted mostly of travel pieces and film criticism managed to transform himself into a wild new kind of war correspondent capable of comprehending a disturbing new kind of war. “Herr is the only writer I’ve read who has written in the mad-pop-poetic/bureaucratically camouflaged language in which Vietnam has lived,” wrote playwright and Vietnam draftee David Rabe. John le Carré called Dispatches “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.” It created enough of a sensation to prompt me to shell out $8.95 for the hardcover, a lot of money for a college undergraduate in 1978. That was less than three years after North Vietnamese troops had marched into Saigon, during the odd political lull between Richard Nixon’s resignation and Ronald Reagan’s election. I read Dispatches then through particularly rose-colored glasses, confident that we had learned the lessons of Vietnam and Watergate. In the ensuring 29 years, my awe at Herr’s achievement has never lessened, but each of the three times I’ve re-read it, I’ve found new things. The book hasn’t changed, of course, but I have.

ON FIRST READING, the images Dispatches implanted in my mind were unquestionably harrowing: the corpse-strewn streets of ruined Hue, Vietnam’s imperial city; the spooky vistas of Khe Sanh, where the Marines endured near-perpetual fire from ghostly North Vietnamese divisions invisible in the jungle. But those blasted landscapes painted in swaggering rock ’n’ roll brushstrokes were as remote from my own experiences as the implacable rituals of guilt and expiation in Greek drama—indeed, I naively thought the book offered overdue catharsis for the Vietnam tragedy and expressed a new national consensus about it.

Herr’s contempt for the authorities who had dumped American troops into combat, his matter-of-fact depiction of that combat as senseless, dehumanizing, and futile, seemed like givens. Didn’t everyone feel that way by 1978? My liberal, urban friends certainly did, and few voices anywhere were being raised in defense of a military and political strategy whose ultimate fruits (helicopters evacuating the last Marines from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon while desperate, abandoned Vietnamese civilians swarmed the grounds below) were a painful recent memory. What impressed me most forcefully about Dispatches was the window it opened on the surreal texture of ordinary soldier’s lives. Liberated from deadlines by his freeform assignment from Esquire magazine, Herr spent much of his time hanging around with grunts like the exhausted kid who replied to the standard question, “How long you been in-country?” by half-lifting his head and saying, very slowly, “all fuckin’ day,” or the soldier detailed on reconnaissance patrol who told the reporter that the pills he took by the fistful “cooled things out just right” and that “he could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope.” Unlike his colleagues working for mainstream media, Herr was under no obligation to solicit and report the military command’s unwaveringly optimistic statements; instead, he listened to “grungy men in the jungle who talked bloody murder and killed people all the time,” men who despised sugar-coated official platitudes about what they were doing there as much as the most committed antiwar activist did.

Dispatches made it clear, I assumed, that hating the war didn’t mean hating those stuck with fighting it. The virtually unanimous praise lavished on this searing text, the general conviction that it was a definitive portrait of the American experience in Vietnam, suggested that Vietnam was behind us now.

How young I was, and how much I missed. I still didn’t get it in 1982, when I stood weeping in front of Maya Lin’s memorial lined with the names of Americans killed or missing in Vietnam from 1959 to 1975. Looking at the flowers and the handwritten notes placed along its black granite wall, testament to the anguish we still felt over the loss of so many lives, I couldn’t understand the veterans who angrily viewed the unconventional memorial as a “black gash of shame,” one more example of the way their service had been stigmatized. I didn’t realize it then, but Vietnam was on its way to becoming the war we weren’t allowed to win. During the 1980s, I heard that revolting phrase uttered with increasing frequency by people who sought to erase our national trauma, not by acknowledging the mistaken analysis that entangled us in Vietnam and the stubbornness that kept us there, but by shoehorning it into a conventional saga of courage and sacrifice in an honorable cause betrayed by the weak and the disloyal. Every scathing word in Dispatches belied this pat scenario.

WHEN I PICKED UP Herr’s book again in the late ’80s, however, I became uncomfortably aware that it also belied my blithe collegiate certainties. The first time through, I had breezed right over Herr’s description of the questions people asked him upon his return as “political, square, innocent . . . I’d practically forgotten the language.” I didn’t even remember the troubling passage in which his pal Tim Page, solicited by a publisher to write a book that would “take the glamour out of war,” erupted with glee: “The very idea! Ohhh, what a laugh! Take the bloody glamour out of bloody war!”

Herr and his fellow misfits among the press corps, dope-smoking longhairs though they might have been, not so secretly saw themselves as belonging to the time-honored, movienourished image of the swashbuckling war correspondent. They hailed helicopters like taxis, hitching rides into places like Dak To and the Ia Drang Valley, where they risked their lives to observe the nightmare reality buried underneath words like body count and pacification. Then they grabbed the next chopper out, heading back to Saigon to print their photos and write it all down. There was glamour in war, and they got to experience the buzz of combat from a uniquely privileged position. “Whatever else, I’d loved it there,” Herr admitted.

Soldiers felt that way too, William Broyles Jr. acknowledged in “Why Men Love War,” a 1984 essay in Esquire, which I read not long before I tackled Dispatches for the second time. Broyles probed war’s “great and seductive beauty,” the enduring comradeship created among men who trusted each other with their lives, the knowledge that in battle you touched the fundamentals of human existence. A Vietnam vet, he didn’t scant the uglier aspects: the sense of power inherent in killing, the covert joy when someone else got wasted instead of you, the unpalatable fact that being surrounded by death was, in some weird ways, a turn-on. His polished, articulate prose was light years removed from the pop-apocalyptic urgency with which Herr tried to capture the particular nature of Vietnam. And yet both conveyed a message I hadn’t been able to hear in 1978. For those who were there, the Vietnam War, like every war, was horrible and wonderful, the greatest experience of their lives as well as the worst thing that ever happened to them. There was an important political discussion to be had about Vietnam, but there was another level on which politics was beside the point.

Dispatches was more than simply a great book about Vietnam, I began to understand. I spend a lot of my professional time interviewing authors, and over the years I heard several of them refer to Herr’s work with a reverence that bordered on awe. Dispatches was “one of the greatest memoirs of all time,” remarked Mary Karr, no slouch in that department herself. “It intimidated the pants off me,” confessed novelist Bob Shacochis, who, when I talked with him, had recently completed a nonfiction portrait of American soldiers in Haiti. “I can’t imagine writing a better book than Dispatches; it’s a blast of genius.” The blasts of Herr’s rage, scorn, and agonized tenderness have been disturbing my peace for nearly three decades now; few works in any genre have haunted me the way Dispatches has.

IN 1999, IT REENTERED my life in the oddest way, forcing itself anew on my attention when I least expected it. I’d had a baby at age 39 and sank happily into the swamp of my son’s all-consuming demands and my equally consuming love for him. The domestic world was my kingdom; war was one of those absurd male pastimes that had no relevance to me. (I know this is ridiculous: remember, I was a new mother.) One day, reading a book about helicopters to my vehicle-obsessed four-year-old, I came across a photograph of a Huey landing under fire somewhere in South Vietnam. The next thing I knew, Dispatches was back in my hands.

It was placed there by my recollection of Herr’s amazing description of the Vietnam chopper: “the sexiest thing going; saverdestroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder.” Rereading that fabulous effusion, I remembered Mary Karr’s appreciative appraisal: “Just at the level of sentences, it’s never boring.” The third time around, I was swept away by the sheer magnificence of Herr’s prose as much as by what he had to say. Of course, the two were inextricably connected, and Dispatches had something new to say to me in my 40s.

The book was a personal testament, I belatedly grasped. Herr wasn’t just showing me what the war did to other people; he was examining what it did to him. He was terrified, naturally—take a look at his defoliating depiction of being under fire:

That passage took me through Vietnam to the eternal terrain of stark, animal fear. At its existential heart, Dispatches was about what happened to someone living for months on end with that kind of fear, about what the omnipresence of death did to your soul. Herr summed it up for himself in a single bleak sentence. Walking through the streets of Hue during the Tet Offensive, past hundreds of bodies decomposing in the cold rain, he wrote, “I realized that the only corpse I couldn’t bear to look at would be the one whose face I would never have to see.”

The grunts’ moments of individual reckoning were blunter. “All that’s just a load, man,” said one young soldier, dismissing the domino theory and other official rationales. “We’re here to kill gooks. Period.” Being a mother, I flinched at the thought of my son growing up to say something like that. Being a journalist, I flinched again at Herr’s sardonic addendum: “[That] wasn’t at all true of me. I was there to watch.” I’d never covered a war or grilled a duplicitous politician, but anyone who writes nonfiction is familiar with the queasily mixed emotions inherent in using other people’s experiences as your raw material. Herr dissected that complex, fraught relationship in a situation where the stakes were mortally high. He thought of himself as the grunts’ brother, sharing their miseries and dangers in the field. On the surface, they seemed to agree. They gave him their helmets and flak jackets, found him mattresses to sleep on, threw blankets over him when he was cold. “You’re all right man,” they said, “you got balls.”

But then would come “that bad, bad moment . . . the look that made you look away,” or the comment of a rifleman watching a jeepload of correspondents drive off: “Those fucking guys, I hope they die.” Then the distance was clear. “They weren’t judging me, they weren’t reproaching me, they didn’t even mind me, not in any personal way,” Herr wrote. “They only hated me, hated me the way you’d hate any hopeless fool who would put himself through this thing when he had choices.” He was not their brother, and he came to a conclusion many reporters prefer not to draw: “You were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.” There was only one way to honor that responsibility, and the grunts told him what it was. “They would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it.”

Herr told as many of their stories as he could cram into a narrative burning with his fierce belief that “conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it.” He told the story of a freaked-out Marine, throwing away fatigues soaked with the blood of “some guy he didn’t even know [who] had been blown away right next to him, all over him.” There was no way to wash them clean, the soldier said, near tears: “You could take and scrub them fatigues for a million years, and it would never happen.” He told the story of a battalion in the midst of the Tet Offensive’s worst days, afflicted with despair so terrible that men from Graves Registration going through the personal effects of dead soldiers sometimes found letters from home “delivered days before and still unopened.”

All wars produce horror stories, but in most wars before Vietnam reporters were constrained from telling them, by censorship, of course, but also by their sense that there was a greater goal that at least partly justified the horrors. Herr cared very little about the big picture— and who could blame him, when one month Khe Sanh fit into the big picture as “the Western Anchor of our Defense” and the next it was “a worthless piece of ground”? He cared more about what he could learn from the Special Forces captain who said, “I went out and killed one VC and liberated a prisoner. Next day the major called me in and told me that I’d killed fourteen VC and liberated six prisoners. You want to see the medal?”

THE HUMAN TRUTHS of Dispatches were also political truths, I could see when I angrily reopened it on the eve of the 2006 midterm elections. Because Vietnam was an unpopular war that we lost, it was possible for Herr to say things about the essential nature of combat that it had been unacceptable to say about, for example, World War II. (The U.S. Army was so upset by John Huston’s Signal Corps documentary about veterans suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder that it suppressed the film for more than 30 years.) Herr took full advantage of that freedom. He took very seriously his commitment to tell the grunts’ stories, but he made no pretense of telling them from the grunts’ point of view, and he told stories they undoubtedly wished he’d kept to himself. He wasn’t “embedded,” the cynical tactic invented by the Bush administration to enmesh reporters in a conflict they were supposed to be covering impartially. “I crossed the line from observer to participant,” said Time correspondent Michael Weisskopf, who lost his right hand when he picked up a live grenade tossed into the Humvee carrying him and four soldiers on patrol in Baghdad. “It became very difficult to objectively assess the role of U.S. soldiers who were housing, feeding, befriending and protecting me. After three weeks in a platoon, I came dangerously close to adopting the mindset and mission of a soldier.”

Herr never fell into that trap. His affection for the grunts didn’t prevent him from seeing what Vietnam had done to some of them. “They were killers,” he wrote of the soldiers hunkered down at Khe Sanh. “Of course they were; what would anyone expect them to be?” With the appalling photographs from Abu Ghraib still vivid in my memory, I found my fourth journey through Dispatches halted time after time by grim glimpses of the atrocities committed in Vietnam. Herr heard stories about “the man in the Highlands who was ‘building his own gook,’ parts were the least of his troubles”; about the door gunner, asked how he could shoot women and children, who replied, “It’s easy, you just don’t lead ’em so much.” He saw a photo of a Marine “pissing into the locked-open mouth of a decomposing North Vietnamese soldier”; albums with pictures of smiling soldiers holding up severed heads or necklaces of ears. “There were hundreds of those albums in Vietnam, thousands,” he noted wearily. The inevitable snapshot of a dead Viet Cong woman stripped naked was inevitably accompanied by “that same tired remark you heard every time . . . ‘No more boom-boom for that mamma-san.’”

Herr was sickened by what he saw and heard, but he didn’t judge the grunts. He knew what they were up against. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were not good guys; he observed without surprise that they were supplied by the Soviets and the Chinese, that they were responsible for plenty of atrocities themselves. What unnerved American soldiers about their enemy—and drove the brass purely crazy—was that he wasn’t playing by their rules. Over and over, Herr described major battles with massive casualties on both sides that didn’t so much end as stop when the North Vietnamese picked up most of their dead and vanished into the jungle. Command proclaimed them victories, but it was hard to feel victorious at the top of Dak To’s Hill 875, which hundreds of Americans had died to take, where there were exactly four Vietnamese bodies. “Of course more died, hundreds more,” Herr wrote, “but the corpses kicked and counted and photographed and buried numbered four. . . . Spooky. Everything up there was spooky . . . you were there in a place where you didn’t belong.”

The grunts knew it, and they didn’t make their commanders’ mistake of underestimating their opponents. While a colonel in Saigon was declaring that the enemy “no longer maintains in our view capability to mount, execute or sustain a serious offensive action,” out in the countryside soldiers were looking around uneasily, saying, “Charlie’s up to something. Slick, slick, that fucker’s so slick. Watch!” What they understood and their leaders refused to acknowledge was that battles and “victories” didn’t add up to anything. “They killed a lot of Communists, but that was all they did,” Herr wrote of the campaign in the Vietnamese highlands. “The number of Communist dead meant nothing, changed nothing.”

Iraq is not Vietnam. The desert is not the jungle. The Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese Army, infuriatingly hard to pin down though they were, were miracles of coherence compared to the rat’s nest of sectarian death squads and fundamentalist splinter groups accountable to who knows who that toss IEDs at American jeeps in the streets of Baghdad and Mosul. What is shockingly, shamingly similar is the arrogance, criminal blindness, and willful obfuscation that ensnared America in both places. In 2006, no other sentence in Dispatches distressed me more than an almost casual aside in the midst of Herr’s exegesis of “the bloody, maddening uncanniness” of Vietnam’s terrain. “There is a point of view,” he wrote, “that says that the United States got involved in the Vietnam War, commitments and interests aside, simply because we thought it would be easy.”

Like all great books, Dispatches is inexhaustible. I have learned from it, changed with it, made mistakes about it. It was never the document of national reconciliation I once thought it was. It was and is the timeless portrait of war’s bedrock realities—fear, death, murder, madness—that I was finally ready to confront in my 30s. It’s also a revelation of the beauty that unfolds in extreme circumstances, the clarity of vision possible when everything extraneous has fallen away. It’s a brazen display of unbridled romanticism and extravagant prose. It’s a chastening exploration of our complicity in what we see from a safe distance. It’s beyond politics, but we ignore, and have ignored, its political lessons at our peril.

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