“Vietnam, hot damn.“
That line is not Michael Herr’s. It’s the last line of Norman Mailer’s Why Are We in Vietnam?, a prescient novel published a decade before Herr’s 1977 book Dispatches. Mailer’s book is not about Vietnam (other than the title, that last page is the only place Vietnam gets a mention in the text.) Rather, it’s an X-ray of the numb, dumb gung-ho mindset that got us involved there before we really knew what we were doing.
Writing ten years later, Herr, who died this week at 76, found himself inside a war driven by that same deluded and deranged mentality – but he got up-close and personal at the moment when that damaging approach had taken over and was fully operational.
“I went there behind the crude and serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything,” he wrote in his great book, “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 last line of Herr’s book supplants Mailer’s, adding sadness and burn-out and disdain and a touch of doubt: “Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.”
Dispatches is also the successor – and antidote – to Graham Greene’s 1955 novel The Quiet American (last line: “how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say that I was sorry.”) In what remained unsaid in his text, Greene got deep inside the CIA’s cockeyed clandestine counterrevolutionary insurgency that escalated the war. By the time Herr wrote, the American presence was loud, and our presence has been loud all over almost ever since.
As a work of reportage, Dispatches was part of a lineage. By the time the book came out, ‘new journalism’ had existed for more than a decade. There was Armies of the Night (Mailer, from 1968) and St. George and the Godfather (Mailer again, from ‘72). There was the granddaddy: Homage to Catalonia (George Orwell, from 1938, though not published in the U.S. until 1952) There was Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels (1966) and the two Fear and Loathing books (’72 and ‘73) and Tom Woolf’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) and Garry Wills’s Nixon Agonistes (1970.)
Those books were all amazing. Works of titans, literary giants, larger-than-life characters, personalities, people who mattered, people who knew things. Herr, by contrast, seemed an everyman, wandering wide in a world at war, allowing us to open our eyes even wider.
Here’s Herr describing an anonymous grunt unloading his automatic rifle on a line of 37 dead Vietcong: “I heard an M16 on full automatic, starting to go through clips, a second to fire, three to plug in a fresh clip, and I saw a man out there, doing it. Every round was like a tiny concentration of high-velocity wind, making the bodies wince and shiver.”
Here’s Herr on his welcome into the country:
“If you get hit,” a medic told me, “we can chopper you back to base-camp hospital in like twenty minutes.”
“If you get hit real bad,” a corpsman said, “they’ll get your case to Japan in twelve hours.”
“If you get killed,” a spec 4 from Graves promised, “we’ll have you home in a week.”
Dispatches made you realize that the stories that won’t let you go, the stories that make you sick, that slap you in the face, that thrill you and anger you and alarm you and leave you messed up and disconsolate and confused and argumentative, are the things you have to write.
Four decades ago, Herr could declare, with conviction, “Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.”
The continuing wars of the past decade and a half tell us that we need Herr’s work all over again. We need to read it and read it and read it again until we can all say we’ve been there.