At the small Southern college where I taught in the 1970s, one of the grad students had flown a chopper in Vietnam. Instead of living on campus, he rented a cottage in the woods. He slept there alone, with a Colt .45 under his pillow.
He played me tapes of firefights in which friends had died. Out of the jabber and roar of bad recording, he teased monologues that were poisoned with the essence of terror and despair.
A few years later, Michael Herr published Dispatches, his collection of reports from Vietnam, written for Esquire. Reading its most famous line, "I think that Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods," I remembered those shouts and cries, and the sudden silences with which they ended.
Herr was 27 when he went to Vietnam as a reporter — only slightly older than the men about whom he wrote. That fact was crucial. He shared their world. The war he depicts is less a military event than a cultural and psychological one. An experience that marks these boy soldiers like a tattoo that penetrates to the bone.
"Boy" is the operative word.
Their perception of war alternates carnage with comic books. "Come on," a captain announces to an assembled group, "we'll take you out to play cowboys and Indians." But always at one's shoulder gibbers a sense that this fantasy can tip into madness. "Once I met a colonel," writes Herr, "who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North. He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death."
Herr survived, but his involvement, no less than for combatants, came at a price. "Home," he writes. "Twenty-eight years old, feeling like Rip Van Winkle, with a heart like one of those little paper pills they make in China, you drop them into water and they open out to form a tiger or a flower or a pagoda. Mine opened out into war and loss."
Though he wrote other books and collaborated on the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, Herr created nothing as vivid as Dispatches. No other event in his life would ever cut so deep. In the book, he records a conversation with a major returning for a second tour. "After the first tour, I'd have the goddamndest nightmares," the officer tells him. "You know, the works. Bloody stuff, bad fights, guys dying, me dying.
"I thought they were the worst," he says. "But I sort of miss them now."
You Must Read This is produced and edited by Ellen Silva with production assistance from Rose Friedman and Lacey Mason.