Saturday, June 30, 2012

Michael Herr. Dispatches. 34 years later.

A great book was published 34 years ago.  Dispatches by Michael Herr is his rock n' roll disquisition on Vietnam.  It's what a war feels like when you walk through it -- its sights, sounds, smells -- what it means to be out there, way out there.

My editorial mind forces me to add that I pulled this book off my shelf to see just how distanced we have become from war today. This kind of reporting is no longer found in American English.  It doesn't even seem possible.  As a result, we skirt a truth -- the full cost, fury, madness, pathology, death and dare I say it, humanity of what we set in motion when we ring the clarion bell to arms.

In early December, I came back from my first operations with the Marines.  I'd lain scrunched up for hours in a flimsy bunker that was falling apart even faster than I was, listening to it going on, the moaning and the whining and the dull repetitions of whump whump whump and dit dit dit, listening to a boy who'd somehow broken his thumb sobbing and gagging, thinking, "Oh my God, this fucking thing is on a loop!" until the heavy shooting stopped but not the thing: at the lz waiting for the choppers to Phu Bai one last shell came in, landing in the middle of a pile full of body bags, making a mess that no one wanted to clean up, "a real shit detail." It was after midnight when I finally got back to Saigon, riding in from Tan Son Nhut in an open jeep with some sniper-obsessed MPs, and there was a small package of mail waiting for me at the hotel. I put my fatigues out in the hall room and closed the door on them. I may have even locked it. I had the I Corps DT's, liver, spleen, brains, a blue-black swollen thumb moved around and flashed to me, they were playing over the walls of the shower where I spent a half-hour, they were on the bed-sheets, 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. (p. 66-7)