A great writer just died, Michael Herr, a former Esquire reporter who covered Nam big time, brought home the futility of an absurd war in ways never to be forgotten in Dispatches, the script for Full Metal Jacket and the hypnotic and memorizing intro to Apocalypse Now.
Everyone is terribly sorry about what the war is doing to Vietnam and the Vietnamese, especially since the cities have been brought into it, although somehow most of the official expressions of grief have about them that taint of Presidential sorrow, turning a little grinny around the edges. The Tet Offensive changed everything here, made this an entirely different war, made it Something Else. ("Nonsense," a colonel told me. "We're just doing the same things in the cities that we've done in the boonies, why … for years!" He was not the same man who said, "We had to destroy Bentre in order to save it," but he might have been. He'd be hip to that.) Before Tet, there was some clean touch to jungle encounters, some virtue to their brevity, always the promise of quick release from whatever horror there was. The war went on in bursts, meeting engagements; and covering it—particularly in the Highlands and the Delta, II Corps and IV Corps—you were always a tourist, a tripper who could summon up helicopters like taxis. You would taxi in, the war would break over you suddenly and then go away, and you would taxi out. Enough chances were taken to leave you exhilarated, and, except for the hangovers that any cheap thrill will give you, it was pleasant enough. Now, it is awful, just plain awful, awful without relief. (A friend on The New York Times told me that he didn't mind his nightmares so much as his waking impulse to file on them.) It has finally become that kind of conventional war that the Command so longed for, and it is not going well. And for every month that it continues not going well, the scope of its destruction is enlarged. We are not really a particularly brutal people, certainly no more brutal now than we've been in other wars, acquiring it as the war goes on. But our machine is devastating. And versatile. It can do almost everything but stop.
“Dispatches,” published in 1977, drew resounding critical praise. It was one of the first books to confront the Vietnam War in all its hallucinogenic awfulness and jarring absurdities. It was instantly placed in the pantheon of great war literature, widely viewed as journalism alchemized seamlessly into art.
The spy novelist John le Carré called “Dispatches” “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.” New York Times book critic John Leonard hailed Mr. Herr’s work as “beyond politics, beyond rhetoric, beyond ‘pacification’ and body counts and the ‘psychotic vaudeville’ of Saigon press briefings. . . . 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.”
Yours truly is waiting for the Michael Herr of 2016 to do a number on America's absurd wars in the Middle East as people need to get a sense of just much was lost for the sake of oil, money and the military/industrial/congressional complex.