(To read the entire "War at its Worst” series, please click here.)
I’ve read Michael Herr’s Dispatches three times in the last year. I’m convinced it belongs in the pantheon of great war literature.
As happens in a lot of great war books, it was almost impossible to find just one passage of “War at its Worst” i Dispatches. Most of memoir--from the chapter “Khe Sanh” to the later passages on the deaths and dismemberments of fellow war correspondents--contains war at its worst.
Like the best writers, Herr tells you how to feel about Vietnam, ignoring tactics and strategy and focusing on his pinpoint understanding of the emotional reality of the Vietnam war. The passages below come from the chapter “Hell Sucks”, and they embody emotion. The first emotion is fear, debilitating, depression-inducing fear. The second is remorse at the loss of the one beautiful city in Vietnam, the imperial citadel of Hue, a canal-filled monument to history destroyed by American bombs and neglected by communist ideologues.
“During the first weeks of the Tet Offensive the curfew began early in the afternoon and was strictly enforced. By 2:30 each day Saigon looked like the final reel of On the Beach, a desolate city whose long avenues held nothing but refuse, windblown papers, small distinct piles of human excrement and the dead flowers and spent firecracker casings of the Lunar New Year...The trees along the main streets looked like they’d been struck by lightning, and it became unusually, uncomfortably cold, one more piece of freak luck in a place where nothing was in its season. With so much filth growing in so many streets and alleys, an epidemic of plague was feared, and if there ever was a place that suggested plague, demanded it, it was Saigon in the Emergency. American civilians, engineers and construction workers who were making it here like they’d never made it at home began forming into large armed bands, carrying .45′s and grease guns and Swedish K’s, and no mob of hysterical vigilantes ever promised more bad news. You’d see them at ten in the morning on the terrace of the Continental waiting for the bar to open, barely able to light their own cigarettes until it did...After seven in the evening, when the curfew included Americans and became total, nothing but White Mice patrols and MP jeeps moved in the streets, except for a few young children who raced up and down over the rubbish, running newspaper kites up into the chilling wind.” - page 70
“I realized later that, however childish I might remain, actual youth had been pressed out of me in just the three days that it took me to cross the sixty miles between Can Tho and Saigon. In Saigon, I saw friends flipping out almost completely; a few left, some took to their beds for days with the exhaustion of deep depression...An old-timer who’d covered war since the Thirties heard us pissing and moaning about how terrible it was and he snorted, “Ha, I love you guys...What the fuck did you think it was?” We thought it was already past the cut-off point where every war is just like every other war; if we knew how rough it was going to get, we might have felt better. After a few days the air routes opened again, and we went up to Hue.” - page 72
“In the morning we crossed the canal on a two-by-four and started walking in until we came across the first of the hundreds of civilian dead we were to see in the next weeks: an old man arched over his straw hat and a little girl who’d been hit while riding her bicycle.” - page 75
“Civilian dad lay out on the sidewalks only a block from the compound, and the park by the river was littered with dead. It was cold and the sun never came out once, but the rain did things to the corpses that were worse in their way than anything the sun could have done. It was on those days that I realized that the only corpse I couldn’t bear to look at would be the one I would never have to see.” - page 77
“On the worst days, no one expected to get through it alive. A despair set in among members of the battalion that the older ones, the veterans of the two other wars, had never seen before. Once or twice, when the men from Graves Registration took the personal effects from the packs and pockets of dead Marines, they found letters from home that had been delivered days before and were still unopened.” - page 79
“Seventy percent of Vietnam’s one lovely city was destroyed, and if the landscape seemed desolate, imagine how the figures in that landscape looked.” - page 83