Michael Herr, author of the book “Dispatches” in 1989.
For a long time I thought “Dispatches,” by the journalist Michael Herr, was the greatest book about Vietnam, maybe the greatest book about war, ever. I was young; the only Vietnam book I had read prior to that was Robert McNamara’s “In Retrospect,” which even in my ignorance I understood to be dry and morally wanting.
“Dispatches,” though, was alive with urgency and a writer’s voice that took me head first into the action, then just as rapidly back out, oscillating between stomach-churning scenes of violence and heady, world-upending observations about the nature of the war, about the nature of war generally, in all its disgusting, beautiful complexities.
Maybe it was the timing: It was 1999 and I was fresh out of college, teaching English in a tiny town, vaguely aware that I was the roughly same age as my father when he enlisted in 1967 and roughly the same age as my grandfather when he enlisted in 1942. It was pathetic, I know, but I needed to feel what it was like to go to war, or at least to see war up close.
Herr’s book is like mainlining Vietnam; so many passages conveyed, on their own, everything I thought I needed to know about the war. I remember the first time I came across this passage, which I read again and again, until I’d almost committed it to memory:
“In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective mega-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.”
But I’m older now, and I’m not sure I feel the same about “Dispatches.” I still consider it a fine book. But re-reading it, it feels a bit dated. It’s a masterpiece of New Journalism, and it reads that way — “dig it” is his favorite interjection.
I can’t escape feeling like I’ve been had. Herr is too good a writer; how can I be sure that what he’s describing is true and not just well described? Herr was there, but he wasn’t a soldier; he was a reporter. But while other reporters, like Neil Sheehan, never pretended to be otherwise, Herr writes in a way that sucks you in, makes you feel that he, and maybe you too, are in the combat zone. And he does it with a tone of nihilistic irony, as if to say, nothing matters, except that we can still laugh and cry over how insane this war is. His writing is an amusement park ride, all safe thrills and no risks.
Today my favorite Vietnam book may be Philip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War.” Like “Dispatches,” it is expertly written, full of precisely rendered action scenes and peppered with probing questions about the place of America in a war no one wanted or understood. But unlike Herr, Caputo has no tricks to pull; he is not trying to make you feel like you’re in Vietnam, because he knows that you, the reader, comfortably back home, can never fully understand what it was like to be a Marine in the Central Highlands in 1965.
Caputo enlisted as a Marine in 1965 as a willing member of John Kennedy’s New Frontier army; when he landed at Danang that summer, he believed he was off to join the good fight, as his father’s generation had done. Though built as a conventional, chronological memoir, “A Rumor of War” is about how that idealism became first tarnished, then cracked, then finally demolished by the insanity of the war. But Caputo doesn’t bring you along for the ride the way Herr does. Having fought in Vietnam, he understands that he can never quite explain what it was like; what he can do is convey the terror he confronted while there and use it to challenge his readers’ comfortable, doughy morality. I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that Caputo is challenged, legally and morally, and comes away bruised. But he never loses sight of what is right, and he makes sure the reader doesn’t either.
These are two very different takes on Vietnam, and on war generally. Herr sees a world laid to waste, its values long gone, if they were there to begin with. So turns it into a fairground, with amusement rides built on his humorous, ironic violence and the reader’s desire for more of it. Caputo, the veteran, also sees the Vietnam War as a moral wasteland, but he refuses to believe that all morality is gone. And he refuses to turn the story of Vietnam into a space for showing off New Journalism chops. He is reserved, because he respects what happened there, and while he obviously sees the need to communicate that to readers, he stops well short of trying to make them a part of it.