Tuesday, July 24, 2012

More Michael Herr. More Vietnam.

Last night, I watched the Marines retake Hue.  It was 1968 all over again.

It was one of those television war shows with a You Are There quality to it.  It came complete with computer graphics showing the ancient city with its 100 ft. thick walls, its layout, the relative positions of the battling forces, American, South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese, and their movements.  It also came with plenty of footage, grainy video that nevertheless conveyed the fear and the chaos while never losing the morality tale of Hue and the larger Tet Offensive of which it was a part -- in war, a defeat on the battlefield can constitute a victory in the larger conflict when people's attitudes and their morale are the actual thing being fought over. 

More telling than those doing the fighting and dying (not to mention the killing) were the news reporters.  They were part farce, part undeniable bravery -- interviews were done, cameras rolling, at the front lines.  One reporter managed to interrupt a Marine reloading his weapon long enough to get him to say "This sucks" -- referring to the mayhem -- before he returned to firing indiscriminately over a wall taller than him, rifle aloft in his outstretched arms, jangling away.  Such scenes may be common in war, but they are no longer common on a television screen.

CUT.  Cue Michael Herr.  Herr catches the vibe exactly right when he comments in Dispatches:

Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it ...

What he says about writing and war could be said about the 1960s in general.  Everything was going to need a rethinking.