Since my teens I’ve been fascinated by the Vietnam war, my friends and I would sit and watch ‘Nam movies constantly and the whole war and its effect on the American cultural landscape and psyche is something that still interests me.
I think a part of what attracted me to the conflict was that it was the first major war where I could kind of relate to the guys involved. It was the first war that was fought by the new species, the teenager. The World Wars had cost the lives of millions of young men, but they had been different, their society and lifestyle had little in common with my own, whereas the young men sent to Vietnam had an adolescence similar to mine- these were guys who loved pop music, who read comics, who’d watched movies about war.
Like them, my first experience of war was through movies. John Wayne leading his men against the Japanese or the Nazis, a clear cut conflict between good and evil. Sure, death appears in those films but its quick, bloodless and often noble and heroic. You get hit, pass on a message to your girl back home and then slip away quietly.
By my teens enough education and awareness had crept into my consciousness that I began to explore more about war, and the horrors that go along with it. War is something that captivates young men it seems, I think partly due to morbid curiosity, but also to the traditional ideas of heroism and courage that are still passed down (see the tabloids covering of “our brave boys” serving in Iraq and Afghanistan) and because you find yourself wondering what you would have done, how would you have coped.
That’s where Vietnam poses another interesting question. Had I been an American teenager drafted into service would I have gone? All wars following this featuring the UK or countries I relate to like the US haven’t relied on conscription. The guys in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Falklands etc had joined up willingly.
Similarly, unlike the previous big fight, World War II (no offense to those who served in Korea, but for some reason that conflict hasn’t left the same mark on society and aside from M*A*S*H* I know little about it) this wasn’t a clear cut fight. The Nazis were evil and needed to be stopped, the Japanese had committed atrocities and I can understand the revenge aspect felt keenly by Americans.
Vietnam was different. Yes, there was the Cold War hatred and paranoia regarding Communism, but if I was the same person then as I am now, I doubt I would have gone. Well, I like to think I’d stick to my principles, but who knows? Faced with fleeing my home or prison would I have held firm? Or just prayed that I’d make it through a tour?
Similarly, I’ve always wondered if I’d have had the guts to be a conscientious objector during the First World War, which is the only other conflict that says “horror” quite as much as Vietnam. Stories of atrocities, harsh conditions and grim, dreadful fighting. Of shattered, damaged veterans returning to a country which ignored and shunned them due to shame and embarrassment.
I’m still fascinated by it, intrigued by how war effects the men who fight in it, which is why I checked out Michael Herr’s book Dispatches.
Herr was a journalist for Esquire who was sent to cover the conflict and this book is his memoir of that period. He does a marvelous job of capturing the chaos, confusion and danger of the war, bringing you right into a world fraught with peril and populated by a cast of weird, damaged souls trying to live through it all.
Herr doesn’t write it chronologically, dividing the book into different sections and telling a sprawling, introspective narrative of his time in-country. Throughout it all he charts the effects the war has on the soldiers he meets, as well as the psychological impact felt by himself and fellow journalists.
His position leaves him in a odd no-man’s land with the soldiers, he’s there with them but not as a fighter (although he is forced to take up arms at some points) so despite forming relationships with them he remains an outsider. He seems painfully aware of the odd tension between him and his subjects, who may like and even admire his courage or madness in being there by choice, but also a deeper resentment that he can opt out whenever he wants.
Herr’s writing style is incredibly personal and vivid, capturing the harsh realities of the situation and allowing him to explore how it has effected him. He consistently places himself right at the heart of the action, and there’s an odd euphoria and enjoyment in the danger at times, a kind of manic, adrenalin fuelled thrill that has him laughing and joking with the soldiers despite the horrors around them.
It reminded me a bit of Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angels, which given my love of HST is one of the highest compliments I can give a book. There’s a similarity in the way Herr seems to have a love-hate relationship with the people he observes, every moment of affection and enjoyment undercut by realizing just how horrific and damaged some of the things he witnesses are. It also shares the same kind of frantic urgency of Thompson’s book and the same knack for beautifully worded statements of great insight.
The portrayal of the fighters is heartbreaking at times, young men made old before their years who you feel will never shake the nightmare they live through. They’re not portrayed as a mass of psychopaths or victims, although many seem to live in both camps at once. Throughout the book they’re shown to be regular guys who have been warped and altered by events and deeds they’ve been party to. Vietnam, the dark, surreal world they now live in has changed them deeply, and there’s a sense that they will struggle to readjust into a world they can no longer relate to (there’s a grim anecdote about a guy who sent a Vietnamese soldier’s ear to his girlfriend back in America and can’t work out why she’s stopped writing to him).
Herr’s smart enough to acknowledge his own failings and naivety and throughout there are nods to the supposed romance of his job, an admission that his own thoughts and beliefs were coloured by those old films.
Ironically Herr would go on to shape how films deal with war, co-writing the screenplay to Full Metal Jacket, one of the most iconic and grimmest Vietnam war movies. Repeatedly during this book there are moments which seem to have been copied entirely into the film, which, if you’ve seen the film, merely serves to highlight just how nightmarish the situation was and how the situation caused many of the soldiers involved to retreat into a hardened shell of dark, twisted humour and nihilistic cynicism.
Verdict: A stunning, powerful work about the horrors of war and the long lasting effect it can have on the men who fight or observe them. Along with Matt Baker’s ‘Nam it is one of the most heartbreaking, horrifying books I’ve ever read and a reminder of just how awful war really is. Herr is a phenomenally effective, evocative writer and while at times its hard to read some of the stories its worth sticking with it to gain a better understanding of what happened to the men out there. 10/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.