by Michael Herr
“How many times did someone have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice?”
What a phenomenal sentence, written by a phenomenal writer, in a phenomenal book. That phenomenal writer is Michael Herr. He convinced Esquire to send him to Vietnam for a year in the late 1960s, when the fighting was at its bloodiest. He came back changed, with a bunch of notebooks full of notes – notes jotted down while in helicopters, dug in inside bunkers, sitting at bars in Saigon, or while waiting for some kind of transport to get him the hell away from wherever he was – but he didn’t feel much like writing.
Nearly a decade later Dispatches was published. It is widely considered to be one of the best nonfiction books on war ever written. The writing is exceedingly beautiful while the subject matter is grisly and soul crushing. Herr writes in a literary, creative nonfiction manner, which really just means it doesn’t read like a textbook and he uses words real good.
But it is also surreal at times. Whole passages feel dreamlike. The language he uses doesn’t always seem to fit with the topic at hand. And all that comes together to bring about a deeper understanding and reading experience than any straight-forward “history” book could ever hope to manage.
All of the following happened to me while reading this book: I held my breath for more than ten seconds (a few times); I giggled, not only because it was funny, but because the prose was so ridiculously marvelous that it was literally unbelievable and I didn’t know what else to do; I closed my eyes against the horrific story unfolding on the page; I went back and reread entire paragraphs and even whole pages.
In lieu of trying to do the tiniest bit of justice to this book I’ll just provide a few magnificent quotes:
“I met this kid from Miles City, Montana, who read the Stars and Stripes every day, checking the casualty lists to see if by some chance anybody form 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?'”
“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.”
“There was such a dense concentration of American energy there, American and essentially adolescent, if that energy could have been channeled into anything more than noise, waste and pain it would have lighted up Indochina for a thousand years.”
“And they were killers. Of course they were; what would anyone expect them to be?”
“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them. Most combat troops stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights, but there were always the ones who couldn’t let that go, these few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras… We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult.”
What was unexpected, at least for me, was the compassion and empathy that came through for the “grunts”; basically the lowest level of the Marines, which was also the most populated, which, in turn, made them the most expendable. Herr didn’t shy away from describing horrible things that occurred, including the truly homicidal psychopaths that were running around, but it was clear that he developed a bond with many of them. Many times in the book he describes a solider offering him a flak jacket, giving up a seat to him, or, in one case, climbing out of a bunker in a dangerous area to get him a mattress to sleep on.
Probably my favorite section of the book focuses on his fellow correspondents covering the Vietnam War for countless media outlets. They became a kind of brotherhood. Guys like Tim Paige and Sean Flynn were described so vividly and honestly that you felt like they were your friends too. Herr talked about how those friendships essentially took over every other friendship he had back home, except for the deepest and oldest variety.
As I often do after finishing a book I enjoy immensely, I Google searched for anything and everything about Michael Herr and Dispatches. Much to my dismay, I found that Herr passed away on June 23rd. Of this year.
He also contributed the narration to “Apocalypse Now” and helped write the screenplay for “Full Metal Jacket.”
It makes me happy to know that Herr’s writing will be enjoyed and marveled at as long as books are around on this planet.
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