Despite every other kind of progress, humanity still lives and dies in conditions of either war or peace, a truth reflected in our literature. There is still a place for a great war book such as Dispatches. Like its precursors, from Homer to Hemingway, whose company it keeps, Dispatches seems to begin mid-sentence, plunging its readers into the war zone before they can take up defensive positions:
â€œThere was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, Iâ€™d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasnâ€™t real any more.â€
As visitors to a place that could not be mapped (â€œfor years now there had been no country here but the warâ€), Michael Herrâ€™s readers must quickly acclimatise to the sur-real experience of Vietnam in 1967, as though they have no choice: thereâ€™s a war on.
Combined with the compelling urgency of Herrâ€™s narration â€“ every line set down as if itâ€™s about to be interrupted by incoming shell-fire â€“ thereâ€™s Herrâ€™s mesmerising voice itself, perhaps the single greatest achievement of a book that, nearly 40 years on, offers the definitive account of war in our time, especially the Vietnam war â€“ among the most terrible of the postwar wars. Inspired by the example of 1960s New Journalism, Herrâ€™s voice (after Tom Wolfe) is his own shit-scared, or doped-out, interior monologue spliced with scraps of rockâ€™nâ€™roll and the everyday jargon of the â€œgruntsâ€, the American GIs in the swamps, jungles and choppers of â€™Nam in their search-and-destroy missions against â€œCharlieâ€, the Viet Cong:
Once we fanned over a little village that had just been airstruck and the words of a song by Wingy Manone that Iâ€™d heard when I was a few years old snapped into my head, â€˜Stop the War, These Cats Is Killing Themselvesâ€™. Then we dropped, hovered, settled down into purple lz [landing zone] smoke, dozens of children broke from their hootches to run in towards the focus of our landing, the pilot laughing and saying, â€˜Vietnam, man. Bomb â€™em and feed â€™em, bomb â€™em and feed â€™em.â€™
As well as the relentless jeopardy and the unforgettable voice in Dispatches, thereâ€™s also Michael Herrâ€™s profound sympathy for, and grasp of, the psychology of men in combat. Thanks to his reckless immersion in the war at one of its craziest moments â€“ working as a magazine journalist during the Tet offensive of 1967 and its aftermath â€“ he catches the mix of humour, madness and drugs, setting it all down on the page with a rare combination of precision and compassion so that, as the reader, you think: I was there. Finally, as if all this were not enough, Herr in Vietnam (sadly, never since) is an excellent writer:
In Saigon I always went to sleep stoned so I always lost my dreams, probably just as well, sock in deep and dim under that information and get whatever rest you could, wake up tapped of all images but the one remembered from the day before, with only the taste of a bad dream in your mouth like youâ€™d been chewing on a roll of dirty old pennies in your sleep.
Some of Herrâ€™s best and most quotable passages read like hallucinations, and some simply are just that: descriptions of being stoned on the front line, like a character in Apocalypse Now, a film classic whose script Herr also contributed to:
Just lying there tracking the rotations of the ceiling fan, reaching for the fat roach that sat on my Zippo in a yellow disc of grass tar. There were mornings when Iâ€™d do it before my feet even hit the floor. Dear Mom, stoned again. In the Highlands, where the Montagnards would trade you a pound of legendary grass for a carton of Salems, I got stoned with some infantry from the 4thâ€¦
Herr can be funny, too. Describing the US mission, he writes that â€œAt the bottom was the shit-faced grunt, at the top of a Command trinity: a blue-eyed, hero-faced general, a geriatrics-emergency ambassador and a hale, heartless CIA performerâ€. Namechecking an in-country spook, Robert â€œBlowtorchâ€ Kromer, Herr drily adds that â€œif William Blake had â€˜reportedâ€™ to him that heâ€™d seen angels in the trees, Kromer would have tried to talk him out of it. Failing there, heâ€™d have ordered defoliationâ€.
Dispatches is not just painfully vivid, it knows that itâ€™s part of the historical record, and is grounded in history, even if no one can be sure precisely where to locate the origins of the Indochina tragedy. Herr again: â€œMission intellectuals like 1954 as the reference date; if you saw as far back as War 2 and the Japanese occupations you were practically a historical visionary.â€ For the US, it mainly started in 1961, or 1965, after the Tonkin resolution; for Herr it started in 1967 when he became Esquireâ€™s war correspondent based in Saigon. â€œSitting in Saigon,â€ he writes, â€œwas 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.â€
And Saigon was â€œbeyond berserkâ€:
â€¦ young Americans in from the boonies on TDY [temporary duty], charged with hatred and grounded in fear of the Vietnamese; thousands of Americans sitting in their offices crying in bored chorus, â€˜You canâ€™t get these people to do a fucking thing, you canâ€™t get these people to do a fucking thingâ€¦â€™
Herr hooked up with an English war photographer, Tim Page, and Errol Flynnâ€™s son, Sean, who would later go missing on assignment, and went chopper-hopping round the war zone, taking huge risks, getting stranded in Khe Sanh in the winter of 1968 during its infamous siege (a brilliant set piece at the heart of Dispatches), surviving against the odds. Herr stuck it out till 1969, then came back to New York City with a heap of notes, a file of Esquire pieces, and a bat cave of toxic memories. Within 18 months of coming home, he was in the midst of a near-disabling depression, and perhaps the writing of Dispatches became part of his route out of hell.
The upshot was a book, published in 1977, which every journalist and writer â€“ from John le CarrÃ© to Robert Stone â€“ who had ever been in a war zone wished theyâ€™d written. Comparisons were made with books like The Red Badge of Courage and All Quiet on the Western Front, but this was different: it was by a writer not a soldier, and it was the writerâ€™s sensibility that made his book captivate a whole generation of readers. Another celebrated New Journalist, Hunter S Thompson, spoke for the profession when he said: â€œWe have all spent 10 years trying to explain what happened to our heads and our lives in the decade we finally survived â€“ but Michael Herrâ€™s Dispatches puts the rest of us in the shade.â€
Here in the UK, where Herr lived for a while during the 1980s, British war correspondents such as my Observer colleague Ed Vulliamy would make a point of getting an introduction: â€œEvery writer who has tried his or her hand at war journalism,â€ wrote Vulliamy, â€œwould go to meet Michael Herr rather like a student of the cello would approach Mstislav Rostropovich. Apart from learning by listening, the gratifying thing is to find that oneâ€™s own follies and fears are echoes of Herrâ€™s; one almost feels validated in oneâ€™s quirks of judgment in the aftermath of war.â€
Now in a new century, and a new geopolitical landscape, itâ€™s as though everything, and nothing, has changed. As Herr writes, in another of his most haunting passages, the US army â€œtook space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.â€
A signature sentence
â€œI went through that thing a number of times and only got a fast return on my fear once, a too classic hot landing with the heat coming from the trees about 300 yards away, sweeping machine-gun fire that sent men head down into swampy water, running on their hands and knees towards the grass where it wasnâ€™t blown flat by the rotor blades, not much to be running for but better than nothing.â€
Three to compare
Joseph Heller: Catch-22 (1961)
David Halberstam: The Best and the Brightest (1972)
Neil Sheehan: A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam (1988)
Dispatches by Michael Herr is available in paperback from Picador (Â£9.99). Click here to order a copy for Â£7.99