Hurled into Vietnam

Dispatches

by Michael Herr
Knopf, 260 pp., $8.95

There was such a dense concentration of energy there, American and essentially adolescent, if that energy could have been channeled into anything more than noise, waste and pain it would have lighted up Indochina for a thousand years.

It is more than ten years since Lyndon Johnson told the Vietnamese he had American energy enough to move the New Deal from the Pedernales to the Mekong. Michael Herr, who, when he was himself essentially adolescent, wrote the sentence above, loves that energy, and wants Dispatches to be the Vietnam book that will light up the literature of war for something like a thousand years. Though more than half of his book was published between 1968 and 1970, Herr fussed and rewrote and added—this was to be the book about the war that no one else had written. The results are odd, painful, superb in many places, commonplace in many others.

While in Vietnam Herr preferred to say he was a writer rather than a reporter. The soldiers could not have cared less about such a distinction since they knew that anyone who was in Vietnam by choice was mad. It mattered to Herr, though. His assignment was indefinite, he never had to listen to press briefings or trace down the lies of the generals, he did not have to file daily or weekly stories, to stay in one place, or to go where some editor, listening to the lies, told him to go. His impulse was like that of the young Norman Mailer, who wanted to go to the Pacific in 1942 since the great book about World War II would be laid there. He wanted to emulate George Orwell. “There was a special Air Force outfit that flew defoliation missions. They were called the Ranch Hands, and their motto was, ‘Only we can prevent forests.’ ” That is what Herr wanted to write about, American energy, wit, and brutality.

His first effort, in 1969, “Hell Sucks,” for Esquire, has been cannibalized until little more than the title remains, but the other long pieces he wrote in Vietnam appear here pretty much as they were originally published. One sees why Herr wanted to make changes, and also why he ended up changing so little. This is a fairly typical vignette from “Illumination Rounds”:

A twenty-four-year-old Special Forces captain was telling me about it. “I went out and killed one VC and liberated a prisoner. Next day the major called me in and told me that I’d killed fourteen VC and liberated six prisoners. You want to see the medal?”

This is shorter than most, but most of his observations are similarly pointed to display The Idiocy of War, The Terror of War, The Arrogance of Americans, or some such motto. ” ‘You guys ought do a story on me suntahm,’ the kid said,” because, he goes on, ” ‘I’m so fuckin’ good.’ ” Or, “I met this kid from Miles City, Montana, who read the Stars and Stripes every day, checking …

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