"We had this gook and we was gonna skin him" (a grunt told me), "I mean he was already dead and everything, and the lieutenant comes over and says 'Hey . . . . there's a reporter in the POC, do you want him to come out and see that? I mean, use your . . . . heads, there's a time and a place for everything . . .
"Too bad you wasn't with us last week" (another grunt told me, coming off a no contact operation), "we killed so many gooks it wasn't even funny."
Was it possible that they were there and not haunted? No, not possible, not a chance, I know I wasn't the only one. Where are they now? (Where am I now?) I stood as close to them as I could without actually being one of them, and then I stood as far back as I could without leaving the planet. Disgust doesn't begin to describe what they made me feel, they threw people out of helicopters, tied people up and put the dogs on them. Brutality was just a word in my mouth before that. But disgust was only one color in the whole mandala, gentleness and pity were other colors, there wasn't a color left out.
I think that those people who used to say that they only wept for the Vietnamese never really wept for anyone at all if they couldn't squeeze out at least one for these men and boys when they died or had their lives cracked open for them .
by Michael Herr
Its hard to picture Michael Herr among men in combat, men pushing other man out of helicopters - he looks so soft. The man who spent a year in Vietnam in 1967 as a war correspondent for Esquire seems a myopic teddy bear: thick body, round face, thinning red hair, wire-rimmed glasses and a pale red moustache. Neither does he talk tough, which is the way he sometimes writes. The voice is gentle, the manner worrisome, thoughtful and occasionally wry. Faces by photographer and reporter, he's so nervous that cigarettes and scotch can't calm him.
He writes of becoming inured of rotting bodies. But now he lights candles to his Tibetan guru. The man who hitched a ride on a helicopter full of corpses, now shyly pats the belly of his six months-pregnant bride-to-be telling about their study of natural childbirth and saying that he won't leave her to do promotional tours. The war has made Michael Herr a softer person.
"The most wonderful thing war can do is to put him in touch with his feminie qualities; his tenderness, his delicacy. I'm a failed macho now, thank God, thank God . . ."
But if the war inspired it also confused."I love war, I hate war, it's all the same. I defy anyone to stand close to that kind of energy and not feel ecstasy; it's so metabolical, so forceful, you just don't have time to monitor, the feelings. Conceptualizing takes all the juice out of it."
Among journalist and literary critics Herr's book "Dispatches" is creating the kind of excitement a writer dreams of . It's a stark-naked, first-person account in which Herr admits his own terrors, his own dirty secrets, his own war correspondent fantasies. Hunter Thompson has called "Dispatches" the book about Vietnam that "puts all the rest of us in the shade." John Leonard of the New York Times called it "reporting . . . achieving literature." On the dust jacket, Tom Wolfe, in a buddy blurp, says it rivals "All Quiet on the Western Front."
"Dispatches" is a book that was a long time coming. Herr returned from Vietnam, had excerpts of the book published in Esquire and New American Review, and became at 27, a journalistic and literary cult hero. "I had my fantasies of being a writer fulfilled quite immediately," says Herr.
Those fantasies were short lived.
Within two years after his return. Herr experienced that special nightmare - writer's block. He was crushed. The literary community expected too much from him, and he had this recuring fear: "I Knew I wasn't the person to bring off that book." He couldn't write for five years; his publishers, who eventually paid him "well" under $10,000 for the finished product, considered dropping him; the fickle literary community wondered if he'd dried up. "The hosty-totsy American writer's trip, you're not home writing because you're hanging out . . . or else you're trying to live up to everybody else's expectation . . . Mailer was right; it'll kill you . . . and then when I couldn't work, they couldn't understand what was happening, and they had no other way to deal with me but to say I was insane or strung out on junk. And that was poetically true. I was a pain junkie, addicted to my own pain . . . but never junk.
"Flying over jungles was almost pure pleasure; doing it on foot was nearly all pain. I never belonged in there. Maybe it really was that its people had always called it, beyond: at the very least it was serious, I gave up things to it I probably never got back. Once in some thick jungles corner with some grunts standing around, a correspondent said, "Gee you must really see some beautiful sunsets in here," and they almost p . . . ed themselves laughing. But you could fly up and into hot tropic sunsets that would change the way you thought about life forever. You could also fly out of places that were so grim they turned to black and white in your head five minutes after you'd gone .
"I was 29 and all those people were telling me how wonderful I was, how the world was my oyster . . . and I hadn't even begun to pay dues. I hadn't begun."
He had personal problems. He remained alone in his apartment, for a week at a time, getting shoned. "Grass, yeah, grass was the nail in the coffin that kept me paralyzed. I couldn't wait to get stoned every day, not high, Stoned, unconscious . The terror I felt, it was worse than Vietnam; anxiety is much worse to deal with than raw terror." He was broke. Parents, friends, girl friends gave him money to live on.
At first meeting Herr does not talk easily but sits, guarded and cautious, in his little one-bedroom walkup in a Greenwich Village tenement.
His home is decorated in '60s poverty. The shabbily furnished quarters are stacked with books but no TV; the sofa sags, the coffee table is fashioned from an old door and a bed frame.
In one corner of the room a small shrine to HIS HOLINESS DUDJONA whose teaching Herr follows. The typewriter is propped up on "The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock." Even the name of one of Herr's two cats - 8-year-old Moon Unit, after Frank Zappa's son-smacks of an earlier decade. Wearing a string blessed by the Llama around hi neck. Herr gives an impression not of bravado but of exhaustion, fear, guilt, anxiety. He fidgets on the sofa, tucking his legs protectively beneath him.
"You have debts?" Herr rolls his eyes upward, an ironic gesture from a helpless victim of the universe, and says, "It's like Nelson Algren says, 'Auritea's always making his living jumping from roof to roof.'"
"What did you mean in the book by 'Vietnam is what we had instead of happy childhoods?'"
"I don't know but it must have hit a nerve because a lot of people asked me."
There are pockets of silence.
He says, wryly, that to call him "blocked" at one time would be "very generous . . . I was paralyzed."
"Minutes later he refuses to discuss past problems with the book at all.
And then there are pockets of eloquence. The only subject he seems comfortable with are the book's beginning and his intent.
"The original idea was that I would write a monthly column for Esquire, but my second day there I was that would be a horrible idea, it almost trivialized it.Nothing against the press, but I was never a part of them . . . and my book is in no way a journalistic book; it's a work of the imagination. It's not a political, historical or moral take on Vietnam because . . . I don't even know that political language means.
"I want people to be confused so they won't be so smug. I want them to abandon definitions. I wrote that book more with my chest, with my heart, than with my mind, because I don't feel that facts tell the truth.I saw facts changed into lies.it's your heart that tells the truth. It's just a totally personal reponse: I didn't see how I could go into anybody else's head withour going into my own."
"Because I'd always wanted to go to war, because I wanted to write a book, because I thought being a war correspondent would be very glamourous, because I didn't know any better. I was in the time of your life when you think of your life as a movie.
"I felt I should see everything and being scared was central to it. But beyond that, I don't know. I don't know if a person ever knows why they ever do something. You think you do, but most of the time you're sleeping."
But at a second meeting at his neighborhood bar, over a few martinis and away from photographer and girl friend Herr opens up on subjects other than his book.
On the war: "I saw the war as the particular nature of American energy in the '60s. So madly in love with their technology, with their toys, they'd do anything to use them. We had to be in Vietnam, It was our karma whas our expectations were of ourselves . . . I do think that if Americans 15 years ago had not been so repressed there never would have been a Vietnam. The war had as much to do with sexual hysteria as it is about war . . ."
On his childhood in Syracuse, N.Y. the son of a jeweler, he had "horrible grades," and was constantly breaking bones rock climbing and skiing. "I was a klutz, lots of writers are afflicted by all kinds of things." He always wrote, mostly "imitation of the Nick Adens stories" but never tried to publish. As a child he was "very smart, except academically, very spoiled, very pampered . . . I was a nervous asthmatic, a baby artist: hysterical neurastnenic, allergic to everything.
On his politics: He never votes. "I don't want to give it that much energy. I have too much respect for that franchise to vote for those people. It would be like holding democracy in contempt, it would be like buggering the Constitution. I voted once for McGovern. and within 30 seconds I felt worse than if I was masturbating."
On his early adulthood: He studied literature in college, moved to the Village, married and divorced young and spent most of his 20s "more into traveling than writing because there wasn't a subject I wanted to give my energy to." He also was in the Army Reserve.
On his remembrance of friends from Vietnam five years after: In 1975, "Larry Burns was dead. (Sean) Flynn and Dana (Stone) were missing in action and I had never been able to squeeze out a tear for them."
On his reluctance to open up at the frost meeting: "I guess I share the feeling with primitive people that pictures [photographers] capture your soul." He explains that he was exhausted, having been up for a few days finishing a piece for "Crawdaddy" on rock tours as combat. "Writing always makes me a little crazy."
On writer's block: "Then it was 1970 and I turned 30 and my ass fell off. And there was a definite difference in the culture: stasis, Nixon . . . and I was stuck. I felt an enormous responsibility to myself and to the people to give the book the maximum, but I had given Vietnam so much left over. And also, I had so much shame. I had to find out what kind of person goes to war when he doesn't have to . . . I still wince at the word macho . . ."
The way out, or the start of the way out, was analysis, begun in '72.
"I went through a dozen consultations before I found my doctor. The best way I can describe him is to say he kept a box of tissues next to your chair."
Herr stayed three years before moving on to his Tibetan teacher, a spiritual path that he feels is too personal to discuss. What he learned from both analyst and teacher, however, he says, was "to feel the pain. Your neuroses are devils, they'll always be there. If you don't come to grips with them you'll never let them out."
His life now is largely writing; with a novel, screenplay, and book on rock and roll all in progress. He says he's done more work in the past six months.
"He sees correspondents from Vietnam from time to time, and worked his "Crawdaddy" assignment with Tim Page, the Vietnam photographer who figured prominently in his book.
He and Valerie, his girl friend of eight years, will marry any day. With the child on the way, and money finally coming in, the time is right, Herr says, though yes, he says, it's coincidence Valerie conceived at the time the book was completed. "Karma," explains Herr, "no, I've never used birth control. I'm a child and, plans are just an extra vanity."
[In combat] it came back the same way ever time, dreaded and welcome . . . sense working like strobes . . . like the first strong twinge of tripping after an infusion of psiocybin, reaching in at the point of calm and springing at the joy and all the dread ever known, by everyone who ever lived, unutterable in its speeding brilliance, touching all the edges and then passing, as though it had all been controlled from outside, by a god or by the moon. And every time, you were so weary afterward, so empty of everything but being alive that you couldn't recall any of it, except to know that it was like something else you had felt once before. It remained obscure for a long time, but after enough time the memory took shape and substance and finally revealed itself one afternoon during the breaking off a firefight. It was the feling you'd had when you were much, much younger and undressing a girl for the first time.