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Dispatches Written on the front lines in Vietnam, Dispatches became an immediate classic of war reportage when it was published in From its terrifying opening pages to its final eloquent words, Dispatches makes us see, in unforgettable and unflinching detail, the chaos and fervor of the war and the surreal insanity of life in that singular combat zone Michael Herr s unsparing, unorthodox retellings of the day to day events in Vietnam take on the force of poetry, rendering clarity from one of the most incomprehensible and nightmarish events of our time Dispatches is among the most blistering and compassionate accounts of war in our literature In two weeks I ll be flying to Hong Kong, setting sail for Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia to deliver a series of lectures on a luxury cruise ship The topic I chose, Asia Through Hollywood s Eyes, has exposed me to some wonderful films, a number of which I ve reviewed on my blog or written about in my column for 3 Quarks Daily And I ve immersed myself in bios of Pearl Buck, Anna Leonowns the real life Anna of The King and I , Anna May Wong, Pierre Boulle, Somerset Maugham, along with books In two weeks I ll be flying to Hong Kong, setting sail for Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia to deliver a series of lectures on a luxury cruise ship The topic I chose, Asia Through Hollywood s Eyes, has exposed me to some wonderful films, a number of which I ve reviewed on my blog or written about in my column for 3 Quarks Daily And I ve immersed myself in bios of Pearl Buck, Anna Leonowns the real life Anna of The King and I , Anna May Wong, Pierre Boulle, Somerset Maugham, along with books about classic films set in Asian locales Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Lost Horizon, Apocalypse Now many of which I ve reviewed here On top of that, I ve been working diligently to get my bridge game up to snuff.Mostly, I m aiming for a light touch with the material This is a cruise, after all Bob Hope s and Bing Crosby s good natured racism in The Road to Singapore is entertaining in its way, as is Charlie Chan s fortune cookie wisdom I can share Yunte Huang s insightful discussion of Yellowface from his marvelous book, Charlie Chan The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History without driving my audience into the bar for an early drink, explore stereotypes of Chinamen through Disney cartoons and extravagant musical numbers featuring Rin Tin Tin, even Work in a little commentary on The Good Earth s Depression era message about the virtue of hard work on the land, illustrated with stills from the movie and comparing them to iconic photographs from the period.Luise Rainer and babies during the Chinese famineDorothea Lange s portrait of Migrant Mother in the dust bowl droughtSure, the Dust Bowl and the Chinese famine were tough times, but they re pretty remote Not so the Vietnam war My cousin Alan was a U.S Army sharpshooter in Vietnam He was ten years older than me, and I didn t really get to know him until long after his tour of duty I do remember him dropping by the house in the early 1980s to visit when our uncle was recuperating from a hit and run accident this uncle was a bachelor and the rest of the family took turns caring for him it was a terrible accident Alan was always reading about the Vietnam war, and he d talk about it to anyone who was willing to listen, but I had the impression that he was still trying to figure it out Why were we there Why was he asked to do the things he did Was it worth it, in the end Vietnam damaged my cousin irreparably He had a failed marriage behind him, troubled relationships with family members He made a decent living, working for the Post Office, but never seemed to have enough money, was seriously in debt In 2002, not long after the U.S invaded Afghanistan, Alan shot himself He had many problems, had cut himself from nearly everyone, but I can t help seeing a correlation.Michael Herr s book gave me a glimpse of what Alan lived through, during his time in Vietnam I read it to go along with Apocalypse Now Herr worked on the screenplay with Francis Ford Coppola and the film conveys his vision as well as Joseph Conrad s whom he references in Dispatches I ve read various accounts of the war over the years history, novels, memoirs by Vietnamese soldiers and civilians in the North and South I ve taught a course on French colonialism and studied the fall of Dien Bien Phu, and of course I ve watched countless films over the years But Herr s reporting brought me inside the war, inside the heads of the soldiers, in such an immediate way that reading it was unbearable I struggled to keep on reading, and it has taken a week for me to organize my thoughts for this review Tim O Brien writes exquisitely about his experience in The Things They Carried I recommend his book, and count it as a high point in my life as a reader, that I was able to hear him read from it and answer questions from an audience of students my son among them who were of draft age during the height of our involvement in Iraq He reconstructs the shattered lives of his dead companions with poignancy and restraint O Brien writes from a distance of years, however Herr writes from the thick of things and is unrestrained, angry, self hating and self pitying, filled with disgust and compassion, his reactions still raw, it felt to me in places I think that those people who used to say that they only wept for the Vietnamese never really wept for anyone at all if they couldn t squeeze out at least one for these men and boys when they died or had their lives cracked open for them.When our cruise ship docks in Vietnam and I disembark in Danang, or Saigon Ho Chi Minh City , I ll be seeing those places through my cousin Alan s eyes, thanks to Michael Herr Flip religion, it was so far out, you couldn t blame anybody for believing anything Guys stuck the ace of spades in their helmet bands, they picked relics off of an enemy they d killed, a little transfer of power they carried around five pound Bibles from home, crosses, St Christophers, mezuzahs, locks of hair, girlfriends underwear, snaps of their families, their wives, their dogs, their cows, their cars, pictures of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, the Pope, C Flip religion, it was so far out, you couldn t blame anybody for believing anything Guys stuck the ace of spades in their helmet bands, they picked relics off of an enemy they d killed, a little transfer of power they carried around five pound Bibles from home, crosses, St Christophers, mezuzahs, locks of hair, girlfriends underwear, snaps of their families, their wives, their dogs, their cows, their cars, pictures of John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Huey Newton, the Pope, Che Guevara, the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, wiggier than cargo cultists One man was carrying an oatmeal cookie through his tour, wrapped up in foil and plastic and three pair of socks He took a lot of shit about it When you go to sleep we re gonna eat your fucking cookie , but his wife had baked it and mailed it to him, he wasn t kidding Michael Herr was a war correspondent for Esquire Magazine from 1967 1969 I pulled up a list of journalists that were killed during the Vietnam Conflict The list has almost 70 names including Australians, Japanese, South Vietnamese, French and Americans The list also shows how they died and they died the same way that combat soldiers died They were captured and executed They were blown apart by Bouncing Bettys, clays, and mortar fire They were shot by friendly fire They crashed in helicopters and planes Two of Herr s best friends, Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, were captured while riding their motorcycles down Highway One by the Khmer Rouge They were believed to have been executed a few months later, but their bodies were never found If the name Flynn conjures up images of Captain Blood there is a good reason for that He was the son of Errol Flynn Jeffrey Keeten before he is to shipped out foroh waitdamn I always get us mixed up This is Sean Flynn, actor and soon to be war correspondent The soldiers could not take their eyes of off him either out of repressed homosexual tendencies or because he looks so familiar Sean Flynn and Dana StoneThe point I m trying to make is that war correspondents were at as much risk as the combat soldiers they were there to write about The soldiers were in awe of them because it was beyond comprehension to a drafted marine to think that anyone would want to be in this hell by choiceTwo Marines that I hadn t even met before nightfall had gone out on the scrounge and come back with a new stretcher for me to sleep on They were always doing things like that for you, the way Mayhew had tried to give me his mattress, the way grunts in Hue one day had tried to give me their helmets and flak jackets because I had turned up without my own If you tore your fatigues on the wire or trying to crawl for cover, you d have new or at least fresh ones within minutes and never know where they came from They always took care of you General William Westland devised a plan to draw enemy combatants to the Americans He built a base at Khe Sanh that was close enough to Laos that patrols could harass the enemy there and it was located far enough north that the NVA would be forced to engage The Battle lasted five months and the whole time the Marines were under a constant barrage of enemy fire This base made Herr think about the jar in a Wallace Steven s poem Anecdote of a Jar I placed a jar in Tennessee,And round it was, upon a hill.It made the slovenly wildernessSurround that hill.The wilderness rose up to it,And sprawled around, no longer wild.The jar was round upon the groundAnd tall and of a port in air.It took dominion everywhere.The jar was gray and bare.It did not give of bird or bush,Like nothing else in Tennessee Wallace StevensThe battle was considered a victory by both sides With the American commanders claiming a x10 ratio for kills they could estimate 10,000 to 16,000 KIA off of 1,602 bodies actually found The Americans lost 2,016 killed and 8,079 wounded after the battle the American blew up the base and moved out The NVA swarmed in to take over the area You might ask yourself what was accomplishedWe used what was at hand, dropping the greatest volume of explosives in the history of warfare over the terrain within the thirty mile sector which fanned out from Khe Sanh Employing saturation bombing techniques, we deliveredthan 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 streeper 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 There s something happening here,What it is ain t exactly clear.There s a man with a gun over there,Tellin me I ve got to beware.I think it s time we stopped, children,What s that sound Everybody look what s goin downThe men who came back from Vietnam have minds filled with dark places, shards of pain, and trapped screams Night sweats, twisted sheets, bruises from wrestling demons, and fear parched throats haunt their nights long after they return homeI ve been having this dream, the major said I ve had it two times now I m in a big examination room back at Quantico They re handing out questionnaires for an aptitude test I take one and look at it, and the first question says, How many kinds of animals can you kill with your hands After the first tour, I d have the goddamndest nightmares You know, the works Bloody stuff, bad fights, guys dying, me dyingI thought they were the worst, he said, But I sort of miss them now Michael Herr s dreams are a melted series of images, sounds, and smellsIn the months after i got back the hundreds of helicopters I d flown in began to draw together until they d formed a collective meta 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 intruderThe writing in this book is superb The words are dropped on you out of the bays of planes with bombs that explode around your ears and rattle your spinal cord The dialogue is the crackle of gunfire coming at you through the elephant grass, zip, vip, zip The stories will bring you so close to the action that spent ordinance will be hailing on your helmet as it falls through the canopy Herr helped with the screenplays for the movies Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now Whether he receives credit or not this book has influenced every Vietnam movie ever made or that will ever be made This is best read from a foxhole with a shaker full of vodka and the smell of moist earth in your nostrils If you wish to seeof my most recent book and movie reviews, visit also have a Facebook blogger page at War is Forever Evil is not an absence of the good as proposed by theologians It is a positive force precisely proportionate to the coercive technological power employed Power kills people people don t kill people technology does War is unlimited power or power limited only by the technology available but certainly not by morality, that is to say, people Herr saw this at close quartersOur machine was devastating And versatile It could do everything but stopNo one who had power unde War is Forever Evil is not an absence of the good as proposed by theologians It is a positive force precisely proportionate to the coercive technological power employed Power kills people people don t kill people technology does War is unlimited power or power limited only by the technology available but certainly not by morality, that is to say, people Herr saw this at close quartersOur machine was devastating And versatile It could do everything but stopNo one who had power understood that the technological machine was impotent to achieve anything other than coercion and its logical extreme, deathThey killed a lot of Communists, but that was all they did, because the number of Communist dead meant nothing, changed nothing The opposite of war is not peace but justice, the access to judgments of equity that mitigate coercion Essentially war is unfairness made the norm,a psychotic vaudevilleWar is unfair because there is no human recourse to the random exercise of power The unfairness of war affects everyone even those, especially those, exercising the power The further out on the tendrils of power, as these tendrils encounter victims, theunfairness, thecoercion, exists At that zero distance, coercion is unremittingly uglyDisgust doesn t begin to describe what they made me feel, they threw people out of helicopters, tied people up and put the dogs on them Brutality was just a word in my mouth before thatIs there any other word than de humanizationWell, you know what we do to animalskill em and hurt em and beat on em so s we can train em Shit, we don t treat the Dinks no different than that,says one young soldier with neither apparent irony nor shame.Those with less power merely die those withpower often die but all those exercising power and those upon whom it is exercised suffer a lifetime of an absence of recourse to power, a bodily reaction to coercion Who can judge who is most defiled, the soldier coerced by his superiors or the soldier s victim coerced by him All suffer through either grief or memory Herr knows thisVarieties of religious experience, good news and bad news a lot of men found their compassion in the war, some found it and couldn t live with it, war washed shutdown of feeling, like who gives a fuck People retreated into positions of hard irony, cynicism, despair, some saw the action and declared for it, only heavy killing could make them feel so alive Every time there was combat you had a licence to go maniac, everyone snapped over the line at least once there and nobody noticed, they hardly noticed if you forgot to snap back again The effects of the unfairness of war are cumulative and gestational They ripen and metastasizeAnd some just went insane, followed the black light arrow around the bend and took possession of the madness that had been waiting there in trust for them for eighteen or twenty five or fifty years 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 They d say I d ask that they didn t remember their dreams either when they were in the zone, but on R R or in the hospital their dreaming would be constant, open, violent and clear, Despite the unfairness of all wars, each war is qualitatively different This one changed an entire country, the one with the most power Nothing, everyone learned, could be trusted from government, from media, from experts, from one s neighbor The military was the exception because it could be trusted for consistent incompetence and deceitthe Marine Corps came to be called by many the finest instrument ever devised for the killing of young AmericansThis was a new, highly infectious disease that evolved in the jungles and rice fields and was imported in a dormant state on the flights homeA despair set in among members of the battalion that the older ones, the veterans of two other wars, had never seen beforeThis was the war from which that country has never recovered, and perhaps never will It sanctioned death as unimportant by turning it into a measure of progressthey talked as though killing a man was nothingthan depriving him of his vigourAnd for those leaders not at the far ends of power but at its source, power became an idol demanding sacred acts through which they would achieve salvationThey believed that God was going to thank them for it There is good reason to believe that the country s present psychosis is its refusal to recognize the injustice it has imposed on the worldYears of thinking this or that about what happens to you when you pursue a fantasy until it becomes experience, and then afterwards you can t handle the experienceI don t know if Herr is a spiritual person but he provides some splendid spiritual adviceGoing crazy was built into the tour, the best you could hope for was that it didn t happen around you, the kind of crazy that made men empty clips into strangers or fix grenades on latrine doors That was really crazy anything less was almost standard, as standard as the vague prolonged stares and involuntary smiles, common as ponchos or 16s or any other piece of war issue If you wanted someone to know you d gone insane you really had to sound off like you had a pair, Scream a lot, and all the time No ideal was left unmolested No injustice was left un trivialized No confession of guilt was ever offered without rationalization Perhaps this is a national characteristic to hide profound immorality behind a shield of up beat concernIt was a characteristic of a lot of Americans in Vietnam to have no idea of when they were being obsceneBut injustice will not lie quiet The effects of war are genetic they are passed on as a dismal legacy of power and its unfairness The country tried to forget and dug itself deeper, coerced itself, into violence that it now performs on itself at the armed hands of its children to the consternation of their parents The country does seem to be screaming now But no one is really listening No one cares if they annihilate themselves in their undeclared civil war If only they would tweet about it less Having been in VietNam and having been in some of the Marine Units that Michael Herr writes about in Dispatches is the best depiction of war in general and VietNam in particular that I have ever read It started me on the path to healing that I had kept hidden since I came back from Nam Thank You Michael.

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