Michael Herr, "Dispatches," A World Away

Michael Herr died recently (June 23, 2016). He was a war correspondent in Vietnam, published four books, wrote the narration for Apocalypse Now, and co-wrote Full Metal Jacket. Those two movies featuring some human devastation because Herr knew human devastation. His book, “Dispatches,” follows his reporting during the Vietnam war. I first read it in my early twenties and it hung in me, heavy and twisted. It was a reality I could only glimpse at, like when I finished "Catch 22" and remembered the first third is funny, but it has to be, otherwise all that’s left is a grinding, inevitable tragedy of boys turning into men and then into corpses and there I was, whining about being a janitor at a super market.

(HSThompson on the book: “We have all spent 10 years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived – but Michael Herr’s Dispatches puts all the rest of us in the shade.”)

Thankfully, my copy of “Dispatches” wasn’t borrowed, so I could mark the margins. I flipped through it last weekend and reread the sections that stuck with me. I’ve copied some of those here:

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He had one of those faces, I saw that face at least a thousand times at a hundred bases and camps, all the youth sucked out of the eyes, the color drawn from the skin, cold white lips, you knew he wouldn’t wait for any of it to come back. Life had made him old, he’d live it out old. All those faces, sometimes it was like looking into faces at a rock concert, locked in, the event had them; or like students who were very heavily advanced, serious beyond what you’d call their years if you didn’t know for yourself what the minutes and hours of those years were made up of. Not just like all the ones you saw who looked like they couldn’t drag their asses through another day of it. (How do you feel when a nineteen year-old kid tells you from the bottom of his hear that he’s gotten too old for this kind of shit?) Not like the faces of the dead or wounded either, they could look more released than overtaken. These were the faces of boys whose whole lives seemed to have backed up on them, they’d be a few feet away but they’d be looking back at you over a distance you knew you would never really cross.

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Sitting in Saigon was like sitting inside the folded petals of a poisonous flower, the poison history, fucked in its root no matter how far back you wanted to run your trace. Saigon was the only place left with a continuity that someone as far outside as I was could recognize. Hue and Danang were like removed closed societies, mute and intractable. Villages, even large ones, were fragile, a village could disappear in an afternoon, and the countryside was either blasted over cold and dead or already back in Charles’ hands. Saigon remained, the repository and the area, it breathed history, expelled it like toxin, Shit Piss and Corruption. Paved swamp, hot mushy winds that never cleaned anything away, heavy thermal seal over diesel fuel, mildew, garbage, excrement, atmosphere. A five-block walk in that could take it out of you, you’d get back to the hotel with your head feeling like one of those chocolate apples, tap it sharply in the right spot and it falls apart in sections. Saigon, November 1967: “The animals are sick with love.” Not much chance anymore for history to go on unselfconsciously. 

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From outside we say that crazy people think they hear voices, but of course inside they really hear them. (Who’s crazy? What’s insane?) One night, like a piece of shrapnel that takes years to work its way out, I dreamed and saw a field that was crowded with dead. I was crossing it with a friend, more than a friend, a guide, and he was making me get down and look at them. They were powdered with dust, bloodied like it had been painted on with a wide brush, some were blown out of their pants, just like they looked that day being thrown onto the truck at Can Tho, and I said, “But I’ve already seen them.” My friend didn’t say anything, he just pointed, and I leaned down again and this time i looked into their faces. Hey York City, 1975, when I got up the next morning I was laughing.

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[About the Marines]

And they were killers. Of course they were; what would anyone expect them to be? It absorbed them, inhabited them, made them strong in the way that victims are strong, filled them with the twin obsessions of Death and Peace, fixed them so that they could never, never again speak lightly about the Worst Thing in the World. If you learned just this much about them, you were never quite as happy (in the miserable-joyous way of covering the war) with other outfits. And, naturally the poor bastards were famous all over Vietnam. If you spent some weeks up there and afterward joined an Army out of, say, the 4th or 25th Division, you'd get this:

    "Where you been? We ain't seen you."

     "Up in I Corps."

     "With the Marines?"

     "That's what's up there."

     "Well, all I got to say is Good Luck! Marines. Fuck that."

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There were choices everywhere, but they were never choices that you could hope to make. There was even some small chance for personal style in your recognition of the one thing you feared more than any other. You could die in a sudden blood burning crunch as your chopper hit the ground like dead weight, you could fly apart so that your pieces would never be gathered, you could take one neat one in the lung and go out hearing only the rubble of the last few breaths, you could die in the last stage of malaria with that faint tapping in your ears, and that could happen to you after months of firefights and rockets and machine guns. Enough, too many, were saved for that, and you always hoped that no irony would attend your passing. You could end in a pit somewhere with a spike through you, everything stopped forever except for the one or two motions, purely involuntary, as though you could kick it all away and come back. You could fall down dead so that the medics would have to spend half an hour looking for the hole that killed you, getting more and more spooked as the search went on. You could be shot, mined, grenades, rocketed, mortared, sniped at, blown up and away so that your leavings had to be dropped into a sagging poncho and carried to Graves Registration, that’s all she wrote. It was almost marvelous.

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But once it was actually going on, things were different. You were just like everyone else, you could no more blink than spit. It came back the same way every time, dreaded and welcome, balls and bowels turning over together, your senses working like strobes, free-falling all the way down to the essences and then flying out again in a rush to focus, like the first strong twinge of tripping after an infusion of psilocybin, reaching in at the point of calm and springing all the joy and all the dread ever know, ever known by everyone who ever lived, unutterable in its speeding brilliance, touching all the edges and then passing, as though it had all been controlled form outside, by a god or by the moon. And every time, you were so weary afterward, so empty of everything but being alive that you couldn't recall any of it, except to know that it was like something else you had felt once before. It remained obscure for a long time, but after enough times the memory took shape and substance and finally revealed itself one afternoon during the breaking off of a firefight. It was the feeling you'd had when you were much, much younger and undressing a girl for the first time.

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... and my mind went back to the map, into it really, so that the sound of outgoing artillery beyond the general's windows and the smell of burning shit and wet canvas bought in on the cold air put my head back at Khe Sanh for a moment.

     I thought about the grunts who had sat in a circle one night with a guitar, singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" Jack Laurence of CBS News had asked them if they knew what that song meant to so many people, and they said, Yes, yes, they knew. I thought about the graffiti that John Wheeler had discovered on a latrine wall there, "I think I'm falling in love with Jake," and about the grunts who had gone running up the trenchline to find a stretcher for me to sleep on, about Mayhews' space blanket, about the kid who had mailed a gook ear home to his girl and could not understand why she had stopped writing to him. I thought of the thirteen Marine maneuver battalions deployed across the Z and of the brutality and sweetness they contained, all the ways they had of saying their thanks, even though they knew you were crazy for being there. I thought about the Marines at Khe Sanh on this night; it would be about the forty-fifth night of the shelling, the Flood had not lasted this long. Prager was still talking, the general was still nodding and touching his fingertips together and the question was almost finished. "General," Prager said, "what I want to know is, what if he decides to attack at Khe Sanh and, at the same time, he attacks at every single base the Marines have set up to support Khe Sanh, all across the DMZ?"

     And I thought, Please, General, say "God forbid!" Let your hands fly up, let involuntary shudders rack your spare, tough frame. Remember Langvei. Remember Mayhew.

     The general smiled, the crack trapper anticipating things good, past all doubting. "That . . . is exactly . . . what we . . . want him to do," he said.

     We thanked him for his time and cigarettes and went out to look for a place to sleep that night.

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One day I went out with the ARVN on an operation in the rice padies above Vinh Long, forty terrified Vietnamese troops and five Americans, all packed into three Hueys that dropped us up to our hips in paddy muck. I had never been in a rice paddy before. We spread out and moved toward the marshy swale that led to the jungle. We were still twenty feet from the first cover, a low paddy wall, when we took fire from the treelines. it was probably the working half of a crossfire that had somehow gone wrong. It caught one of the ARVN in the head, and he dropped back into the water and disappeared. We made it to the wall with two casualties. There was no way of stopping their fire, no room to send in a flanking party, so gunships were called and we crouched behind the wall and waited. There was a lot of fire coming from the trees, but we were all right as long as we kept down. And I was thinking, Oh man, so this is a rice paddy, yes, wow! when I suddenly heard an electric guitar shooting right up in my ear and a mean, rapturous black voice singing, coaxing, "Now c'mon baby, stop actin' so crazy," and when I got it all together I turned to see a grinning black corporal hunched over a cassette recorder. "Might's well," he said. "We ain' goin' nowhere till them gunships come."

     That's the story of the first time I ever heard Jimi Hendrix, but in a war where a lot of people talked about Aretha's "Satisfaction" the way other people speak of Brahm's Fourth, it was more than a story, it was Credentials. "Say, that Jimi Hendrix is my main man," someone would say. "He has definitely got his shit together!" Hendrix had once been in the 101st Airborne, and the Airborne in Vietnam was full of wiggy-brilliant spades like him, really mean and really good, guys who always took care of you when things got bad. That music meant a lot to them. I never once heard it played over the Armed Forces Radio Network.

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Herr captured the war like no one else had before and it affected him deeply. In order to compile everything after he got home, a few years after, he had to leave his family and hunker down, alone, into his own Saigon away from Saigon. That he made it through Vietnam, physically, is a testament to the awful strength of humans. That he was able to write about like he did is a testament to him.