The Vietnam War still has the power to horrify.
'And it's one, two, three
What are we fighting for?...
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn
They're sending me to Vietnam'
(Country Joe and the Fish)
Michael Herr's Vietnam is a brutal, corrupt and unforgiving place. His 'Dispatches', now republished 30 years after it first appeared in Britain, created the atmosphere of the Vietnam whose image has coursed back and forth across our consciousness since the last US helicopter fled Saigon in 1975. Herr wrote the script for Kubrick's 'Full Metal Jacket' and the voice-over for 'Apocalypse Now'. It's his voice we connect to the stories of madness and cruelty that we associate with that unforgotten war.
Reading it again is deeply discomforting, as the inflated rhetoric of patriotic gore, the lies and the concealment, the denunciations of foreigners in Washington (and Westminister) grows increasingly hysterical. What is it about the Vietnam War that haunts us? Why does 'Dispatches' still awaken a sense of disbelief and horror? Why did the soundtrack of the Vietnam War that accompanied David Soul's reading of the book on BBC Radio 4 still feel so searing? Perhaps it's because that weird combination of country, Hendrix, Joplin, the Stones' 'Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown' and the 'Ride of the Valkyrie' at breakneck speed is already faintly audible on the borders of Iraq? Perhaps Vietnam has somehow come to define what war is really like.
We know the fields of France were witness to barbarism and cruelty; we know something of the impact of the air war on Dresden and Berlin, the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto, the siege of Stalingrad. But in Vietnam the mythology of war as a game of chess played with living bodies came to bits. The difference is in the opening section of Herr's book: 'There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon...and some nights, coming back late to the city, I'd lie out on my bed and look at it... If dead ground could come back and haunt you the way dead people do, they'd have been able to mark my map CURRENT and burn the ones they'd been using since '64...even the most detailed maps didn't reveal much any more; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind...'
The American war on Vietnam had no battlefields, no frontiers. As you read Herr's description, the overwhelming sense is of fear, horror, psychosis shared and bizarrely celebrated. His dispatches are populated by 'grunts'--rank and file soldiers--whose enemy was everywhere and nowhere. Their maps were blank; their name for the enemy--'Charlie', 'VC'--told them nothing. How do you recognise them? They all wear black pyjamas; they are all alien to us. They are everywhere.
That's where the paranoia began. Herr's dispatches are disturbing because he writes from inside the nightmare, with all the tension and terror that turned these young men into killing machines. It is all the more frightening because, emptied of any concerns for justice, or ethics, or solidarity, they opened fire anywhere, everywhere. After all, who could know where the enemy was?
What happened in Vietnam, of course, was that the conduct of imperialist war relied on an ideology that was also total and without cracks. But the resistance in Watts and Newark, in Birmingham, Detroit and Berkeley drove rough levers into the seams of the wall and broke the smooth surface. And after that came despair and half a million men on heroin or the LSD that made the edges of the battle zones seem multicoloured.
No wonder the US right became obsessed with Vietnam. It had blown the bubble open. Samuel Huntington, he of the 'clash of civilisations', says, 'It is in the interests of the West...to limit the expansion of the military strength of Confucian and Islamic states, to exploit differences and conflicts among Confucian and Islamic states...' and so on and on.
To do that the grunts must see themselves walking in darkness, without maps, with no sense of what lies outside their own world except the menace of 'others' hidden in the shadows. That's probably why the maps of Iraq never show people, or living places, or homes or farms, why we are never shown the grief or scarred faces of Palestinians.
And yet people still pull aside the curtain and ask the questions they are forbidden to ask because they are unpatriotic, or terroristic, or a threat to order. Steve Earle's new album Jerusalem is a powerful indictment of everyone who might be saying now, 'I realise that ain't exactly democratic but it's either them or us and it's the best we can do' ('Amerika V.6.0'). As he says on the sleeve notes, 'In times like these it's also important to remember the names of John Reed, Emma Goldman, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seal, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King...who insisted on asking the hardest questions in our darkest hours.' Dispatches is the most powerful testimony how easily barbarism can fill the silence if nobody asks the questions