”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, claymores, 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 for...oh wait...damn 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 Stone
The 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 choice. ”Two 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 Westmoreland 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 JarI placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And 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 Stevens
The 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 accomplished. ”We 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 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 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’ down
The 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 home. ”I’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 dying...I 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 smells. ”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 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 intruder.”
The 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 damp earth in your nostrils.