Michael Herr’s Teenage Wasteland
by Michael Carson
To the young Henry Fleming of Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage, war’s attraction is simple. For as long as he can remember, the government has told him not to kill and threatened death to those who break the law, and now, all of a sudden, the same government tells him to kill and threatens him with death if he does not. And the thing is, young Henry finds this paradox not just confusing, but strangely exciting. You see, Fleming has always wondered what it would be like to kill someone, to be forced in pitch battle to take another person’s life, to own them and end them in ways civilized society would not allow. Young Fleming had wondered if there was anything more out there, something more profound and true extant in the far corners of the globe or deep within the mountains, some way to test this soul of his. And now, it turns out, his suspicions were true: there is a time and place to kill and be killed, to act out adolescent fantasies of manhood and maturity.
I could not get Stephen Crane and Fleming’s story out of my head as I read Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a brilliant and infuriating work titillated by and titillating the same contradiction. In Dispatches, the Vietnam War is not a series of successive campaigns; it is not peace protests in the States; it is not the decisions of politicians to escalate or restrict bombing campaigns. There are no political discussions, no straightforward moral condemnations of war. You do not get the standard battle-by-battle bildungsroman common to war memoirs or even a discussion of Vietnamese culture. Instead, Herr describes Vietnam as a teenage nirvana, an adolescent’s wet dream, where he can do activities and experience movies only fantasized about growing up. Not only do you get to see the edges of the known world, the exotic and mysterious jungles and mountains of Southeast Asia, but the reader will also fly and fall and laugh with mystics, sociopaths, saints, imbeciles, movie stars, super-models, getting drunk and high, sleeping with prostitutes, watching and hearing shrapnel and bullets fly by and puncture bodies not your own. It is difficult to come away from his work and not feel that whatever the morality of war itself, the war changed those who experienced it in ways both subtle and profound, and that the war was as about a far out and trippy an experience possible in this boring and blinkered bourgeois world of ours.
If one reads enough war memoirs, novels, and short stories published over the last two hundred years, one can easily come to see war as the ultimate experience, the untouched beyond, where normal assumptions and expectations about morality and the self breakdown. Sure, it is bad, but it is really bad, transcendentally bad. You don’t become a man there maybe – that would be too simple, too conventional – but you do become something else, something you could not possibly be if you stayed home. This frightens, but it also attracts. As with young Fleming, war is the place where all social values are inverted, perverted, and some people, especially teenagers, feel constrained by social values. Naturally, those young men who chafe at those restrictions, who find growing up in a normal fashion enfeebling, boring or silly, jump at the exoticism of war, this chance to evolve, to enter into a higher maturity, and find adulthood without actually having to become an adult. And as with most people who refuse to grow up, who binge late into the night and ignore commonsense advice, on a fundamental level they recognize their decision to be a disastrous one; yet, also like teenagers, they refuse to think about the next morning, only the night of the party.
Reading Dispatches is a terrifying experience; it is also an exquisite one. Herr’s descriptions seduce. His lack of narrative seems right for the war he recounts. The truth in this primordial and preternatural setting deceives, spinning away like the helicopters flying in and out of firefights, lifting Herr and a bunch of American corpses to an equally terrible Saigon. When Herr says, “it wasn’t possible, just not possible, to have been where we’d been before and to be where we were now, all in the same afternoon,” the reader agrees. It does not seem possible that this war happened at all, but as Herr says, “what happened happened.” So the reader struggles to imagine these young kids, these psychopaths in the making, roaming the jungle, stoned out of their mind, skinning bodies, wounded many times over, talking about how they are going to kill cheating girlfriends back home, singing “I’m an Oscar Mayer Weiner” as they start murdering each other in Lord of the Flies fashion. One wrestles with the delicious idea of Jimi Hendrix asking “have you ever been experienced?” to desperate shell-shocked bunkers, helmets graffitied with a manly indifference and broken Americanisms, darkly despairing aphorisms like “Pray for War” and “Born to Lose.” One can’t help but cheer with marines at the persistence of “Luke the Gook,” a lonely Vietcong sniper who continues to fire on their Khe Sanh position and kill marines even after they call in artillery and saturate his hideout with enough napalm to destroy a battalion.
Not only is the humor deep and raw, the irony infecting and delicious, but the landscape the images are profound and disturbing, a place that haunts and is haunted. Herr often stares at “the shapes and colors of jungled hills” thinking “about the death and mystery that was in them.” “Oh the terrain! The bloody, maddening, uncanniness of it,” Herr at one point moans with Wordsworthian ardor. Eventually the war erupts from this alien landscape to come at Herr and the reader like a nymphomaniac, putting “its wild mouth all over you.” Herr wakes up used and broken from these assaults, theses bouts with pure experience, and must retreat to Saigon to get stoned and fight off nightmares. Yet even in Saigon war’s majesty lurks. Herr and his group of hard-core journalist friends listen to the Doors, sardonically impersonate psychotic colonels and drunkenly watch South Vietnamese civilians being killed in the Saigon suburbs like aristocrats watching the First Battle of Bull Run. Then they rush out to the next battle, the next experience, even the soldiers telling them, “you all are fucking crazy,” and Herr and his friends laughing with pride at the designation. The wild abandon, the cowboy freedom, washes over the reader like the best scenes in our favorite dystopian movies, our deepest and darkest Bonnie and Clyde fantasies.
I lost count of the number of times Herr goes in and out of sanity, that “the holy terror,” the “dreadful” and “awful” Vietnamese God overwhelms him, transfigures him, hallows him out. Vietnam, according to Herr, contains not one, but all the varieties of religious experience. At one point, he talks about some of his comrades who “reached the place where an inversion of the expected order happened, a fabulous warp where you took the journey first and then made your departure.” Herr obviously seeks this out, and pushes the reader there as well – beyond the beyond. He admits as much. He is in love with the helicopters, and not because they take him away from hell, as one would expect, but because they wildly lurch in and out of the chaos – they confuse the cause with the consequence, home with the war, reporter for the reported. Herr, like most adolescent souls, wants to find a place where the world does not work as he expects it to work, where he does not have to do or say the things society says they have to. And Vietnam, according to Dispatches, is this place.
After a while, one realizes on some fundamental level that Herr seems to be saying war does not eat away at his sanity, but at his insanity. He goes into the field to ground himself. What is insane is the western world. Home is insane. The media is insane. The pogues in non-combat units are insane. As he says at one point about the grunt marines locked in deadly combat, “they were insane, but the war hadn’t done that to them.” Herr means to imply that the idea of war as an adventure had been inculcated in them by American culture, movies especially. Yet, at the same time, one stopped thinking of war as adventure “after their first few firefights.” While war might not take Herr’s childishness from him completely, “actual youth” had been pressed out of Herr “in just the three days that it took me to cross the sixty miles between Can Tho and Saigon.” During those three days, he realizes that “the only corpse I couldn’t bear to look at would be the one I would never have to see.” No more kiddy stuff for Herr. Most people have to wait their entire lifetimes to grow up – get a job, have children, lose parents, find discipline, lose it, find it again. Not Herr. In three days he has grown into a man, sadder and wiser like the ancient mariner, with a whole bunch of badass stories to tell us wedding guests.
Yet this is not enough for Herr. He always needs another hit, another bump, another ride into the field. A volunteer, a flâneur disgusted with his own role as a spectator, his own inability to consummate his love for the soldiers and with death, Herr can’t get away from the idea that he is simply slumming – sleeping a night or two with the grunts and then partying like a rock star with his movie star journalist friends back in Saigon. He cannot choose which he is in love with more – his famous and beautiful fellow flâneurs or the pimply-faced grunts. And love is the right word. Herr seems to imply only war can you make friendships, real lasting friendships, love affairs in a matter of minutes. Herr asks: Have you ever been bombed with someone else? Have you ever been shot at together? Is a relationship real if it hasn’t been tested in this way? It is no coincidence that he mentions two marines making love during a firefight toward the end. This is the intensity, the pure energy offered by the war. When he finally makes the transition from observer to participant during Tet, firing his pistol wildly over the berm, with a dozen dead Vietnamese in his field of fire, he could “never remember ever feeling so tired, so changed, so happy.” It doesn’t take a Freudian to discern the sexual overtones here. This is not a war story – as Tim O’Brien once confessed in a slightly different context – but a love story.
Herr understands the problem. At one point, he complains, “you pursue a fantasy until it becomes an experience, and then afterward you can’t handle the experience.” But just because he sees how this book is about the fulfillment of desire, the gratification of wants, for him and others, rather than the deprivation or rape of an entire country and generation, does not make the problem less problematic. I have never read a book – or rather, so well written a book – where the author both recognizes how absurd it is to look at war as an escape from innocence yet believes deep in its heart of heart that war is the only way to escape innocence. The only comparable work that comes to mind is Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel. For Herr, as for Junger, war fascinates utterly; it is best understood as an aesthetic experience, a rollicking magical mystery tour into the sublime and back again. Both authors are sick to death of the moralizing surrounding the war. They feel it takes away from the actual War. Shorn of its moral trappings, War becomes incomprehensibly beautiful, awful in the religious sense, a soul-shattering psychedelic haze where one finds something akin to the truth, something more real than the artifices and absurdities of civilian society and the rules and regulations of military life; and it is a test of a man’s character, how complicated of a person he is, if he can take something away from it all, if he can survive it, mentally as well as physically. And if he can’t? So be it. Small price for a taste of eternity.
At times, Herr makes the link between adolescent fantasies and the war explicit. “There was such a dense concentration of American energy there,” he observes, “American and essentially adolescent, if that energy could have been channeled into anything more than noise, waste and pain it would have lighted up Indochina for thousand years.” As before, when he blamed America media and culture for making them all insane, Herr sees the problem coming from the States, not the Vietnamese or Vietnam. Here Herr even goes so far as to describe this insanity as an adolescent phenomenon. Yet Herr doesn’t seem to understand that there is nothing more adolescent than the belief you could light up a benighted foreign people – or a racially “impure” Europe for that matter – for a thousand years through a more concerted and less wasteful effort, as if that very noise, waste, and pain was not responsible for attracting all the adolescent energy (his included) like moths to a light in the first place. It requires the fantastical belief that the rules don’t apply to you as a country and as a person, that you can just skip steps, and change the world in one fell swoop or become a man after staring at dead bodies and getting shot at. It is almost as naïve, lazy and stupid as the idea that freedom and peace will automatically blossom like a hundred flowers throughout the dark regions of the world if we tear down a statue of Saddam Hussein. Almost.
“I think Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods,” he says by way of conclusion. Herr went to Vietnam at twenty-eight, a fully-grown man by most accounts. He went there for almost the exact experiences – violence, irony, drugs, friendship, fear, religion, writing material – it sounds like he ended up having. I think Vietnam would be better described as the happy adolescence Herr did not want to end. I do understand that Herr’s book attempts to deconstruct these fantasies – by comparing the veterans of the war to burnt-out rock stars for example – but I think, as beautifully written a book as it is, as powerful as it can be at moments, he ends up giving the reader the wildest ride he or she could possibly imagine; and one walks away convinced that Vietnam, whatever else it was, was also incredibly cool. I mean squads of marines patrolling dressed up as Batman? Smoking dope with equally estranged souls, jamming out to the Stones on the far edges of modern western experience, a hellscape without meaning, gravity or logic? Trying to keep your sanity and hope in an honest to goodness Wonderland? Far out. For a culture that churns out four or five apocalyptic and dystopian blockbusters a year, I can think of nothing more attractive (and marketable).
Here we arrive at the true tragedy of Vietnam and of modern western wars in general: the supposed adults of society abuse and manipulate this adolescent eagerness for streamlined maturity and untapped experience – this fascination with Death and the Beyond – for their own ends and interests. Henry Fleming was just a dumb kid. Herr’s grunts were dumb kids as well. Violence, drugs and hell fascinate dumb kids bored by the prospect of humdrum lives in Rochester and Abilene. So desperate for authenticity, for meaning, they grasp at something as deadly and horrible as a firefight in Huế or Ramadi. What the young Henry Fleming and the grunts need to learn is that killing won’t make them a man nor will all the dead bodies in the world bring them any closer to Truth, God or Pure Experience. They need to learn that war holds nothing new. Sins do not become original in battle as a character in The Things They Carried claimed. They are much the same in Timbuktu as they are in San Diego. These children need to understand that profound and meaningful narratives exist outside of war, and they deserve a government and literature mature enough to tell them this.