Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977) (read in 2018)

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Disclaimer: these are notes I took while reading this book. They include citations I found interesting or enlightening or particularly well-written. In some cases, I’ve pointed out which of these applies to which citation; in others, I have not. Any benefit you gain from reading these notes is purely incidental to the purpose they serve of reminding me what I once read. Please see Wikipedia for a summary if I’ve failed to provide one sufficient for your purposes. If my notes serve to trigger an interest in this book, then I’m happy for you.

This is a journal about the Vietnam War, written by journalist Michael Herr, who spent two years there in the late 60s. The storytelling is visceral and well-written, describing soldiers and attacks and life in Vietnam under the occupation. The impression is surreal and the book doesn’t try to explain or clean up the ugliness of it all. It presents information, within a scaffolding of disapproval of the war, but at the same time acknowledging the seductiveness of it for reporters, for those involved in it, for those poisoned into not being able to live without it. An excellent book, probably the best thing I’ve ever read about one of America’s wars—or, indeed, any colonial occupation. It’s likely that this book describes them all adequately, not just Vietnam, but Iraq and Afghanistan or India and Africa for the European powers. A sobering look into the depths of human cruelty and stupidity. Herr has only one movie-writing credit: Apocalypse Now.

Citations

“They were wired into their listening posts out around the camp, into each other, into themselves, and when it got dark it got worse. The moon came up nasty and full, a fat moist piece of decadent fruit. It was soft and saffron-misted when you looked up at it, but its light over the sandbags and into the jungle was harsh and bright.”
Page 11
“I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you’ve never heard it. I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were as responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes. Time and information, rock and roll, life itself, the information isn’t frozen, you are.”
Page 20
“But once in a while you’d hear something fresh, and a couple of times you’d even hear something high, like the corpsman at Khe Sanh who said, “If it ain’t the fucking incoming it’s the fucking outgoing. Only difference is who gets the fucking grease, and that ain’t no fucking difference at all.” The mix was so amazing; incipient saints and realized homicidals, unconscious lyric poets and mean dumb motherfuckers with their brains all down in their necks; and even though by the time I left I knew where all the stories came from and where they were going, I was never bored, never even unsurprised.”
Page 30
“Beautiful for once and only once, just past dawn flying toward the center of the city in a Loach, view from a bubble floating at 800 feet. In that space, at that hour, you could see what people had seen forty years before, Paris of the East, Pearl of the Orient, long open avenues lined and bowered over by trees running into spacious parks, precisioned scale, all under the soft shell from a million breakfast fires, camphor smoke rising and diffusing, covering Saigon and the shining veins of the river with a warmth like the return of better times.”
Page 38
“By 7:30 it was beyond berserk with bikes, the air was like L.A. on short plumbing, the subtle city war inside the war had renewed itself for another day, relatively light on actual violence but intense with bad feeling: despair, impacted rage, impotent gnawing resentment; thousands of Vietnamese in the service of a pyramid that wouldn’t stand for five years, plugging the feed tube into their own hearts, grasping and gorging; young Americans in from the boonies on TDY, charged with hatred and grounded in fear of the Vietnamese; thousands of Americans sitting in their offices crying in bored chorus, “You can’t get these people to do a fucking thing, you can’t get these people to do a fucking thing.” And all the others, theirs and ours, who just didn’t want to play, it sickened them.”
Page 39
“They could snap a Rolex off your wrist like a hawk hitting a field mouse; wallets, pens, cameras, eyeglasses, anything; if the war had gone on any longer they’d have found a way to whip the boots off your feet.”
Page 40
“You’d either meet an optimism that no violence could unconvince or a cynicism that would eat itself empty every day and then turn, hungry and malignant, on whatever it could for a bite, friendly or hostile, it didn’t matter. Those men called dead Vietnamese “believers,” a lost American platoon was “a black eye,” they talked as though killing a man was nothing more than depriving him of his vigor.”
Page 42
“You’d stand nailed there in your tracks sometimes, no bearings and none in sight, thinking, Where the fuck am I?, fallen into some unnatural East-West interface, a California corridor cut and bought and burned deep into Asia, and once we’d done it we couldn’t remember what for. It was axiomatic that it was about ideological space, we were there to bring them the choice, bringing it to them like Sherman bringing the Jubilee through Georgia, clean through it, wall to wall with pacified indigenous and scorched earth.”
Page 43
“In wood-paneled, air-conditioned chapels in Saigon, MACV padres would fire one up to sweet muscular Jesus, blessing ammo dumps and 105’s and officers’ clubs. The best-armed patrols in history went out after services to feed smoke to people whose priests could let themselves burn down to consecrated ash on street corners. Deep in the alleys you could hear small Buddhist chimes ringing for peace, hoa bien; smell incense in the middle of the thickest Asian street funk; see groups of ARVN with their families waiting for transport huddled around a burning prayer strip. Sermonettes came over Armed Forces radio every couple of hours, once I heard a chaplain from the 9th Division starting up, “Oh Gawd, help us learn to live with Thee in a more dynamic way in these perilous times, that we may better serve Thee in the struggle against Thine enemies.…” Holy war, long-nose jihad like a face-off between one god who would hold the coonskin to the wall while we nailed it up, and another whose detachment would see the blood run out of ten generations, if that was how long it took for the wheel to go around.”
Page 45
“Maybe it was already over for us in Indochina when Alden Pyle’s body washed up under the bridge at Dakao, his lungs all full of mud; maybe it caved in with Dien Bien Phu. But the first happened in a novel, and while the second happened on the ground it happened to the French, and Washington gave it no more substance than if Graham Greene had made it up too.”
Page 49
“I met a ranger-recondo who could go to sleep just like that, say, “Guess I’ll get some,” close his eyes and be there, day or night, sitting or lying down, sleeping through some things but not others; a loud radio or a 105 firing outside the tent wouldn’t wake him, but a rustle in the bushes fifty feet away would, or a stopped generator.)”
Page 53
“There were spots in the jungle where you had to have a cigarette going all the time, whether you smoked or not, just to keep the mosquitoes from swarming into your mouth. War under water, swamp fever and instant involuntary weight control, malarias that could burn you out and cave you in, put you into twenty-three hours of sleep a day without giving you a minute of rest,”
Page 54
“One night I woke up and heard the sounds of a firefight going on kilometers away, a “skirmish” outside our perimeter, muffled by distance to sound like the noises we made playing guns as children, KSSSHH KSSSHH; we knew it was more authentic than BANG BANG, it enriched the game and this game was the same, only way out of hand at last, too rich for all but a few serious players. The rules now were tight and absolute, no arguing over who missed who and who was really dead; No fair was no good, Why me? the saddest question in the world.”
Page 55
“Even bitter refracted faith was better than none at all, like the black Marine I’d heard about during heavy shelling at Con Thien who said, “Don’t worry, baby, God’ll think of something.””
Page 56
“A lot of people knew that the country could never be won, only destroyed, and they locked into that with breathtaking concentration, no quarter, laying down the seeds of the disease, roundeye fever, until it reached plague proportions, taking one from every family, a family from every hamlet, a hamlet from every province, until a million had died from it and millions more were left uncentered and lost in their flight from it.”
Page 59
“deep in all their hearts, there were always the Nukes, they loved to remind you that we had some, “right here in-country.” Once I met a colonel who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North. He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death.”
Page 60
“Charles really wrote the book on fire control, putting one round into the heart of things where fifty of ours might go and still not hit anything. Sometimes we put out so much fire you couldn’t tell whether any of it was coming back or not. When it was, it filled your ears and your head until you thought you were hearing it with your stomach.”
Page 62
““Quakin’ and Shakin’,” they called it, great balls of fire, Contact. Then it was you and the ground: kiss it, eat it, fuck it, plow it with your whole body, get as close to it as you can without being in it yet or of it, guess who’s flying around about an inch above your head? Pucker and submit, it’s the ground. Under Fire would take you out of your head and your body too, the space you’d seen a second ago between subject and object wasn’t there anymore, it banged shut in a fast wash of adrenaline. Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden drop and rocket rush of the hit, the reserves of adrenaline you could make available to yourself, pumping it up and putting it out until you were lost floating in it, not afraid, almost open to clear orgasmic death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed. Unless of course you’d shit your pants or were screaming or praying or giving anything at all to the hundred-channel panic that blew word salad all around you and sometimes clean through you. Maybe you couldn’t love the war and hate it inside the same instant, but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel rolling all the way up until you were literally High On War, like it said on all the helmet covers. Coming off a jag like that could really make a mess out of you.”
Page 63
“So you learned about fear, it was hard to know what you really learned about courage. How many times did somebody have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice? What about those acts that didn’t require courage to perform, but made you a coward if you didn’t? It was hard to know at the moment, easy to make a mistake when it came, like the mistake of thinking that all you needed to perform a witness act were your eyes. A lot of what people called courage was only undifferentiated energy cut loose by the intensity of the moment, mind loss that sent the actor on an incredible run; if he survived it he had the chance later to decide whether he’d really been brave or just overcome with life, even ecstasy. A lot of people found the guts to just call it all off and refuse to ever go out anymore, they turned and submitted to the penalty end of the system or they just split. A lot of reporters, too, I had friends in the press corps who went out once or twice and then never again. Sometimes I thought that they were the sanest, most serious people of all, although to be honest I never said so until my time there was almost over.”
Page 66
“Vietnam was a dark room full of deadly objects, the VC were everywhere all at once like spider cancer, and instead of losing the war in little pieces over years we lost it fast in under a week. After that, we were like the character in pop grunt mythology, dead but too dumb to lie down.”
Page 71
“We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop.”
Page 71
“was on one of those days that I realized that the only corpse I couldn’t bear to look at would be the one I would never have to see.”
Page 77
“The inside of the dining room was freezing with air-conditioning. I sat at a table and ordered a hamburger and a brandy from one of the peasant girls who waited tables. I sat there for a couple of hours and ordered four more hamburgers and at least a dozen brandies. It wasn’t possible, just not possible, to have been where we’d been before and to be where we were now, all in the same afternoon.”
Page 80
“The large bronze urns were dented beyond restoring, and the rain poured through a hole in the roof of the throne room, soaking the two small thrones where the old Annamese royalty had sat. In the great hall (great once you’d scaled it to the Vietnamese) the red lacquer work on the upper walls was badly chipped, and a heavy dust covered everything. The crown of the main gate had collapsed, and in the garden the broken branches of the old cay-dai trees lay like the forms of giant insects seared in a fire, wispy, delicate, dead. It was rumored during those days that the Palace was being held by a unit of student volunteers who had taken the invasion of Hue as a sign and had rushed to join the North Vietnamese.”
Page 84
“Tactically, its value to the Command was thought so great that General Westmoreland could announce that the Tet Offensive was merely Phase II of a brilliant Giap strategy. Phase I had been revealed in the autumn skirmishes between Loc Ninh and Dak To. Phase III (“the capstone,” the general called it) was to be Khe Sanh. It seems impossible that anyone, at any time, even in the chaos of Tet, could have actually called something as monumental (and decisive?) as that offensive a mere diversion for something as negligible as Khe Sanh, but all of that is on record.”
Page 104
“Or did it get born in those same Pentagon rooms where six years of failure had made the air bad, where optimism no longer sprang from anything viable but sprang and sprang, all the way to Saigon, where it was packaged and shipped north to give the grunts some kind of reason for what was about to happen to them?”
Page 107
“The C-47 was a standard prop flareship, but many of them carried .20- and .762-mm. guns on their doors, Mike-Mikes that could fire out 300 rounds per second, Gatling style, “a round in every square inch of a football field in less than a minute,” as the handouts said. They used to call it Puff the Magic Dragon, but the Marines knew better: they named it Spooky. Every fifth round fired was a tracer, and when Spooky was working, everything stopped while that solid stream of violent red poured down out of the black sky. If you watched from a great distance, the stream would seem to dry up between bursts, vanishing slowly from air to ground like a comet tail, the sound of the guns disappearing too, a few seconds later. If you watched at a close range, you couldn’t believe that anyone would have the courage to deal with that night after night, week after week, and you cultivated a respect for the Viet Cong and NVA who had crouched under it every night now for months. It was awesome, worse than anything the Lord had ever put down on Egypt, and at night, you’d hear the Marines talking, watching it, yelling, “Get some!” until they grew quiet and someone would say, “Spooky understands.””
Page 132
“We never announced a scorched-earth policy; we never announced any policy at all, apart from finding and destroying the enemy, and we proceeded in the most obvious way. We used what was at hand, dropping the greatest volume of explosives in the history of warfare over all the terrain within the thirty-mile sector which fanned out from Khe Sanh. Employing saturation-bombing techniques, we delivered more than 110,000 tons of bombs to those hills during the eleven-week containment of Khe Sanh. The smaller foothills were often quite literally turned inside out, the steeper of them were made faceless and drawless, and the bigger hills were left with scars and craters of such proportions that an observer from some remote culture might see in them the obsessiveness and ritual regularity of religious symbols, the blackness at the deep center pouring out rays of bright, overturned earth all the way to the circumference; forms like Aztec sun figures, suggesting that their makers had been men who held Nature in an awesome reverence.”
Page 153
““No more boom-boom for that mamma-san,” the Marine said, that same, tired remark you heard every time the dead turned out to be women. It was so routine that I don’t think he even realized that he’d said it.”
Page 199
“We thought at first that he was dead, taken off by a booby trap on the trail, but his color was much too awful for that. Even the dead held some horrible light that seemed to recede, vanishing through one layer of skin at a time and taking a long time to go completely, but this kid had no color about him anywhere. It was incredible that anything so motionless and white could still be alive.”
Page 202
“And always, they would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it. They may have been a bunch of dumb, brutal killer kids (a lot of correspondents privately felt that), but they were smart enough to know that much.”
Page 206
“What a time they were having there, it had all broken down, one battalion had taken 60 percent casualties, all the original NCO’s were gone, the grunts were telling their officers to go die, to go fuck themselves, to go find some other fools to run up those streets awhile,”
Page 207
“At first, I got it all mixed up, I didn’t understand and I felt sorry for myself, misjudged. “Well fuck you too,” I’d think. “It could have been me just as easily, I take chances too, can’t you see that?” And then I realized that that was exactly what it was all about, it explained itself as easily as that, another of the war’s dark revelations. They weren’t judging me, they weren’t reproaching me, they didn’t even mind me, not in any personal way. They only hated me, hated me the way you’d hate any hopeless fool who would put himself through this thing when he had choices, any fool who had no more need of his life than to play with it in this way.”
Page 208
“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them.”
Page 209
“Because they worked in the news media, for organizations that were ultimately reverential toward the institutions involved: the Office of the President, the Military, America at war and, most of all, the empty technology that characterized Vietnam. There is no way of remembering good friends without remembering the incredible demands put on them from offices thousands of miles away.”
Page 214
“Except to pick up my mail and get my accreditation renewed, I never had to frequent JUSPAO unless I wanted to. (That office had been created to handle press relations and psychological warfare, and I never met anyone there who seemed to realize that there was a difference.)”
Page 216
“(A Paris-Match photograph showed Flynn and a French photographer carrying him on a door, his face half covered by bandages, “Tim Page, blessé à la tête.”)”
Page 237
“He was broke, so friends got him a place to sleep, gave him piastres, cigarettes, liquor, grass. Then he made a couple of thousand dollars on some fine pictures of the Offensive, and all of those things came back on us, twice over. That was the way the world was for Page; when he was broke you took care of him, when he was not he took care of you. It was above economics.”
Page 238
“Some guys come back and see their nightmares break in the streets in daylight, some become inhabited and stay that way, all kinds of things can trail after you, and besides, after a while my thing went away almost completely, the dream, too. I know a guy who had been a combat medic in the Central Highlands, and two years later he was still sleeping with all the lights on. We were walking across 57th Street one afternoon and passed a blind man carrying a sign that read, MY DAYS ARE DARKER THAN YOUR NIGHTS. “Don’t bet on it, man,” the ex-medic said.”
Page 244
“Page gave me a small ball of opium to eat on the flight back; stoned dreaming through Wake, Honolulu, San Francisco, New York and the hallucination of home. Opium space, a big round O, and time outside of time, a trip that happened in seconds and over years; Asian time, American space, not clear whether Vietnam was east or west of center, behind me or somehow still ahead.”
Page 250