If you read Dispatches and you weren’t obsessed with learning everything you possibly could about Michael Herr, we are different!
Read it AGAIN just recently after reading Mary Karr yank out its gears and examine them in her:
Just a sample of Dispatches:
In my search for info on Herr I read this 1990 profile for the LA Times by Paul Ciotti:
Friends of friends invited him to dinner. Strangers wanted to meet him. Once, Herr recalls, he got a phone call from a guy who said he was standing in a phone booth in Nebraska in the middle of the night. “I could hear the wind blowing. He hadn’t read the book.” The caller said, “Time magazine says this. What does this mean?” Herr reversed the question: “What do you think it means?” “Oh, ho! Now that you’re rich and famous you don’t want to talk to people like me.”
One inspiration was Ernest Hemingway. “When I was a kid, I was obsessed with him and made some pathetic teen-age attempts to imitate him in my life. And I reinvented myself as this outdoorsman, hard-drinking and everything with it. I dare say that influence put my foot on the trail to Vietnam. Which is why that book is about acting out fantasy as much as anything.
“I had always wanted to go to war. I wanted to write a book. It was something I had to do. The networks kept referring to this as a TV war, which I didn’t believe it was. I sent a proposal to Harold Hayes. I was to write a monthly column, but once I got over there I realized this was not the way to approach the story. I wired Hayes. He said, ‘You do what you want to do. Have fun. Be careful.’ “
What do we make of this?:
What sets Herr’s book apart is the authoritative sense he conveys of the terror, ennui and ecstasy of what it felt like to be there. In a chapter about the siege of Khe Sanh, he offers a long series of conversations between two friends, a huge, gentle black Marine named Day Tripper and a little naive white Marine named Mayhew. The exchanges ring so true that one wonders, simply on a journalistic level, how he ever managed to record them.
He smiles. “They are totally fictional characters.”
They are ?
“Oh, yeah. A lot of ‘Dispatches’ is fictional. I’ve said this a lot of times. I have told people over the years that there are fictional aspects to ‘Dispatches,’ and they look betrayed. They look heartbroken, as if it isn’t true anymore. I never thought of ‘Dispatches’ as journalism. In France they published it as a novel.”
But, Herr says, “I always carried a notebook. I had this idea–I remember endlessly writing down dialogues. It was all I was really there to do. Very few lines were literally invented. A lot of lines are put into mouths of composite characters. Sometimes I tell a story as if I was present when I wasn’t, (which wasn’t difficult)–I was so immersed in that talk, so full of it and so steeped in it. A lot of the journalistic stuff I got wrong.”
My hunt for more Herr led me to this Dutch (?) documentary, First Kill, interviews with vets interspersed with film of contemporary Vietnam. Herr is interviewd first at minute 27:40 or so.
The story he tells starting around 40:20. Jeez.
I forget where I learned that Herr was living in upstate New York or sumplace, practicing a rigorous Buddhism. My trail on him brought me to this book:
What to make of this Buddhist-type idea:
On the lighter side: there’s great stuff too in Michael Herr’s book about Kubrick:
He’d tape his favorite commercials and recut them, just for the monkish exercise.
* the D is for Dave!
A promise made in Host Chat is a promise kept so here is a selection of D-Day readings for Davis.
The single best thing to read about D-Day
is online and free. It is S. L. A. Marshall writing for The Atlantic in November, 1950.
During World War II, Marshall became an official Army combat historian, and came to know many of the war’s best-known Allied commanders, including George S. Patton and Omar N. Bradley. He conducted hundreds of interviews of both enlisted men and officers regarding their combat experiences, and was an early proponent of oral history techniques. In particular, Marshall favored the group interview, where he would gather surviving members of a frontline unit together and debrief them on their combat experiences of a day or two before.
The article is called “First Wave On Omaha Beach” here is an excerpt:
Even among some of the lightly wounded who jumped into shallow water the hits prove fatal. Knocked down by a bullet in the arm or weakened by fear and shock, they are unable to rise again and are drowned by the onrushing tide. Other wounded men drag themselves ashore and, on finding the sands, lie quiet from total exhaustion, only to be overtaken and killed by the water. A few move safely through the bullet swarm to the beach, then find that they cannot hold there. They return to the water to use it for body cover. Faces turned upward, so that their nostrils are out of water, they creep toward the land at the same rate as the tide. That is how most of the survivors make it. The less rugged or less clever seek the cover of enemy obstacles moored along the upper half of the beach and are knocked off by machine-gun fire.
Within seven minutes after the ramps drop, Able Company is inert and leaderless. At Boat No. 2, Lieutenant Tidrick takes a bullet through the throat as he jumps from the ramp into the water. He staggers onto the sand and flops down ten feet from Private First Class Leo J. Nash. Nash sees the blood spurting and hears the strangled words gasped by Tidrick: “Advance with the wire cutters!” It’s futile; Nash has no cutters. To give the order, Tidrick has raised himself up on his hands and made himself a target for an instant. Nash, burrowing into the sand, sees machine gun bullets rip Tidrick from crown to pelvis. From the cliff above, the German gunners are shooting into the survivors as from a roof top.
Captain Taylor N. Fellers and Lieutenant Benjamin R. Kearfoot never make it. They had loaded with a section of thirty men in Boat No. 6 (Landing Craft, Assault, No. 1015). But exactly what happened to this boat and its human cargo was never to be known. No one saw the craft go down. How each man aboard it met death remains unreported. Half of the drowned bodies were later found along the beach. It is supposed that the others were claimed by the sea.
After the war, Marshall would write Men Against Fire:
which claimed that only about 25% of American combat soldiers actually fired their guns at the enemy:
Marshall’s work on infantry combat effectiveness in World War II, titled Men Against Fire, is his best-known and most controversial work. In the book, Marshall claimed that of the World War II U.S. troops in actual combat, 75% never fired at the enemy for the purpose of killing, even though they were engaged in combat and under direct threat. Marshall argued that the Army should devote significant training resources to increasing the percentage of soldiers willing to engage the enemy with direct fire.
Marshall has been harshly criticized:
General Marshall said soldiers who did not fire were motivated by fear, a desire to minimize risk and a willingness, as in civilian life, to let a minority of other people carry the load.
In his 1989 memoir, About Face, Hackworth described his initial elation at an assignment with a man he idolized, and how that elation turned to disillusion after seeing Marshall’s character and methods first hand. Hackworth described Marshall as a “voyeur warrior,” for whom “the truth never got in the way of a good story” and went so far as to say, “Veterans of many of the actions he ‘documented’ in his books have complained bitterly over the years of his inaccuracy or blatant bias”.
Omaha Beach was the worst of it, but experiences on D-Day were vastly different.
Twenty-one miles away on Juno Beach the Canadian Ninth Division landed with their bikes:
Leave it to Canadians to bring their bikes. (900 Canadians died in a botched semi-practice D-Day in 1942).
Best Single Book To Read About D-Day
Looking around I can’t find my copy of Normandy Revisited by AJ Liebling:
Liebling, a vivacious fatso who had spent a lot of time in Normandy pre-war, describes going through with the Army and eating at spots he remembered from before. Definitely a different kind of war corresponding.
was wildly popular for a reason: it’s thrilling, readable, and full of epic American hero stories.
Maybe starting with Andrew J. Higgins of Nebraska and Mobile, Alabama:
who developed shallow-draft boats for logging in the bayou (or for bootlegging?) and then took on the job of making similar boats for amphibious landings:
Anthony Beevor has a blunter take. Major takeaway from his book:
was that the Allies came up way short of their goals on D-Day. Unsurprisingly, many of those who got off the beaches in one piece considered their work done for the day. They were literally in Calvados,
it was pretty easy to find bottles of highly alcoholic apple brandy, and a lot of survivors got hammered at first opportunity.
Who can blame them? But the failure to achieve the ambitious goals had costs. Caen was the biggest city around:
British and Canadian troops had intended to capture the town on D-Day. However they were held up north of the city until 9 July, when an intense bombing campaign during Operation Charnwood destroyed 70% of the city and killed 2,000 French civilians.
From this Washington Post review of Beevor, some excerpts:
US Army medical services had to deal with 30,000 cases of combat exhaustion in Normandy,” and:
“Nothing . . . seemed to reduce the flow of cases where men under artillery fire would go ‘wide-eyed and jittery’, or ‘start running around in circles and crying’, or ‘curl up into little balls’, or even wander out in a trance in an open field and start picking flowers as the shells exploded. Others cracked under the strain of patrols, suddenly crying, ‘We’re going to get killed! We’re going to get killed!’ Young officers had to try to deal with ‘men suddenly whimpering, cringing, refusing to get up or get out of a foxhole and go forward under fire’. While some soldiers resorted to self-inflicted wounds, a smaller, unknown number committed suicide.”
But the single best book to read about D-Day I would say is The Boys’ Crusade by Paul Fussell:
Amazon reviewer Bill Marsano sums it up nicely:
It’s probably all that “good war” and “greatest generation” stuff that drove Fussell to write this book; he doesn’t have much truck with gooey backward glances, and that will probably make some readers mad. Well, you don’t come to Fussell–author of, among other things, “Thank God for the Atom Bomb, and Other Essays”–for good times. You come to Fussell for the hard stuff.
And here it is his contention that behind and beneath all that “greatest generation” nonsense was the Boys’ Crusade–that last year of the war in Europe when too many things went wrong too often. The generals who’d convinced themselves that this war would not be a war of attrition–i.e., human slaughter–like the last one found they’d guessed wrong. Casualties were horrifyingly high and so huge numbers of children–kids 17-19 years–old were flung into combat. And they were, with the help of the generals, ill-trained, ill-clothed and ill-equipped.
They were also faceless ciphers. As Fussell points out, the US Army’s policy was to break up training units by sending individual replacements up to the line piecemeal–one at a time–so they often arrived as strangers among strangers, often addressed merely as “Soldier” because no one knew their names. The result was too many instances of cowardice–both under fire and behind the lines–too many self-inflicted wounds to escape combat. Too many disgraces of every kind because the Army’s system, Fussell says, destroyed the most important factor in the fighting morale of the “poor bloody infantry”–the shame and fear of turning chicken in front of your comrades. Many of these boys–and Fussell is properly insistent on the word boys–funked because they had no comradeship to value.
This is not in the least a personal journal. Fussell was serriously wounded as a young second lieutenant; he was also decorated. But he wisely leaves himself out of this narrative. There’s no special pleading here, no showing of the wounds on Crispin’s Day. Instead this is a passionate but straightforward report on what that last year was like for the poor bloody infantry–those foot soldiers, those dogfaces, those 14 percent of the troops who took more than 70 percent of the casualties.
And yet there were those who stood the gaff, who survived “carnage up to and including bodies literally torn to pieces, of intestines hung on trees like Christ,mas festoons,” and managed not to dishonor themselves. They weren’t heroes, Fussell says, just men who earned the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, which was the only honor they respected. In a brief but moving passage, he explains why: It said they’d been there, been through it, and toughed it out.
Horrible as it is I found this book refreshing when I first read it, because it felt like somebody was telling me the unvarnished truth, which is that even for the good guys this was a series of catastrophes, fuckups, and massacres.
All Fussell’s books are good. This one in particular I was obsessed with:
and I talk about it in The Wonder Trail: True Stories From Los Angeles To The End Of The World, out June 14:
Let’s give the last word to Fussell:
One wartime moment not at all vile occurred on June 5, 1944, when Dwight Eisenhower, entirely alone and for the moment disjunct from his publicity apparatus, changed the passive voice to active in the penciled statement he wrote out to have ready when the invasion was repulsed, his troops torn apart for nothing, his planes ripped and smashed to no end, his warships sunk, his reputation blasted: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.” Originally he wrote, “the troops have been withdrawn,” as if by some distant, anonymous agency instead of by an identifiable man making all-but-impossible decisions. Having ventured this bold revision, and secure in his painful acceptance of full personal accountability, he was able to proceed unevasively with “My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available.” Then, after the conventional “credit,” distributed equally to “the troops, the air, and the navy,” came Eisenhower’s noble acceptance of total personal responsibility: “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” As Mailer says, you use the word shit so that you can use the word noble,and you refuse to ignore the stupidity and barbarism and ignobility and poltroonery and filth of the real war so thatit is mine alone can flash out, a bright signal in a dark time.
Happy Birthday Dave!
Before you say look at this fucking hipster re: Saki, remember that he was a lance sergeant in the Royal Fusiliers. Last words before he was killed by a sniper?:
Put that bloody cigarette out!
There is no grave for him, just the Thiepval monument, he is literally one of the missing of the Somme:
Shoutout to Stephen King’s 11/22/63
which sent me to Saki’s “The Open Window.”
King is such a boss. First line of his about the author:
A lieutenant colonel I knew, a true intellectual, was put in charge of civil affairs, the work we did helping the Vietnamese grow rice and otherwise improve their lives. He was a sensitive man who kept a journal and seemed far better equipped for winning hearts and minds than for combat command. But he got one, and I remember flying out to visit his fire base the night after it had been attacked by an NVA sapper unit. Most of the combat troops I had been out on an operation, so this colonel mustered a motley crew of clerks and cooks and drove the sappers off, chasing them across tile rice paddies and killing dozens of these elite enemy troops by the light of flares. That morning, as they were surveying what they had done and loading the dead NVA–all naked and covered with grease and mud so they could penetrate the barbed wire–on mechanical mules like so much garbage, there was a look of beatific contentment on tile colonel’s face that I had not seen except in charismatic churches. It was the look of a person transported into ecstasy.
And I–what did I do, confronted with this beastly scene? I smiled back. ‘as filled with bliss as he was. That was another of the times I stood on the edge of my humanity, looked into the pit, and loved what I saw there. I had surrendered to an aesthetic that was divorced from that crucial quality of empathy that lets us feel the sufferings of others. And I saw a terrible beauty there. War is not simply the spirit of ugliness, although it is certainly that, the devil’s work. But to give the devil his due,it is also an affair of great and seductive beauty.
Which leads me to decide to finally read Chris Hedges’ book War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning:
Chris Hedges was a graduate student in divinity at Harvard before he went to war. He spent fifteen years as a war correspondent for the Dallas Morning News, theChristian Science Monitor, and the New York Times, reporting on conflicts in El Salvador, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Iraq.
While on Amazon their robot recommends to me Ernst Jünger’s Storm Of Steel —
that’s a pass for now, but I will check out Ernst’s Wiki page:
Throughout the war, Jünger kept a diary, which would become the basis of his 1920 Storm of Steel. He spent his free time reading the works of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Ariosto andKubin, besides entomological journals he was sent from home. During 1917, he was collecting beetles in the trenches and while on patrol, 149 specimens between 2 January and 27 July, which he listed under the title of Fauna coleopterologica douchyensis (“Coleopterological fauna of the Douchy region”).
which leads me to the wiki page for Wandervogel:
Wandervogel is the name adopted by a popular movement of German youth groups from 1896 onward. The name can be translated as rambling, hiking, or wandering bird (differing in meaning from “Zugvogel” or migratory bird) and the ethos is to shake off the restrictions of society and get back to nature and freedom.
which leads us both to the Japanese pastime of sawanobori, which looks semi-fun:
and to History Of The Hippie Movement, subsection “Nature Boys Of Southern California” and thus to Nat King Cole’s song Nature Boy:
which has maybe the longest wiki page of any of these, culminating in
The song was a central theme in Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge! “Nature Boy” was initially arranged as a techno song with singer David Bowie’s vocals, before being sent to the group Massive Attack, whose remix was used in the film’s closing credits. Bowie described the rendition as “slinky and mysterious”, adding that Robert ‘3D’ Del Naja from the group had “put together a riveting piece of work,” and that Bowie was “totally pleased with the end result.”
And just like that we’re back to Bowie.
*Saarsgaard on Catholicism:
In an interview with the New York Times, Sarsgaard stated that he followed Catholicism, saying: “I like the death-cult aspect of Catholicism. Every religion is interested in death, but Catholicism takes it to a particularly high level. […] Seriously, in Catholicism, you’re supposed to love your enemy. That really impressed me as a kid, and it has helped me as an actor. […] The way that I view the characters I play is part of my religious upbringing. To abandon curiosity in all personalities, good or bad, is to give up hope in humanity.”