second read

What It Was Like

Dispatches told why kids from Ohio came back so 'eerily old'
September 9, 2010

In the fall of 1978, I was racing through Kent State University’s campus bookstore when a thin book, propped in a section where it didn’t belong, stopped me in my tracks. The cover was the color of a brown paper bag, with a one-word title in headline type at the top: Dispatches. A single blurb, by John le Carré, appeared beneath the title: “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”

In our time. It had to be about Vietnam. I looked at the bottom for the author’s name: Michael Herr. Never heard of him. I turned to the first chapter, called “Breathing In,” and started to read its italicized beginning:

There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real anymore.

I deposited my notebooks on the floor, let my purse slide off my shoulder to join them.

If dead ground could come back and haunt you the way dead people do, they’d have been able to mark my map current and burn the ones they’d been using since ’64, but count on it, nothing like that was going to happen. It was late ’67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind. We knew that the uses of most information were flexible, different pieces of ground told different stories to different people. We also knew that for years now there had been no country here but the war.

I don’t remember how much I read before I bought Dispatches. Fellow asthmatics will likely understand why, more than thirty years later, I can still easily remember shorter and shorter breaths, working myself up to a low-grade wheeze by the time I came to the non-italicized text on the fourth page: “A couple of rounds fired off in the dark a kilometer away and the Elephant would be there kneeling on my chest, sending me down into my boots for a breath.”

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The image of that elephant forces a palm to my chest even now, reminding me to breathe. Perhaps that is where I stopped reading in 1978, and decided to take the book home, where I wouldn’t be surrounded by strangers.

Issues that push and pull at us in equal measure are the ones most likely to haunt us. Vietnam was, and is, one of those ghosts for me—because of my roots, not my politics. Ohio, where I grew up, ranked fifth in the number of war casualties in Vietnam. Twenty-six of the servicemen who died came from my home county of Ashtabula, which was full of farmers who hoped to hand off the land to their sons, and working-class boys hoping to graduate from high school and follow their dads into factories that produced rubber, steel, and automobiles. But hope took a holiday in neighborhoods like ours during the war. By the late 1960s, it seemed you couldn’t drive three blocks in any direction without passing the house of a boy who had gone to Vietnam. Neighbors would take over potluck and beer the night before these boys boarded the first flights of their lives. They left full of brag and bravado, but so many of them came home spent, and eerily old.

As the war progressed, our small town shifted incrementally, like a ship that slowly starts to tilt with an uneven load. First, we knew one boy who left. Then we knew another. Soon, Mom was writing notes to other mothers every week, it seemed, filling them with words of encouragement or sympathy in her careful backhand script. I was in the middle phase of a child’s life—too young to know everything, too old to know nothing at all. I would be sitting in school with twenty other fifth-graders, and suddenly a classmate would be called into the hall. The assumption was always that another family had gotten bad news from the war.

One time it was our family, but after a really bad scare, the news was good. My cousin Norman was in Vietnam, and for some reason, Mom knew there was a chance that he had been shot. I still remember the call that came two days later. I was sitting on the sofa when the phone rang and my mother rushed to answer. She listened for a few moments, and started to cry. “He’s alive!” she yelled, “He’s alive.” She later said his air mattress had been shot out from under him. I pictured him lying on one of those colorful rafts swimmers used on Lake Erie, and thought Vietnam must be one crazy place.

More than 2 million Americans served in Vietnam. Ohio lost 3,094 of them. The rest of our boys came home, but the ship never righted. Guys I’d known my entire life weren’t fun, or funny, anymore. No more teasing, no big brother reprimands to get out of the street and quit picking on the little ones. Sometimes I’d look at my friends’ older brothers sitting on their front porches and their stares would scare me. I’d look in their eyes and get goose bumps. It was as if they thought I was trying to start a fight just by smiling at them. I’d scamper off, full of questions my father warned me never to ask.

By 1978, I was a college junior and a journalism major on the same college campus where Ohio National Guardsmen had opened fire at an anti-war protest in 1970, killing four students and wounding nine others. I spent most of my days at the student newspaper, The Daily Kent Stater, where a wall of windows overlooked Blanket Hill. Until I went to college, I thought everyone knew at least one person who’d fought in Vietnam. About six weeks into my freshman year, I stopped asking.

All this may explain why I was eager on that day in 1978 to read Herr’s ferocious account of his year in Vietnam, where he went (in le Carré’s phrase) “to the limit in order to make himself a part of the monstrosity he visited.” But I was scared, too. Not because I was a girl and we didn’t “do war.” No, I wanted to understand what had happened to the boys in my hometown, and why my childhood seemed so different from that of the kids who grew up in neighborhoods full of college deferments. Six pages in, I knew Herr had answers that would likely mess with my head for a long, long time.

It’s almost hard to remember the parched terrain of literature and movies about the Vietnam War when Dispatches was released in 1977. David Halberstam’s 1969 book, The Best and the Brightest, was a widely respected critique of the war, but he focused on the political and military decision-makers who led us into the quagmire. The only well-known movie about Vietnam was John Wayne’s The Green Berets, an anti-communist screed made in 1968, in large part because Wayne wanted to beef up lagging support for the war. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert denounced the film as “propaganda”:

[It] simply will not do as a film about the war in Vietnam. It is offensive not only to those who oppose American policy but even to those who support it. At this moment in our history, locked in the longest and one of the most controversial wars we have ever fought, what we certainly do not need is a movie depicting Vietnam in terms of cowboys and Indians. That is cruel and dishonest and unworthy of the thousands who have died there.

A string of compelling movies would come out a decade after Wayne’s, including Coming Home (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979), which Herr helped write. (In 1987, he would also contribute to the script of Full Metal Jacket.) But as far as popular culture goes, Vietnam was still, if not a blank canvas, a painting without form the year that Dispatches hit the shelves.

Critics immediately hailed it as the story of the real Vietnam War, the one told from the view of the grunts on the ground, rather than politicians or military commanders thousands of miles away. Hunter S. Thompson said that Herr “puts all the rest of us in the shade.” Novelist Robert Stone, reviewing Dexter Filkins’s 2008 book The Forever War in The New York Times Book Review, declared Herr’s book “the most brilliant exposition of the cultural dimension of an American war ever compiled.” John Leonard praised it in an idiom closer to the author’s: “It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war, stoned murder.”

Herr, who never trained as a journalist, originally went to Vietnam for Esquire, but wrote only one story for the magazine during his time there. In his book, he vacillates between scared-out-of-his-bones humility and the occasional, arrogant conviction that, unlike some of the pretty-boy journalists, he was there for the right reasons.

“I could skip the daily briefings,” he recalls. Then he continues: “I honestly wanted to know what the form was for those interviews, but some of the reporters I’d ask would get very officious, saying something about ‘Command postures,’ and look at me as if I was insane. It was probably the kind of look that I gave one of them when he asked me once what I found to talk about with the grunts all the time, expecting me to confide (I think) that I found them as boring as he did.”

Other times, Herr sounds far less confident.

“There wasn’t a day when someone didn’t ask me what I was doing there,” he writes. What got him to Vietnam in the first place, he insists, was “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 responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did.”

It took about six years for Herr to write his book. He was candid about the reasons why in a 1992 interview with Eric James Schroeder in his book Vietnam, We’ve All Been There: Interviews with American Writers. (Schroeder lifted the first part of his title from the last line in Dispatches.)

“I was pretty crazy when I came back,” he told Schroeder. “For a long time I was, in fact, very crazy. Sometimes I was crazy in a very public way, and after I crashed I was crazy in a very private way. . . . I always believed that there was another door on the other side of me that I could go through and come out of with a book under my arm.”

He wrote the first and last chapters, then filled in the middle. It was not, he said, a book about the war. “If somebody were to ask me what it was about, I would say that the secret subject of Dispatches was not Vietnam, but that it was a book about writing a book,” Herr confessed. “I think that all good books are about writing.”

Three years after Dispatches was published, Herr moved to London, where he lived for more than a decade. His initial success seemed to have taken a toll on the author. When Paul Ciotti interviewed him for the Los Angeles Times in 1990, he described “one of the strangest careers of a contemporary American writer. [Herr] refused to grant interviews. He gave up his once-compulsive world travels and became a dedicated homebody and family man, trading drugs for Gauloises and acid rock for Mozart. He let his leisurely output slow to such a glacial pace that it looked as though he had fallen off the literary radar screen….”

Herr didn’t go completely silent. He wrote two more books: a novel about Walter Winchell in 1990, and a 15,000-word essay about Stanley Kubrick that morphed into a slim biography in 2000. But neither won even a fraction of the praise and attention that had been heaped on his debut.

There are many quotable nuggets from Dispatches. “Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it,” is an oft-quoted favorite. “There’s nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war,” is another. These one-liners are clever. They’re quoted because they’re short and snappy, but they don’t reflect why Dispatches changed the way we talked about Vietnam. For a better sense of the book’s impact, consider this passage on the many ways a man could die:

You could die in a sudden bloodburning crunch as your chopper hit the ground like dead weight, you could fly apart so that your pieces would never be gathered, you could take one neat round in the lung and go out hearing only the bubble of the last few breaths, you could die in the last stage of malaria with that faint tapping in your ears, and that could happen to you after months of firefights and rockets and machine guns. Enough, too many, were saved for that, and you always hoped that no irony would attend your passing. You could end in a pit somewhere with a spike through you, everything stopped forever except for the one or two motions, purely involuntary, as though you could kick it all away and come back. You could fall down dead so that the medics would have to spend half an hour looking for the hole that killed you, getting more and more spooked as the search went on. You could be shot, mined, grenaded, rocketed, mortared, sniped at, blown up and away so that your leavings had to be dropped into a sagging poncho and carried to Graves Registration, that’s all she wrote. It was almost marvelous.

Herr’s book was as unfiltered as a private journal, and as honest as a man on his deathbed. Sometimes he wrote in cool and measured prose, like a hip historian. Most of the time, he raced across the page like the men he described as “talking in short violent bursts as though they were afraid they might not get to finish.” Perhaps he was always like that; more likely, he eventually absorbed the grunts’ cadences as his own. Thirty years after reading the book for the first time, I still have the same gut response: at least I understand why I will never understand what happened to our boys in Vietnam. That may sound like small consolation to those who don’t remember the war, but the realization that some horrors are beyond my comprehension liberated me from a guilt I couldn’t name at twenty-one, and still struggle with now.

Back in 1978, I read Herr’s book in one sleepless night. I thought about it for a couple of days, read it again. Then I mailed my copy of Dispatches to my parents with a note pleading that they read it. Weeks passed, and I finally called. My mother said she couldn’t read it because it was making her cry too much. Dad wouldn’t even pick it up. To him, Dispatches was 260 pages of reasons why they’d sent me away to college. If we learned anything in our blue-collar town, in our factory worker’s family, it was that college kids were special, they were protected, they got away with things. Like war, for example.

Nearly 80 percent of those who fought in Vietnam came from rural and blue-collar families. My mother and father would end up dying in their sixties after working hard to make sure they changed the odds for their four kids. In 1978, I was only the first to go to college. Dad, who often worked double shifts at a power plant on Lake Erie, had no time to look back, and no interest in Michael Herr’s version of America.

I said earlier that I had to find my courage to read Dispatches back then. As it turned out, I needed to find a different kind of courage to reread it in 2010. I knew to brace for its relentless loop of gore and terror, but I didn’t remember many of the specifics, and this time they clawed at my heart, and my conscience. Fatally wounded boys cry for their mothers. A man wraps his wife’s oatmeal cookie in foil, plastic and three pairs of socks to keep it safe for months in the jungle.

And sometimes, numbers speak horrible truths. The National Archives rank Vietnam casualties by age. Of the dead, 9,705 were twenty-one; 14,095 were twenty; and 8,283 were nineteen.

Twelve of them were only seventeen.

I am no longer a young college student struggling to imagine such things. I am a middle-aged wife and mother who knows life is unspeakably better when all of your children have already lived longer than the majority of the men who died in Vietnam. I am the grandmother of a two-year-old boy, born in a country fighting two wars with no end in sight.

There’s a footnote to Michael Herr’s story, and it’s a big one. As a journalist, I was taken aback to discover that, while Dispatches was published as nonfiction, Herr always thought of it as a novel. “I don’t think that it’s any secret that there is talk in the book that’s invented,” he told Schroeder. “But it is invented out of that voice that I heard so often and that made such penetration into my head. . . . I don’t really want to go into that no-man’s-land about what really happened and what didn’t really happen and where you draw the line. Everything in Dispatches happened for me, even if it didn’t necessarily happen to me.” Later, he adds:

There are errors of fact in the book. I’m not happy about this. When the Khe Sahn piece was published [as an essay before the book], I had a really beautiful letter from a colonel who had been stationed there; he corrected me on various points of fact. I lost the letter, and it didn’t turn up again until after the book was in print. . . . I couldn’t bear to go in and make the revisions myself. I was tapped out. I was exhausted from the project. Including the year in the war, I had spent eight years working on it, and I just couldn’t do any more.

It’s doubtful that Herr could have pulled this off in our current climate of online fact-checkers and self-anointed “citizen journalists.” It is too easy to imagine Sergeant So-and-So from Cleveland, Mississippi, yelling on fox News, “I was on the Langvei attack, and Mr. Herr is lying!” Or an anonymous blogger posting “Top Ten Reasons Michael Herr is a Traitor,” followed by 413 comments, 390 of them irrelevant to the post at hand.

I wonder if the critics would have been harsher to Herr had they known of his errors and inventions before writing their reviews. Even if we read it as fiction, Dispatches is a work of enormous power, but would its sense of urgency and loss be diminished?

Not for me. I have never had the guts to cover a war, and doubt I could ever risk my safety, and my sanity, as Herr did when he was in Vietnam. I have neither the right nor the will to pass judgment on how he brought home the war to millions of Americans who had yet to face it. And ultimately, whatever its flaws may be as straight journalism, his book is a tribute to the young men he met in Vietnam. In the 2001 documentary, First Kill, it’s clear that Herr was unable to forget them: “It’s their voices. It’s their amazing eloquence. My book is full of them. You know, that’s really what my book is. These guys were semi-demi-literate kids from a really unfavorable social background, who just had such a dignity. I couldn’t help but find that really moving, and really persuasive.”

Michael Herr was changed by what he saw, and what he endured. I am grateful that he lived to tell the tale, that he survived to write simple descriptions like this one: “He was the kind of kid that would go into the high-school gym alone and shoot baskets for the half-hour before the basketball team took it over for practice, not good enough yet for the team but determined.”

Sounds like half the boys I knew.

Until they went to Vietnam.

Connie Schultz is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2005.