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.”
“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.”’