Tag Archives: reading

The Way of the Sniper

By Rick Telander in Men’s Journal.

There is a decision you must make. The world is vast and unstructured. In it, things move seemingly at random. There comes a narrowing, a focusing, as the aperture reduces and reduces. The act, combined with training and skill and vision and, yes, philosophy, leads to a gradual, noiseless ratcheting down and down, like ripples in a pond going backward toward the pebble, closer and closer, smaller and smaller, the chaos dissipating into a tiny center of detailed clarity. And then the trigger.

Scott Tyler has been out of the Navy Seals for two years, but you don’t simply forget what you did best. And what he did best, other than lead men in high-stakes combat, was aim a high-caliber, long-range rifle at a “target,” be that machine, structure, or, most relevantly, a man, and, in Tyler’s words, “take it out.” That is what snipers do. Their craft – a part of warfare since the emergence of the Kentucky rifle during the American Revolution and in some ways even further back, to whenever the first accurate, long-distance bow shooter or rock thrower appeared – might seem outdated in an era of smart bombs and computer-controlled drones. But that is not the case. In the mountains of Afghanistan and the streets of Iraq, where the sporadically appearing plainclothes enemy might be far away, amid protective rocks, or close-up amid innocent citizens, stealth killing and accurate killing – the sniper’s trademarks – are essential.

To shoot a man from a distance is a fascinating, awe-inspiring thing. It is nearly mythic in its godlike bequeathal of power. You are here, and he is there, and the connective and intensely private embrace is one of death. The two parties are linked by the flight of a tiny projectile traveling at supersonic speed, arriving to do its work well before the sound does and a moment after the powder flash and smoke are visible. To see that brief flash and to recognize, if only for a millisecond, that you will be the recipient of the explosive message, after which you will cease to exist, must be among the more horrifying recognitions there is. If the chamber noise is reduced and the blast light dulled (Tyler and the men he directed in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Philippines generally used silencers or suppressors on the barrels of their rifles), the impact – a far-off head exploding, an arm abruptly detached, a body suddenly pierced by an invisible drill – occurs in a world without context or reason for the enemy, and is therefore not just terrifying but dispiriting.

“Long-range target interdiction: That’s the two-dollar phrase,” says Tyler, who sometimes speaks so quietly that you find yourself studying his lips. “In a conventional war you’re on the battlefield, and if you look over and your buddy’s head blows up and then you see another friend go down, it freaks you out. It demoralizes you; it makes you question things. It’s a psychological thing. You, as a sniper, try for the highest-ranking person, if you can, to create that chaos. But in an insurgency, as we have now, when the enemy comes out in ones and twos, sometimes right in the cities, without ever being a big force, it’s all ambush. So it can be better to have snipers rather than a man on every corner. A sniper team can stay hidden.”

Tyler now works when he can as a security consultant – a job that still takes him to hot spots such as Somalia and Iraq. His company, Qaletaqa Corps, works with various governments, tracking down terrorists and war criminals, and with private companies, planning logistics for their personnel traveling to volatile regions, sometimes even accompanying them. He was also recently featured in a short-lived reality show on NBC called ‘The Wanted.’ In that show, Tyler and three other specialists tracked down alleged terrorists and killers now living freely in other countries. Instead of a rifle, Tyler carried a passport and a camera. The trouble with the show was it made no final sense. The evildoers had found legal loopholes so they could live openly, and Tyler sure as hell couldn’t go to, for instance, Norway, where the first episode occurred, and blast a dude from half a mile away. Though that would have been something.

At 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, Tyler is modestly sized, if muscular, with thick blacksmith hands, dark hair showing flecks of gray, and green eyes, one of which – the left – bears a birthmark that sometimes lends that iris a golden hue. Maybe the defect is actually a gift, because Tyler has 20/20 vision in his right eye but 20/15 in the left.

That’s not the only unusual thing about Tyler, 36, a man who likes to meditate and contemplate big philosophical issues, such as the meaning of life. “People expect him to be so macho,” says his mother, Kate, a former hippie who made jewelry and traveled about with her son in a lime-green school bus in southern California before settling down with second husband Darrol Rice in Rio Linda. “They expect that of a sniper. But he’s so thoughtful, so open to suggestions, so concerned about others. When he was a little boy, he found five dollars on the playground, and he turned it in. When he went to sign up for the Marines, I thought we were going to the mall so he could hit me up for comic books.”

He was 18 then, in 1991, coming off a restless high school career. (He was kicked out after spending more time surfing than studying, but eventually earned his GED.) He served a tour in Somalia, got out in 1996, and enrolled at the University of California–Berkeley. The elite, famously liberal school wasn’t exactly clamoring for a surfer-dropout-turned–G.I. Joe, but Tyler cajoled military officials into writing him letters of recommendation. He settled on chemistry as his major, “because chemistry had kicked my ass” in some early classes there, and he wasn’t backing down from it again. After a year he had a 3.8 GPA, but his view of life from the chemistry lab was not fulfilling.

He had had a dream: He would continue on to medical school, become a doctor, and, rifle hanging in the back of his truck, work on an Indian reservation, where he would save lives while hiking into the roughest terrain. “I wanted to help people,” he says. “But I was managing an apartment building and spending 80 to 90 hours a week studying. For what? So I could spend 80 to 90 hours a week studying in med school? I wanted to learn – knowledge for knowledge’s sake – but it was all so competitive for no reason, so full of backstabbing, just a meat grinder. I looked out the windows of the lab, and there were the hills. And I knew I wanted to be back around people I liked being around.”

So he switched his major to cognitive science – “why we think what we think,” he says – and began hanging out with professors, “talking and trying to learn from them.” One afternoon, Tyler and I visit his favorite professor at Berkeley, a cheerful man named John Matsui, the head of the scholars program in the department of integrative biology. As we sit in the campus coffee shop, Matsui says with something like awe, “I never had a student like Scott before. I knew you were intelligent. I saw that you would never quit. Your story was… different. Coming to school the way you did. Your desire to learn.”

Even so, after he graduated in 2000, Tyler had had enough of school, and he felt himself drawn back to the military, but this time in more of a thinking role. He joined the navy to become a SEAL, one of those supersoldiers trained not only to fight on sea, on land, or in the air, but also to operate more independently. “I wanted to work in as small a unit as possible,” he says. “I wanted to take all my determination, intentions, and skill and deliver it as precisely as I could – on the tip of a single bullet.”

And that is how a sniper was born.

Part of being a great sniper is having the ability, the mind-set, to blend in, to disguise oneself, to become part of the landscape, to feel and react like soil, like leaves blowing in the wind. In The Ultimate Sniper, a technical guide for advanced snipers that Tyler references again and again, there is a section on Ghillie suits, the camouflage outfits that are designed to resemble the surrounding landscape. “A properly made Ghillie suit so well conceals the wearer that it never fails to impress first-time viewers,” writes the author, retired army special forces major John L. Plaster. At sniper school, when an instructor talks about the suits, the point is reinforced when, after a spell, an innocuous part of the ground in front of the recruits slowly rises up and becomes human.

“The most important thing about a Ghillie suit is that you can attach other things to it,” says Tyler. “It has loops everywhere, and you gather whatever’s in your environment – leaves and grass and branches – and tape or string or zip-tie them on. It’s a layman’s myth that you cover yourself with burlap and you look like Chewbacca and that’s that.”

Snipers, whenever possible, work as two-man teams – one man spotting with a powerful scope, another shooting. But often even harder than shooting is the act of getting within range. It consists of patience almost beyond belief. There is the high crawl, the elbow crawl, the low crawl, and the sniper crawl. “The sniper crawl is the lowest, slowest movement technique…” Plaster writes, “used when movement must be so slow that there is no visible action to detect. [The sniper] creeps along, only four inches per move, using just fingers and toes to propel himself.” With a rifle, of course.

Then come the difficult decisions. “I liked the cut-and-dry, liked it if a guy had a gun and was shooting at our troops, and we shot him,” says Tyler. “It’s a situation of less ambivalence. Nobody wants to go out and murder someone. You don’t shoot just because you can. You have the trigger depressed and there is that final quarter-pound of pressure, and if you make a bad call.… Well, a ‘bad kill’ can create more insurgents, bad feelings, an international incident. But the biggest thing is, you have to live with it.”

Continue reading

Grief: Deraniyagala, Barnes, Johnson, Oates, Didion

There’s a book out called “Wave”, by Sri Lankan writer Sonali Deraniyagala. When the tsunami struck, on Boxing Day 2004, she lost her husband, her two sons and her parents. “Wave” is her memoir – there’s an fascinating review of it here in the New York Times.

The review also has the following quote, from Julian Barnes in Flaubert’s Parrot, talking about grief and the attendant feelings and sensations that come with it:

“And you do come out of it, that’s true. After a year, after five. But you don’t come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting through the downs into sunshine and that swift, rattling descent to the Channel; you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.”

He paints a powerful picture. It’s a particularly visceral allegory. So I did a little digging to see what else Barnes has said on the subject – he’s a fantastic writer – and scraped together some extracts from a piece he did in The New York Review of Books. It’s a long comparison/review of two different books – A Widow’s Story, by Joyce Carol Oates, and The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion. Here’s an edit:

In his essay “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow,” Dr. Johnson identifies the dreadful uniqueness of grief among the human passions. Ordinary desires, virtuous or vicious, contain within them the theoretical possibility of their satisfaction:

The miser always imagines that there is a certain sum that will fill his heart to the brim; and every ambitious man, like King Pyrrhus, has an acquisition in his thoughts that is to terminate his labours, after which he shall pass the rest of his life in ease or gaity, in repose or devotion.

But grief, or “sorrow,” is different in kind. Even with painful passions—fear, jealousy, anger—nature always suggests to us a solution, and with it an end to that oppressive feeling:

But for sorrow there is no remedy provided by nature; it is often occasioned by accidents irreparable, and dwells upon objects that have lost or changed their existence; it requires what it cannot hope, that the laws of the universe should be repealed; that the dead should return, or the past should be recalled.

Unless we have a religious belief that envisages the total resurrection of the body, we know that we shall never see the lost loved again on terrestrial terms: never see, never talk and listen to, never touch, never hold. In the quarter of a millenium since Johnson described the unparalleled pain of grief, we—we in the secularizing West, at least—have got less good at dealing with death, and therefore with its emotional consequences. Of course, at one level we know that we shall all die; but death has come to be looked upon more as a medical failure than a human norm. It increasingly happens away from the home, in hospital, and is handled by a series of outside specialists—a matter for the professionals. But afterward we, the amateurs, the grief-struck, are left to deal with it—this unique, banal thing—as best we can. And there are now fewer social forms to surround and support the grief-bearer.

Very little is handed down from one generation to the next about what it is like. We are expected to suffer it in comparative silence; being “strong” is the template; wailing and weeping a sign of “giving in to grief,” which is held to be a bad way of “dealing with it.” Of course, there is the love of family and friends to fall back on, but they may know less than we do, and their concerned phrases— “It does get better”; “Two years is what they say”; “You are looking more yourself”—are often based on uncertain authority and general hopefulness. Death sorts people out: both the grief-bearers and those around them. As the survivor’s life is forcibly recalibrated, friendships are often tested; some pass, some fail. Co-grievers may indulge in the phenomenon of competitive mourning: I loved him/her more, and with these tears of mine I prove it. As for the sorrowing relicts—widow, widower, or unwed partner—they can become morbidly sensitive, easily moved to anger by both too much intrusiveness and too much distance-keeping. They may even experience a strange competitiveness of their own: an irrational need to prove (to whom?) that their grief is the larger, the heavier, the purer (than whose?).

A friend of mine, widowed in his sixties, told me, “This is a crappy age for it to happen.” Meaning, I think, that if the catastrophe had happened in his seventies, he could have settled in and waited for death; whereas if it had happened in his fifties, he might have been able to restart his life. But every age is a crappy age for it to happen, and there is no correct answer in that game of would-you-rather. How do you compare the grief of a young parent left with small children to that of an aged person amputated from his or her partner of fifty or sixty years? There is no hierarchy to grief, except in the matter of feeling. Another friend of mine, widowed in a moment after fifty years of marriage—the knot of people by a baggage carousel in the arrivals hall turned out to be surrounding her suddenly dead husband—wrote to me: “Nature is very exact in the matter. It hurts just as much as it is worth.”

Joan Didion had been married to John Gregory Dunne for forty years when he died in mid-sentence while on his second pre-dinner whisky in December 2003. Joyce Carol Oates and Raymond Smith had been together for “forty-seven years and twenty-five days” when Smith, in hospital but apparently recovering well from pneumonia, was swept away by a secondary infection in February 2008. Both literary couples were intensely close yet noncompetitive, often working in the same space and rarely apart: in the case of Didion-Dunne, for a “week or two or three here and there when one of us was doing a piece”; in the case of Oates-Smith, no more than a day or two.

The similarities continue: in each marriage the woman was the star; each of the dead husbands had been a lapsed Catholic; neither wife seems to have imagined in advance her transformation into widow; and each left her husband’s voice on the answering machine for some while after his death. Further, each survivor decided to chronicle her first year of widowhood, and each of their books was completed within those twelve months.

That both Didion and Oates limit their books to the first year of their widowhoods is logical. Long-married couples develop a certain rhythm, gravity, and coloration to the annual cycle, and so those first twelve months of widowhood propose at every turn a terrible choice: between doing the same as last year, only this time by yourself, or deliberately not doing the same as last year, and thereby perhaps feeling even more by yourself. That first year contains many stations of the cross. For instance, learning to return to a silent, empty house. Learning to avoid what Oates calls “sinkholes”—those “places fraught with visceral memory.” Learning how to balance necessary solitude and necessary gregariousness. Learning how to react to friends who mystifyingly decline to mention the name of the lost partner; or colleagues who fail to find the right words, like the “Princeton acquaintance” who greeted Oates “with an air of hearty reproach” and the line, “Writing up a storm, eh, Joyce?” Or like the woman friend who offers her the consolation that grief “is neurological. Eventually the neurons are ‘re-circuited.’ I would think that, if this is so, you could speed up the process by just knowing.

The intention is kindly; the effect, patronizing. Oh, so it’s just a question of waiting for those neurons to settle? Then there are practical problems: for instance, the garden your husband lovingly tended, but in which you are less interested; you may enjoy the results, but rarely joined him in visits to the garden center. So do you faithfully replicate the same work, or do you unfaithfully let the garden look after itself? Here, Oates finds a wise third way: where Smith planted only annuals, she replants with nothing but perennials, asking the nurseryman for “anything that requires a minimum of work and is guaranteed to survive.”

Which is the problem confronting the widow: how to survive that first year, how to turn into a perennial. This involves surmounting fears and anxieties for which there is no training. Previously, Oates rated as “the most exquisite of intimacies” the ability to occupy the same space as Ray for hours, without the need to speak; now, there is a quite different order of silence. “What I am,” Oates writes, “begins to be revealed now that I am alone. In such revelation is terror.”

Oates excellently conveys the disconnect between the inwardly chaotic self and the outwardly functioning person (and she is functioning again with remarkable rapidity—correcting proofs and working on a story within a week of Smith’s death, back on the literary road within three). She is certainly less in control than she seems to outsiders, but probably more in control than she feels to herself.

Smith’s opinions on the relationship between the sexes are somewhat unusual:

To a woman, the quintessential male is unknowable, elusive.

In our marriage it was our practice not to share anything that was upsetting, depressing, demoralizing, tedious—unless it was unavoidable.

Women are inclined to console men, all women, all men, in all circumstances without discretion.

The ideal marriage is of a writer and her/his editor.

A wife must respect her husband’s family even when—as it sometimes happens—her husband does not entirely respect them.

A wife must respect the otherness of her husband—she must accept it, she will never know him fully.

This sounds like shyness raised to marital principle; and it brings with it the danger that when the wife becomes a widow and goes through her husband’s papers, she will find out things she barely suspected. In Ray Smith’s case: a nervous breakdown, a love affair at a sanatarium, a psychiatrist’s description of him as “love-starved,” and further evidence of a difficult, distant relationship with his father. “For all that I knew Ray so well,” she concludes, “I didn’t know hisimagination.” Nor, perhaps, did he know hers, given that he rarely read her fiction. But he was “the first man in my life, the last man, the only man.”

In some ways, autobiographical accounts of grief are unfalsifiable, and therefore unreviewable by any normal criteria. The book is repetitive? So is grief. The book is obsessive? So is grief. The book is at times incoherent? So is grief. Phrases like “Friends have been wonderful inviting me to their homes” are platitudes; but grief is filled with platitudes. The chapter headed “Fury!” begins:

Then suddenly, I am so angry.
I am so very very angry, I am furious.
I am sick with fury, like a wounded animal.

If a creative writing student turned this in as part of a story, the professor might reach for her red pencil; but if that same professor is writing a stream-of-consciousness diary about grief, the paragraph becomes strangely validated. This is how it feels, and what is grief at times but a car crash of cliché?

Grief dislocates both space and time. The grief-struck find themselves in a new geography, where other people’s maps are only ever approximate. Time also ceases to be reliable. C.S. Lewis, in A Grief Observed, describes the effect on him of his wife’s death:

Up till this I always had too little time. Now there is nothing but time. Almost pure time, empty successiveness.

And this unreliability of time adds to the confusion in the sorrower’s mind as to whether grief is a state or a process. This is far from a theoretical matter. It is at the heart of the question: Will it always be like this? Will things get better? Why should they? And if so, how will I tell? Lewis admits that when he started writing his book,

I thought I could describe a state; make a map of sorrow. Sorrow, however, turns out to be not a state but a process. It needs not a map but a history.

Probably, it needs both at the same time. We might try to pin it down by saying that grief is the state and mourning the process; yet to the person enduring one or both, things are rarely clear, and the “process” is one that involves much slipping back into the paralysis of the “state.” There are various markers: the point at which tears—regular, daily tears—stop; the point when the brain returns to normal functioning; the point when possessions are disposed of; the point when memory of the lost one begins to return. But there can be no general rules, nor standard time-scale. Those pesky neurons just can’t be relied upon.

What happens next, when the state and the process are, if by no means complete, at least established and recognizable? What happens to our heart? Again, there are those confident surrounding voices (from “How could he/she ever marry again after living with her/him?” to “They say the happily married tend to remarry quickly, often within six months”). A friend whose long-term lover had died of AIDS told me, “There’s only one upside to this thing: you can do what you fucking well like.” The trouble is that when you are in sorrow, most notions of “what you like” will contain the presence of your lost love and the impossible demand that the laws of the universe be repealed. And so: a hunkering-down, a closing-off, a retreat into the posthumous faithfulness of memory? Raymond Smith didn’t much like Dr. Johnson, finding him too didactic, and preferring the Doctor of Boswell’s account to that of his own writings. But on sorrow, Johnson is not so much didactic as wise, clear, and decisive:

An attempt to preserve life in a state of neutrality and indifference, is unreasonable and vain. If by excluding joy we could shut out grief, the scheme would deserve very serious attention; but since however we may debar our lives from happiness, misery will find its way at many inlets, and the assaults of pain will force our regard, though we may withhold it from the invitations of pleasure, we may surely endeavour to raise life above the middle point of apathy at one time, since it will necessarily sink below it at another.

So what constitutes “success” in mourning? The ability to return to concentration and work; the ability to rediscover interest in life, and take pleasure in it, while recognizing that present pleasure is far from past joy. The ability to hold the lost love successfully in mind, remembering without distorting. The ability to continue living as he or she would have wanted you to do (though this is a tricky area, where the sorrowful can often end up giving themselves a free pass). And then what? Some form of self-sufficiency that avoids neutrality and indifference? Or a new relationship that will either supplant the lost one or, perhaps, draw strength from it?

 

When Dr. Johnson wrote “The Proper Means of Regulating Sorrow” he was not yet widowed. That event was to occur two years later, when he was forty-three. Twenty-eight years afterward, in a letter to Dr. Thomas Lawrence, whose wife had recently died, Johnson wrote:

He that outlives a wife whom he has long loved, sees himself disjoined from the only mind that has the same hopes, and fears, and interest; from the only companion with whom he has shared much good or evil; and with whom he could set his mind at liberty, to retrace the past or anticipate the future. The continuity of being is lacerated; the settled course of sentiment and action is stopped; and life stands suspended and motionless, till it is driven by external causes into a new channel. But the time of suspense is dreadful.

The King’s Breakfast

The King’s Breakfast

The King asked
The Queen, and
The Queen asked
The Dairymaid:
“Could we have some butter for
The Royal slice of bread?”
The Queen asked the Dairymaid,
The Dairymaid
Said, “Certainly,
I’ll go and tell the cow
Now
Before she goes to bed.”

The Dairymaid
She curtsied,
And went and told the Alderney:
“Don’t forget the butter for
The Royal slice of bread.”

The Alderney said sleepily:
“You’d better tell
His Majesty
That many people nowadays
Like marmalade
Instead.”

The Dairymaid
Said “Fancy!”
And went to
Her Majesty.
She curtsied to the Queen, and
She turned a little red:
“Excuse me,
Your Majesty,
For taking of
The liberty,
But marmalade is tasty, if
It’s very
Thickly
Spread.”

The Queen said
“Oh!”
And went to his Majesty:
“Talking of the butter for
The royal slice of bread,
Many people
Think that
Marmalade
Is nicer.
Would you like to try a little
Marmalade
Instead?”

The King said,
“Bother!”
And then he said,
“Oh, deary me!”
The King sobbed, “Oh, deary me!”
And went back to bed.
“Nobody,”
He whimpered,
“Could call me
A fussy man;
I only want
A little bit
Of butter for
My bread!”

The Queen said,
“There, there!”
And went to
The Dairymaid.
The Dairymaid
Said, “There, there!”
And went to the shed.
The cow said,
“There, there!
I didn’t really
Mean it;
Here’s milk for his porringer
And butter for his bread.”

The queen took the butter
And brought it to
His Majesty.
The King said
“Butter, eh?”
And bounced out of bed.
“Nobody,” he said,
As he kissed her
Tenderly,
“Nobody,” he said,
As he slid down
The banisters,
“Nobody,
My darling,
Could call me
A fussy man -
BUT
I do like a little bit of butter to my bread!”

– A A Milne

He wishes for the cloths of heaven

Nice bit of Yeats for a Friday:

HAD I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

William Butler Yeats

The cat that walked by himself

A Just So story about the cat that walked by himself, by Rudyard Kipling


EAR and attend and listen; for this befell and behappened and became and was, O my Best Beloved, when the Tame animals were wild. The Dog was wild, and the Horse was wild, and the Cow was wild, and the Sheep was wild, and the Pig was wild–as wild as wild could be–and they walked in the Wet Wild Woods by their wild lones. But the wildest of all the wild animals was the Cat. He walked by himself, and all places were alike to him.

Of course the Man was wild too. He was dreadfully wild. He didn’t even begin to be tame till he met the Woman, and she told him that she did not like living in his wild ways. She picked out a nice dry Cave, instead of a heap of wet leaves, to lie down in; and she strewed clean sand on the floor; and she lit a nice fire of wood at the back of the Cave; and she hung a dried wild-horse skin, tail-down, across the opening of the Cave; and she said, ‘Wipe you feet, dear, when you come in, and now we’ll keep house.’

That night, Best Beloved, they ate wild sheep roasted on the hot stones, and flavoured with wild garlic and wild pepper; and wild duck stuffed with wild rice and wild fenugreek and wild coriander; and marrow-bones of wild oxen; and wild cherries, and wild grenadillas. Then the Man went to sleep in front of the fire ever so happy; but the Woman sat up, combing her hair. She took the bone of the shoulder of mutton–the big fat blade-bone–and she looked at the wonderful marks on it, and she threw more wood on the fire, and she made a Magic. She made the First Singing Magic in the world.

Out in the Wet Wild Woods all the wild animals gathered together where they could see the light of the fire a long way off, and they wondered what it meant.

Then Wild Horse stamped with his wild foot and said, ‘O my Friends and O my Enemies, why have the Man and the Woman made that great light in that great Cave, and what harm will it do us?’

Wild Dog lifted up his wild nose and smelled the smell of roast mutton, and said, ‘I will go up and see and look, and say; for I think it is good. Cat, come with me.’

‘Nenni!’ said the Cat. ‘I am the Cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me. I will not come.’

‘Then we can never be friends again,’ said Wild Dog, and he trotted off to the Cave. But when he had gone a little way the Cat said to himself, ‘All places are alike to me. Why should I not go too and see and look and come away at my own liking.’ So he slipped after Wild Dog softly, very softly, and hid himself where he could hear everything. (click here to read the rest of this lovely story or just enjoy the reading at the top)

The Guy Quote – Michael Herr (a must-read)

Before he co-wrote and contributed to Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, Michael Herr wrote a book called Dispatches.

Published in 1977, it is a memoir of his days as an Esquire journalist in Vietnam in 1967, where he witnessed some of the fiercest fighting of the war.

He had originally gone with no real brief, no real deadlines, intending to write a series of monthly articles for the magazine, but gave up when he realised the idea was simply “horrible”. It took him ten years to gather his thoughts.

Dispatches pioneered a new form of journalism – the nonfiction novel. Pick it up if you see it, the writing is honest, engrossing, truthful. No wonder Jean Le Carré called it “the best book on war and men in our time”.

The Heath Anthology of American Literature has this to say: ‘As Herr tells it, the Vietnam War was very much a 1960s spectacle: part John Wayne movie, part rock-and-roll concert, part redneck riot, part media event, and part bad drug trip. Herr’s style, so perfectly grounded in the popular culture of the time, pulls at the reader with great power and unmistakable authenticity. After a particularly terrible battle, a young Marine glared at Herr, knowing he was a writer, and snarled: “Okay, man, you go on, you go on out of here, you cocksucker, but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man.” And so Herr did.’

When I was about 13 I bought a copy in a second-hand book shop. I liked it because it had a picture of a helmet on the front and I’d never seen a book cover with white space like that. Platoon was out in the cinema and me and my best friend Nicky Boas were listening to a lot of Deep Purple and The Doors.

I was engrossed from the second I opened it. I read it and re-read it until the spine cracked and it fell apart. Re-reading some of it now, I’m amazed how much of it has stuck with me too. Dispatches introduced me to all sorts of writers – a gateway to Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer and more. Its words, its ethos – well, all of it really – is just as relevant, just as powerful today as it ever was.

NB – please click here to see more “The Guy Quote” pieces

[apologies in advance if any of these aren't from Dispatches - let me know and I'll correct in a jiffy, but I'm fairly sure they're all good]

“In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in begin to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, 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.”

“I had the I Corps DTs, livers, spleens, brains, a blue-black swollen thumb moved around and flashed to me, they were playing over the walls of the shower where I spent my half-hour, they were on the bedsheets, but I wasn’t afraid of them. I was laughing at them, what could they do to me?
“I filled a water glass with Armagnac and rolled a joint, and then started to read my mail. In one of the letters there was news that a friend of mine had killed himself in New York. When I turned off the lights and got into bed I lay there trying to remember what he had looked like. He had done it with pills, but no matter what I tried to imagine, all I saw was blood and bone fragment, not my dead friend. After a while I broke through for a second and saw him, but by that time all I could do with it was file him in with the rest and go to sleep.”

“Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it.”

“There’s no way around it, if you photographed a dead marine with a poncho over his face and got something for it, you were some kind of parasite. But what were you if you pulled the poncho back first to make it a better shot, and did that in front of his friends? Some other kind of parasite I suppose.”

“All the wrong people remember Vietnam. I think all the people who remember it should forget it, and all the people who forgot it should remember it.”

“I think Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.”

“Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden 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 orgasmic death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed.
“Unless of course you’d shit your pants or were screaming or praying or giving anything at all to the hundred-channel panic that blew word salad all around you and sometimes clean through you. Maybe you couldn’t love war and hate it inside the same instant, but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel rolling all the way up until you were literally High On War, like it said on the helmet covers. Coming off a jag like that could really make a mess of you.”

“‘I’ve been having this dream,’ the major said. ‘I’ve had it two times now. I’m in a big examination room back at Quantico. They’re handing out questionnaires for an aptitude test. I take one look at it, and the first question says, How many kinds of animals can you kill with your hands?’
We could see rain falling in a sheet about a kilometre away. Judging by the wind, the major gave it three minutes before it reached us.
‘After the first tour, I’d have the goddamndest nightmares. You know, the works. Bloody stuff, bad fights, guys dying, me dying… I thought they were the worst,’ he said. ‘But I sort of miss them now.’”

“Levels of information were levels of dread, once it’s out it won’t go back in, you can’t just blink it away or run the film backward out of consciousness. How many of those levels did you really want to hump yourself through, which plateau would you reach before you shorted out and started sending back the messages unopened?”

“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.”

“…if that energy could have been channelled into anything more than noise, waste and pain it would have lighted up Indochina for a thousand years.”

“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 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?”

“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 of the ship that you couldn’t even pause to admire his daredevil nerve; you cut straight through to his easy grace and control, marveling as he hunkered down by the open door to rig the broken seat up again with pliers and a length of wire. At 1,500 feet he stood there in the gale-sucking door (Did he ever think about stepping off? How often?), his hands resting naturally on his hips, as though he were just standing around on a street corner somewhere, waiting. He knew he was good, an artist, he knew we were digging it, but it wasn’t for us at all; it was his, private; he was the man who was never going to fall out of any damn helicopter.”

“How many times did someone have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice?”

“Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. [...] I knew one 4th division Lurp who took his pills by the fistful, downs from the left pocket of his tiger suit and ups from the right, one to cut the trail for him and the other to send him down it. He told me that they cooled things out just right for him, that could see that old jungle at night like he was looking at it through a starlight scope. “They sure give you the range,” he said.”

“Maybe nothing’s so unfunny as an omen read wrong.”

“You know how it is, you want to look and you don’t want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had when I was a kid looking at war photographs in Life, the ones that showed dead people or a lot of dead people lying close together in a field or street, often touching, seeming to hold each other. Even when the picture was sharp and cleanly defined, something wasn’t clear at all, some repressed that monitored the images and withheld their essential information. It may have legitimized my fascination, letting me look for as long as I wanted; I didn’t have a language for it then, but I remember now the shame I felt, like looking at first porn, all the porn in the world. I could have looked until my lamps went out and I still wouldn’t have accepted the connection between a detached leg and the rest of the body, or the poses and positions that always (one day I’d hear it called “response-to-impact”), bodies wrenched too fast and violently into unbelievable contortion. Or the total impersonality of group death, making them lie anywhere and any way it left them, hanging over barbed wire or thrown promiscuously on top of other dead, or up into the trees like terminal acrobats, Look what I can do.

“Supposedly, you weren’t going to have that kind of obscuration when you finally started seeing them on real ground in front of you, but you tended to manufacture it anyway because of how often and how badly you needed protection from what you were seeing, had actually come 30,000 miles to see. Once I looked at them strung from perimeter to the treeline, most of them clumped together nearest the wire, then in smaller numbers but tighter groups midway, fanning out into lots of scattered points nearer the treeline, with one all by himself half into the bush and half out. “Close but no cigar”, the captain said, and then a few of his men went out there and kicked them all in the head, thirty-seven of them. Then I heard an M-16 on full automatic starting to go through the clips, a second to fire, three to plug in a fresh clip, and I saw a man out there, doing it. Every round was like a tiny concentration of high-velocity wind, making the bodies wince and shiver. When he finished he walked by us on the way back to his hootch and I knew I hadn’t seen anything until I saw his face. It was flushed and mottled and twisted like he had his face skin on inside out, a patch of green that was too dark, a streak of red running in bruise purple, a lot of sick gray white in between, he looked like he’d had a heart attack out there. His eyes were rolled up into his head, his mouth was sprung open and his tongue was out, but he was smiling. Really a dude who’d shot his wad. The captain wasn’t too pleased about my having seen that.”

‘Bob Stokes of Newsweek told me this: In the big Marine Hospital in Danang they have what is called the “White Lie Ward”, where they bring some of the worst cases, the ones who can be saved but who will never be the same again. A young Marine was carried in, still unconscious and full of morphine, and his legs were gone. As he was being carried into the ward, he came out briefly and saw a Catholic chaplain standing over him.

“Father,” he said, “am I all right?”

The chaplain didn’t know what to say. “You’ll have to talk about that with the doctors, son.”

“Father, are my legs okay?”

“Yes,” the chaplain said. “Sure.”

By the next afternoon the shock had worn off and the boy knew all about it. He was lying in his cot when the chaplain came by.

“Father,” the Marine said, “I’d like to ask you for something.”

“What, son?”

“I’d like to have that cross.” And he pointed to the tiny silver insignia on the chaplain’s lapel.

“Of couse,” the shaplain said. “But why?”

“Well, it was the first thing I saw when I came to yesterday, and I’d like to have it.”

The chaplain removed the cross and handed it to him. The Marine held it tightly in his fist and looked at the chaplain.

“You lied to me, Father,” he said. “You cocksucker. You lied to me.”’