Nilanjana S Roy: After Herr

There was only one story Michael Herr filed from Vietnam itself for Esquire. The essay, “Hell Sucks”, ran in August 1968, which begins with the story of the old map of Vietnam on his wall, its obsolescence, its final unreality. “We know that for years now there has been no country here but the war.”

Back in Greenwich Village, he filed two essays on Khe Sanh in 1969, and a third, “The War Correspondent: A Reappraisal” in 1970. They became the meat of Guardian interviewer asked him why he didn’t go crazy, and Herr said: “I did go crazy. The problem with Vietnam is that if your body came back, your mind came back too.”

He made a slow re-entry into normal life, which allowed him to publish Dispatches, almost a decade after he’d reported the war. His friend, Salman Rushdie, writes about this elsewhere: “It’s easy to say that Vietnam was bad craziness, much harder to admit that the craziness was working inside you. The honesty is what makes Dispatches special, what’s made it last.”

Herr was 76 when he died last week, and though he’d written a few other things – a novel about Walter Winchell, screenplays – Vietnam had marked his writing life. He will be remembered for Dispatches puts all the rest of us in the shade.”

It’s only now, returning to Dispatches, and “Hell Sucks”, after a gap of several years, that I’m wondering whose war he wanted to write about, and whose war he wrote about instead. Dispatches set the template for a certain kind of reporting, and few writers could have captured the rock n’roll soundtrack, the hysteria of Khe Sanh, the way Herr did.

But for years, the Vietnam War was written about by and for Americans, or so it seemed. It wasn’t till the 1990s that the first Vietnamese accounts began to be published. In 1991, Bao Ninh published The Sorrows of War. “We have very deep, quiet memories,” he wrote.

His novel begins with a North Vietnamese soldier, Kien, lying in his hammock in the middle of the jungle, remembering how The Unlucky Battalion, was almost wiped out in 1969. “Numerous souls of ghosts and devils were born in that deadly defeat. They were still loose, wandering in every corner and bush in the jungle, drifting along the stream, refusing to depart for the Other World.”

Herr went in with the GIs, covering the war from their perspective. He started as a tourist, “a tripper who could summon up helicopters like taxis”, and then the war changed, changing him along the way. And the people of Vietnam crop up early in “Hell Sucks”, Herr listening to the General’s clichés about them before he writes: “Everyone is terribly sorry about what the war is doing to Vietnam and the Vietnamese… although somehow most of the official expressions of grief have about them that taint of Presidential sorrow, turning a little grinny around the edges.” Early in the account of the battle of Hué, he sees the first casualties, a little girl who had been hit while riding her bicycle, an old man who lay arched over his straw hat.

When Le Ly Hayslip was 12, she writes in a 1989 memoir, her village, Ky La, was taken over by American soldiers. She had grown up used to the French soldiers – “giant men who smelled bad” – to diving into trenches with her sister when “giant snakes with many heads coughed loudly”, the bullets spattering people in the village with blood. But when the Americans came, they levelled half of Ky La to give their gunners a better killing field, stepping on the Vietnamese as if they had been ants.

Herr records much else in “Hell Sucks”. He had little chance to talk to the Vietnamese, but he saw more than others. He personalises the dead. He notices how the Americans admonish the “Slopes” they kill, especially the young ones. He is haunted for a long while by one of “the very worst dead”, the memory of a Vietnamese who had been killed near a canal in southern Hué, left with a hinged scalp.

In Now converge in their honesty about recognising the lure of war, the fact that it is “pure sex” for the warriors. Then he quotes Herr, writing about a bunch of engineers gunning their Harleys up the gently rising steps of a monument to the Vietnamese war dead.

Many years after he reads Herr, Nguyen visits the cemetery. The memorial gate is overgrown by green foliage, the tombs are neglected, graffiti decorates the white walls. But as Nguyen walks down the rows of graves, followed by a bored guard put-putting on his motorcycle, perhaps he sets some of Michael Herr’s old ghosts to rest, the ghosts of those killed whom Herr saw so clearly but didn't get to report on or know.


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