Tag Archives: war

Fine – a clever story about the life and death of a soldier

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.”’

Bomber jackets

Amazing set of WWII bomber jackets from Flickr, collected by D. Sheley. Just imagine getting home in one piece, and very carefully painting another white bomb on your jacket with your buddies, or the very visual pecking order that you’d get seeing a crew of veterans next to a newbie. Click the image to go the fully linked gallery page.

On Remembrance Day — Extraordinary LIFE photos that showed the true faces of war


This Eugene Smith picture — of Marines taking cover on an Iwo Jima hillside as a Japanese bunker is obliterated — captures the cataclysmic destruction inherent in war perhaps more perfectly than any other single image ever published in LIFE.

WWII: MacArthur Barks Orders, Inchon, 1950
Gen. Douglas MacArthur roars orders from the bridge of the flagship USS Mount McKinley as Marines storm the beachheads of Inchon, Korea. MacArthur’s daring amphibious assault turned the Korean War around, and for those Americans who had long heard of the man’s titanic leadership — but had never witnessed it — Carl Mydans’ almost assaultive, intimate photo relayed the famous general’s legendary style of command.

Click HERE to see the full slideshow.

WWII Before the war – photo essay

World War II: Before the War is the first part in a series of 20 retrospective photo essays for Atlantic by Alan Taylor. It was a fascinating time of huge upheaval. Spain locked in civil war, Fascism on the rise, Japan invading China, the US still reeling from the Great Depression – and far from the only country to be suffering. I’ve chucked a couple of images below, but make sure you look at the whole series here. It’s a powerful reminder that however much time or Hollywood might blunt the edges this was, for the whole world, a period of massive change and conflict that is all too easily dismissed but should never be forgotten.

Adolf Hitler, age 35, on his release from Landesberg Prison, on December 20, 1924. Hitler had been convicted of treason for his role in an attempted coup in 1923 called the Beer Hall Putsch. This photograph was taken shortly after he finished dictating "Mein Kampf" to deputy Rudolf Hess. Eight years later, Hitler would be sworn in as Chancellor of Germany, in 1933. (Library of Congress)

Buddhist priests of the Big Asakusa Temple prepare for the Second Sino-Japanese War as they wear gas masks during training against future aerial attacks in Tokyo, Japan, on May 30, 1936. (AP Photo)

A fascist machine gun squad, backed up by expert riflemen, hold a position along the rugged Huesca front in northern Spain, Dec. 30, 1936. (AP Photo)

England's biggest demonstration of its readiness to go through a gas attack was staged, March 16, 1938, when 2,000 volunteers in Birmingham donned gas masks and went through an elaborate drill. These three firemen were fully equipped, from rubber boots to masks, for the mock gas "invasion". (AP Photo)

German-made Stuka dive bombers, part of the Condor Legion, in flight above Spain on May 30, 1939, during the Spanish Civil War. The black-and-white "X" on the tail and wings is Saint Andrew's Cross, the insignia of Franco's Nationalist Air Force. The Condor Legion was composed of volunteers from the German Army and Air Force. (AP Photo)

Three hundred fascist insurgents were killed in this explosion in Madrid, Spain, under the five-story Casa Blanca building, on March 19, 1938. Government loyalists tunneled 600 yards over a six-month period to lay the land mine that caused the explosion. (AP Photo)

Peace at any cost

Eisenhower’s worst fears came true. We invent enemies to buy the bombs

Britain faces no serious threat, yet keeps waging war. While big defence exists, glory-hungry politicians will use it

Fascinating article by Simon Jenkins in The Guardian:

Why do we still go to war? We seem unable to stop. We find any excuse for this post-imperial fidget and yet we keep getting trapped. Germans do not do it, or Spanish or Swedes. Britain’s borders and British people have not been under serious threat for a generation. Yet time and again our leaders crave battle. Why?

Last week we got a glimpse of an answer and it was not nice. The outgoing US defence secretary, Robert Gates, berated Europe’s “failure of political will” in not maintaining defence spending. He said Nato had declined into a “two-tier alliance” between those willing to wage war and those “who specialise in ‘soft’ humanitarian, development, peacekeeping and talking tasks”. Peace, he implied, is for wimps. Real men buy bombs, and drop them.

This call was echoed by Nato’s chief, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who pointed out how unfair it was that US defence investment represented 75% of the Nato defence expenditure, where once it was only half. Having been forced to extend his war on Libya by another three months, Rasmussen wanted to see Europe’s governments come up with more money, and no nonsense about recession. Defence to him is measured not in security but in spending.

The call was repeated back home by the navy chief, Sir Mark Stanhope. He had to be “dressed down” by the prime minister, David Cameron, for warning that an extended war in Libya would mean “challenging decisions about priorities”. Sailors never talk straight: he meant more ships. The navy has used so many of its £500,000 Tomahawk missiles trying to hit Colonel Gaddafi (and missing) over the past month that it needs money for more. In a clearly co-ordinated lobby, the head of the RAF also demanded “a significant uplift in spending after 2015, if the service is to meet its commitments”. It, of course, defines its commitments itself.

Libya has cost Britain £100m so far, and rising. But Iraq and the Afghan war are costing America $3bn a week, and there is scarcely an industry, or a state, in the country that does not see some of this money. These wars show no signs of being ended, let alone won. But to the defence lobby what matters is the money. It sustains combat by constantly promising success and inducing politicians and journalists to see “more enemy dead”, “a glimmer of hope” and “a corner about to be turned”.

Victory will come, but only if politicians spend more money on “a surge”. Soldiers are like firefighters, demanding extra to fight fires. They will fight all right, but if you want victory that is overtime.

On Wednesday the Russian ambassador to Nato warned that Britain and France were “being dragged more and more into the eventuality of a land-based operation in Libya”. This is what the defence lobby wants institutionally, even if it may appal the generals. In the 1980s Russia watched the same process in Afghanistan, where it took a dictator, Mikhail Gorbachev, to face down the Red Army and demand withdrawal. The west has no Gorbachev in Afghanistan at the moment. Nato’s Rasmussen says he “could not envisage” a land war in Libya, since the UN would take over if Gaddafi were toppled. He must know this is nonsense. But then he said Nato would only enforce a no-fly zone in Libya. He achieved that weeks ago, but is still bombing.

It is not democracy that keeps western nations at war, but armies and the interests now massed behind them. The greatest speech about modern defence was made in 1961 by the US president Eisenhower. He was no leftwinger, but a former general and conservative Republican. Looking back over his time in office, his farewell message to America was a simple warning against the “disastrous rise of misplaced power” of a military-industrial complex with “unwarranted influence on government”. A burgeoning defence establishment, backed by large corporate interests, would one day employ so many people as to corrupt the political system. (His original draft even referred to a “military-industrial-congressional complex”.) This lobby, said Eisenhower, could become so huge as to “endanger our liberties and democratic processes”.

I wonder what Eisenhower would make of today’s US, with a military grown from 3.5 million people to 5 million. The western nations face less of a threat to their integrity and security than ever in history, yet their defence industries cry for ever more money and ever more things to do. The cold war strategist, George Kennan, wrote prophetically: “Were the Soviet Union to sink tomorrow under the waters of the ocean, the American military-industrial complex would have to remain, substantially unchanged, until some other adversary could be invented.”

The devil makes work for idle hands, especially if they are well financed. Britain’s former special envoy to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles, echoed Kennan last week in claiming that the army’s keenness to fight in Helmand was self-interested. “It’s use them or lose them, Sherard,” he was told by the then chief of the general staff, Sir Richard Dannatt. Cowper-Coles has now gone off to work for an arms manufacturer.

There is no strategic defence justification for the US spending 5.5% of its gross domestic product on defence or Britain 2.5%, or for the Nato “target” of 2%.

These figures merely formalise existing commitments and interests. At the end of the cold war soldiers assiduously invented new conflicts for themselves and their suppliers, variously wars on terror, drugs, piracy, internet espionage and man’s general inhumanity to man. None yields victory, but all need equipment. The war on terror fulfilled all Eisenhower’s fears, as America sank into a swamp of kidnapping, torture and imprisonment without trial.

The belligerent posture of the US and Britain towards the Muslim world has fostered antagonism and moderate threats in response. The bombing of extremist targets in Pakistan is an invitation for terrorists to attack us, and then a need for defence against such attack. Meanwhile, the opportunity cost of appeasing the complex is astronomical. Eisenhower remarked that “every gun that is made is a theft from those who hunger” – a bomber is two power stations and a hospital not built. Likewise, each Tomahawk Cameron drops on Tripoli destroys not just a Gaddafi bunker (are there any left?), but a hospital ward and a classroom in Britain.

As long as “big defence” exists it will entice glory-hungry politicians to use it. It is a return to the hundred years war, when militaristic barons and knights had a stranglehold on the monarch, and no other purpose in life than to fight. To deliver victory they demanded ever more taxes for weapons, and when they had ever more weapons they promised ever grander victories. This is exactly how Britain’s defence ministry ran out of budgetary control under Labour.

There is one piece of good news. Nato has long outlived its purpose, now justifying its existence only by how much it induces its members to spend, and how many wars irrelevant to its purpose it finds to fight. Yet still it does not spend enough for the US defence secretary. In his anger, Gates threatened that “future US leaders … may not consider the return on America’s investment in Nato worth the cost”. Is that a threat or a promise?

Best letter ever

This came out of some FOI research. It’s genius.