Category: The Vietnam War

Pretty as a picturePretty as a picture

“For all its horror, you can’t help but gape at the awful majesty of combat. You stare out at tracer rounds unwinding through the dark like brilliant red ribbons. You crouch in ambush as a cool, impassive moon rises over the nighttime paddies. You admire the fluid symmetries of troops on the move, the harmonies of sound and shape and proportion, the great sheets of metal-fire streaming down from a gunship, the illumination rounds, the white phosphorus, the purply orange glow of napalm, the rocket’s red glare. It’s not pretty, exactly. It’s astonishing. It fills the eye. It commands you. You hate it, yes, but your eyes do not.” – Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story”

DefinitionsDefinitions

“War is hell, but that’s not the half of it, because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery. War makes you a man; war makes you dead.” – Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story”

Tell it like it isTell it like it is

“A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.” – Tim O’Brien, “How to Tell a True War Story”

Reasons to liveReasons to live

“They carried all the emotional baggage of men who might die. Grief, terror, love, longing—these were intangibles, but the intangibles had their own mass and specific gravity, they had tangible weight. They carried shameful memories. They carried the common secret of cowardice barely restrained, the instinct to run or freeze or hide, and in many respects this was the heaviest burden of all, for it could never be put down, it required perfect balance and perfect posture. They carried their reputations. They carried the soldier’s greatest fear, which was the fear of blushing. Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to. It was what had brought them to the war in the first place, nothing positive, no dreams of glory or honor, just to avoid the blush of dishonor. They died so as not to die of embarrassment.” – Tim O’Brien, “The Things They Carried”

In dreams begin responsibilitiesIn dreams begin responsibilities

“During my first month back I woke up one night and knew that my living room was full of dead Marines. It actually happened three or four times, after a dream I was having those nights (the kind of dream one never had in Vietnam), and that first time it wasn’t just some holding dread left by the dream, I knew they were there, so that after I’d turned on the light by my bed and smoked a cigarette I lay there for a moment thinking that I’d have to go out soon and cover them.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

The company one keepsThe company one keeps

“All kinds of thieves and killers managed to feel sanctimonious around us; battalion commanders, civilian businessmen, even the grunts, until they realized how few of us were making any real money in it. There’s no way around it, if you photographed a dead Marine with a poncho over his face and got something for it, you were some kind of parasite. But what were you if you pulled the poncho back first to make a better shot, and did that in front of his friends? Some other kind of parasite, I suppose. Then what were you if you stood there watching it, making a note to remember it later in case you might want to use it? Those combinations were infinite, you worked them out, and they involved only a small part of what we were thought to be. We were called thrill freaks, death-wishers, wound-seekers, war-lovers, hero-worshipers, closet queens, dope addicts, low-grade alcoholics, ghouls, communists, seditionists, more nasty things than I can remember. There were people in the military who never forgave General Westmoreland for not imposing restrictions against us when he’d had the chance in the early days. There were officers and a lot of seemingly naïve troops who believed that if it were not for us, there would be no war now, and I was never able to argue with any of them on that point. A lot of the grunts had some of that sly, small-town suspicion of the press, but at least nobody under the rank of captain ever asked me whose side I was on, told me to get with the program, jump on the team, come in for the Big Win. Sometimes they were just stupid, sometimes it came about because they had such love for their men, but sooner or later all of us heard one version or another of ‘My Marines are winning this war, and you people are losing it for us in your papers,’ often spoken in an almost friendly way, but with the teeth shut tight behind the smiles.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches (emphasis in original)

The bullshit circusThe bullshit circus

“It was characteristic of a lot of Americans in Vietnam to have no idea when they were being obscene, and some correspondents fell into that, writing their stories from the daily releases and battlegrams, tracking them through with the cheer-crazed language of the MACV Information Office, things like ‘discreet burst’ (one of those tore an old grandfather and two children to bits as they ran along a paddy wall one day, at least according to the report made later by the gunship pilot), ‘friendly casualties’ (not warm, not fun), ‘meeting engagement’ (ambush), concluding usually with 17 or 117 or 317 enemy dead and American losses ‘described as light.’ ” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

Not proud of it, eitherNot proud of it, either

“Somewhere on the periphery of that total Vietnam issue whose daily reports made the morning papers too heavy to bear, lost in the surreal contexts of television, there was a hideous war and all kinds of victims. But there was also a Command that didn’t feel this, that rode us into attrition traps on the backs of fictional kill ratios, and an Administration that believed the Command, a cross-fertilization of ignorance, and a press whose tradition of objectivity and fairness (not to mention self-interest) saw that all of it got space. It was inevitable that once the media took the diversions seriously enough to report them, they also legitimized them. The spokesmen spoke in words that had no currency left as words, sentences with no hope of meaning in the sane world, and if much of it was sharply queried by the press, all of it got quoted. The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which of course was really what it was all about.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

Top billingTop billing

“I keep thinking about all the kids who got wiped out by seventeen years of war movies before coming to Vietnam to get wiped out for good. You don’t know what a media freak is until you’ve seen the way a few of those grunts would run around during a fight when they knew that there was a television crew nearby; they were actually making war movies in their heads, doing little guts-and-glory Leatherneck tap dances under fire, getting their pimples shot off for the networks. They were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them. Most combat troops stopped thinking of the war as an adventure after their first few firefights, but there were always the ones who couldn’t let that go, those few who were up there doing numbers for the cameras. A lot of correspondents weren’t much better. We’d all seen too many movies, stayed too long in Television City, years of media glut had made certain connections difficult. The first few times that I got fired at or saw combat deaths, nothing really happened, all the responses got locked in my head. It was the same familiar violence, only moved over to another medium; some kind of jungle play with giant helicopters and fantastic special effects, actors lying out there in canvas body bags waiting for the scene to end so they could get up again and walk it off. But that was some scene (you found out), there was no cutting it.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

TestifyTestify

“They would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it. They may have been a bunch of dumb, brutal killer kids (a lot of correspondents privately felt that), but they were smart enough to know that much. There was a Marine in Hue who had come after me as I walked toward the truck that would take me to the airstrip, he’d been locked in that horror for nearly two weeks while I’d shuttled in and out for two or three days at a time. We knew each other by now, and when he caught up with me he grabbed my sleeve so violently that I thought he was going to accuse me or, worse, try to stop me from going. His face was all but blank with exhaustion, but he had enough feeling left to say, ‘Okay, man, you go on, you go on out of here you cocksucker, but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man. If you don’t tell it . . .’ ”– Michael Herr, Dispatches

Wash dayWash day

“The sergeant had lain out near the clearing for almost two hours with a wounded medic. He had called over and over for a medevac, but none had come. Finally, a chopper from another outfit, an LOH, appeared, and he was able to reach it by radio. The pilot told him that he’d have to wait for one of his own ships, they weren’t coming down, and the sergeant told the pilot that if he did not land for them he was going to open fire from the ground and fucking well bring him down. So they were picked up that way, but there were repercussions. The commander’s name was Mal Hombre, and he reached the sergeant later that afternoon from a place with the call signal Violent Meals. ‘God damn it, Sergeant,’ he said through the static, ‘I thought you were a professional soldier.’ ‘I waited as long as I could, Sir. Any longer, I was gonna lose my man.’ ‘This outfit is perfectly capable of taking care of its own dirty laundry. Is that clear, sergeant?’ ‘Colonel, since when is a wounded trooper “dirty laundry”?’ ‘At ease, Sergeant,’ Mal Hombre said, and radio contact was broken.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches (emphasis in original)

Ways to goWays to go

“There were choices everywhere, but they were never choices that you could hope to make. There was even some small chance for personal style in your recognition of the one thing you feared more than any other. 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.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

The lion-heartedThe lion-hearted

“It was hard to know what you really learned about courage. How many times did somebody have to run in front of a machine gun before it became an act of cowardice? What about those acts that didn’t require courage to perform, but made you a coward if you didn’t? It was hard to know at the moment, easy to make a mistake when it came, like the mistake that all you needed to perform a witness act were your eyes. A lot of what people called courage was only undifferentiated energy cut loose by the intensity of the moment, mind loss that sent the actor on an incredible run; if he survived it he had the chance later to decide whether he’d really been brave or just overcome with life, even ecstasy. A lot of people found the guts just to call it all off and refuse to ever go out anymore, they turned and submitted to the penalty end of the system or they just split. A lot of reporters, too, I had friends in the press corps who went out once or twice and then never again. Sometimes I thought that they were the sanest, most serious people of all, although to be honest I never said so until my time there was almost over.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

Getting offGetting off

“ ‘Quakin’ and Shakin’, ’ they called it, great balls of fire, Contact. Then it was you and the ground: kiss it, eat it, fuck it, plow it with your whole body, get as close to it as you can without being in it yet or of it, guess who’s flying around about an inch above your head? Pucker and submit, it’s the ground. Under Fire would take you out of your head and out of your body too, the space you’d seen a second ago between subject and object wasn’t there anymore, it banged shut in a fast wash of adrenaline. Amazing, unbelievable, guys who’d played a lot of hard sports said they’d never felt anything like it, the sudden drop and rocket rush of the hit, the reserves of adrenaline you could make available to yourself, pumping it up and putting it out until you were lost floating in it, not afraid, almost open to clear orgasmic death-by-drowning in it, actually relaxed. Unless of course you’d shit your pants or were screaming or praying or giving anything at all to the hundred-channel panic that blew word salad all around you and sometimes clean through you. Maybe you couldn’t love the war and hate it inside the same instant, but sometimes those feelings alternated so rapidly that they spun together in a strobic wheel rolling all the way up until you were literally High on War, like it said on all the helmet covers.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

The field of battleThe field of battle

“Roof of the Rex, ground zero, men who looked like they’d been suckled by wolves, they could die right there and their jaws would work for another half-hour. This is where they asked you, ‘Are you a Dove or a Hawk?’ and ‘Would you rather fight them here or in Pasadena?’ Maybe we could beat them in Pasadena, I’d think, but I wouldn’t say it, especially not here where they knew that I knew that they weren’t really fighting anybody anywhere anyway, it made them pretty touchy. That night I listened while a colonel explained the war in terms of protein. We were a nation of high-protein, meat-eating hunters, while the other guy just ate rice and a few grungy fish-heads. We were going to club them to death with our meat; what could you say except, ‘Colonel, you’re insane’? It was like turning up in the middle of some black looney-tune where the Duck had all the lines.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches (emphasis in original)

Crazy daysCrazy days

“A lot of men found their compassion in the war, some found it and couldn’t live with it, war-washed shutdown of feeling, like who gives a fuck. People retreated into positions of hard irony, cynicism, despair, some saw the action and declared for it, only heavy killing could make them feel so alive. And some just went insane, followed the black-light arrow around the bend and took possession of the madness that had been waiting there in trust for them for eighteen or twenty-five or fifty years. Every time there was combat you had a license to go maniac, everyone snapped over the line at least once there and nobody noticed, they hardly noticed if you forgot to snap back again.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

This ain’t no game, homesThis ain’t no game, homes

“One night I woke up and heard the sounds of a firefight going on kilometers away, a ‘skirmish’ outside our perimeter, muffled by distance to sound like the noises we made playing guns as children, KSSSHH KSSSHH; we knew it was more authentic than BANG BANG, it enriched the game and this game was the same, only way out of hand at last, too rich for all but a few serious players. The rules now were tight and absolute, no arguing over who missed who and who was really dead; No fair was no good, Why me? the saddest question in the world.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches (emphases in original)

Weariness terminalWeariness terminal

“Imagine being too tired to snap a flak jacket closed, too tired to clean your rifle, too tired to guard a light, too tired to deal with the half-inch margins of safety that moving through the war often demanded, just too tired to give a fuck and then dying behind that exhaustion. There were times when the whole war itself seemed tapped of its vitality: epic enervation, the machine running half-assed and depressed, fueled on the watery residues of last year’s war-making energy. Entire divisions would function in a bad dream state, acting out a weird set of moves without any connection to their source. Once I talked for maybe five minutes with a sergeant who had just brought his squad in from a long patrol before I realized that the dopey-dummy film over his eyes and the fly abstraction of his words were coming from a deep sleep. He was standing there at the bar of the NCO club with his eyes open and a beer in his hand, responding to some dream conversation far inside his head.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

Quick, cover that upQuick, cover that up

“Year after year, season after season, wet and dry, using up options faster than rounds on a machine-gun belt, we called it right and righteous, viable and even almost won, and it still only went on the way it went on. When all the projections of intent and strategy twist and turn back on you, tracking team blood, ‘sorry’ just won’t cover it. There’s nothing so embarrassing as when things go wrong in a war.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

TrutherTruther

“There wasn’t a day when someone didn’t ask me what I was doing there. Sometimes an especially smart grunt or another correspondent would even ask me what I was really doing there, as though I could say anything honest about it except ‘Blah blah blah cover the war’ or ‘Blah blah blah write a book.’ Maybe we accepted each other’s stories about why we were there at face value: the grunts who ‘had’ to be there, the spooks and civilians whose corporate faith had led them there, the correspondents whose curiosity or ambition drew them over. But somewhere all the mythic tracks intersected, from the lowest John Wayne wet-dream to the most aggravated soldier-poet fantasy, and where they did I believe that everyone knew everything about everyone else, every one of us there was a true volunteer. Not that you didn’t hear some overripe bullshit about it: Hearts and Minds, Peoples of the Republic, tumbling dominoes, maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah; you could also hear the other, some young soldier speaking in all bloody innocence, saying, ‘All that’s just a load, man. We’re here to kill gooks. Period.’ Which wasn’t at all true of me. I was there to watch.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches (emphases in original)

National war zoneNational war zone

“You could be in the most protected space in Vietnam and still know that your safety was provisional, that early death, blindness, loss of legs, arms or balls, major and lasting disfigurement—the whole rotten deal—could come in on the freakyfluky as easily as in the so-called expected ways, and you heard so many of those stories it was a wonder anyone was left alive to die in firefights and mortar-rocket attacks. After a few weeks, when the nickel had jarred loose and dropped and I saw that everyone around me was carrying a gun, I also saw that any one of them could go off at any time, putting you where it wouldn’t matter whether it had been an accident or not. The roads were mined, the trails booby-trapped, satchel charges and grenades blew up jeeps and movie theaters, the VC got work inside all the camps as shoeshine boys and laundresses and honey-dippers, they’d starch your fatigues and burn your shit and then go home and mortar your area.” – Michael Herr, Dispatches

On the national sealOn the national seal

“Vietnam harbored a variety of exotic animals, and they were often attracted by our perimeter lights. I once watched an anteater collect dinner for nearly an hour. Bats swooped at us; their sonar seemed to be attracted by the telephones. And there were the reptiles, especially the ‘fuck-you’ lizard. Science calls him the gecko, after his distinctive call. Pale turquoise with orange spots, this ten-inch relative of the dinosaur has sung his mournful song for tens of thousands of years without being understood. Now he crept up to a guard tower in the night, eased up to the silent American guard, and hollered, ‘FUCK YOU!’ The guard jumped out of his skin and, often, out of the tower. The ‘fuck-you’ lizard is as much a symbol of Vietnam as the eagle is a symbol of America.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

Uncivil warUncivil war

“One of our men was killed when he approached a forlorn dog that had a satchel charge cleverly sewn into its belly. (A stupid mistake. Dogs were eaten in Vietnam. Cats were a delicacy. Pets did not exist, and the unusual in The Nam was usually deadly.) More common, and perhaps the most heartbreaking memory of all, were booby-trapped kids. A tiny child dressed in rags, unaware of the lethal package strapped to his back, approached. Too young to understand his lot in life, his eyes still sparkled. A GI offered candy or a cigarette. The child radiated joy, and innocently came closer to explode in a crowd.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

Careful where you put thatCareful where you put that

“Like everything in The Nam, even lovemaking could be deadly. One member of our company, affectionately referred to as ‘Champ,’ contracted gonorrhea seventeen times in twelve months. A legendary superstrain, the ‘black syph,’ was supposedly incurable. Fearful of introducing this horror to Hometown, U.S.A., the army supposedly sent ‘black syph’ victims to Okinawa (Camp Crotch-rot) and listed them as missing in action. Rumors of razor blades in a girl’s sex organs abounded, though I doubted that would be medically possible. Short-timers warned the new arrivals against falling asleep after sex, for fear of castration. The pleasure palaces in Saigon were legendary; but up-country sex was a demeaning, mechanical act, a reminder of how desperate and vulnerable the fatigue and loneliness and terror had made us.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell

You put your money down and you take your chancesYou put your money down and you take your chances

“The barber was too young for military service, but he was a fine barber. He shaved you with little tin razors that looked like toys, and carefully shaped your eyebrows and shaved the insides of your ears. After each shave or haircut, he urged you to lean forward and ‘popped’ your vertebrae into place one at a time. All good things must come to an end, and one day he announced he was being drafted. He needed three hundred dollars to bribe his way out. A lot of us could relate to that, and a collection was raised. One night we shot him dead, when he was trying to crawl through the wire with satchel charges on his belt.” – John Ketwig, …and a hard rain fell