[I read this 1977 war memoir in three sections, writing about each section before reading on.]
17 February 2020
Breathing In and Hell Sucks
Where to start? Where on earth to start?—which must have been Michael Herr’s own thought after he had decided to put his journalistic writings and memories into book form, some years after the end of the Vietnam War. Is it about him? The ‘grunts’ who bear the brunt of the war? The history? The appalling effects on the cities and countryside—and so on, and so on? He writes about all of it in Breathing In, 60 headlong pages that seem to be every TV news item, every magazine photo-essay and, yes, every movie about the war we’ve ever seen. What it definitely isn’t is the recent (2017) documentary series by Ken Burns, a thoughtful, measured account of how the Americans got themselves into one of the most wasteful foreign excursions imaginable, and simply didn’t have the political resources to get out of. This is the Vietnam War as Herr remembers it from the time, which is a hands-on version of how anybody remembers it who was alive then: confusions, contradictions and the growing sense that nobody seemed to know what was going on.
Like a lot of people, I first read this within a year or two of its publication, and I remember loving it. Reading it now seems very different, and much harder. It isn’t only because the names of key battles and places—the Tet Offensive, Hue—are now only distant memories. It’s also to do with the style, that (almost always) male New Journalism which, for a couple of decades, had writers so deep in the macho action nobody would dare say they were just bystanders. Quite a large part of this is about how these men were as much a part of it as the grunts.
Of course, he isn’t pretending he had it anything like as hard as the soldiers. In fact it’s astonishing, all these decades later, how much freedom he and the other correspondents had. This war was a bottomless pit for money to be poured into, and allowing who knows how many reporters and photographers along for the ride—and the food, and the medical assistance, and the safety issues—was just part of the gung-ho, can-do rhetoric. Nobody had anything to hide, at least at first—we’re only up to early 1968—so, if a spaced-out American boy pisses into the open mouth of a Viet Cong corpse, of course somebody would be photographing it. I guess the backlash in America had already begun but, as far as Herr is presenting it here, press freedom still seems to be unrestricted. It’s only we 21st Century types, all these years—and failed foreign interventions—later, who wonder what on earth the powers-that-be thought they were doing when they allowed it.
It’s a cliché now to refer to this war as the first to be fought on television. Herr begins his raggedy memoir in the latter part of 1967, before anybody knew how bad things were really going to get. They were bad already—Herr uses all his powers to give us a picture of how messed-up everything is at ground level, forest canopy level, helmet motto level—but, before the Tet offensive that comes in January 1968, the American public is still buying into the idea that this is a war that’s about to be won. Reality is a problem—at one stage, Herr suggests the death of a lead character in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American is as real as anything else—because Vietnam is poor, right?—and America has all the resources in the world. There are so many riffs on the expenditure of bullets alone, to say nothing of single-use rocket launchers, helicopters, soldiers, whatever, that in our own straitened times it really does seem a different world. And talking of different worlds—this is the same country that’s getting men on the moon. Shit, how hard can it be to stop a few gooks who have nothing at all?
Whatever, this is a truly multi-layered narrative. Did anything ever come out of Vietnam that wasn’t multi-layered? Documentary footage overlaid with music from the Summer of Love, a photograph of a young American with what came to be called the thousand-yard stare, the jaunty mottoes and cartoon images on his helmet telling a different story entirely. Television, and all the other media, didn’t make this war more real. They had the opposite effect, undermining the reality of absolutely everything the West thought it knew about making war. And all of it, of course, was making its way into people’s living-rooms every night….
But that isn’t the story Herr is telling, or not yet at least. Breathing In is about his own appalling journey of discovery, starting… where? This is no simple chronological account, and it opens—following a prologue in which he’s already showing an old map to visitors in his Saigon apartment—in the thick of it: ‘Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes kept too long in a jar. I never saw the need for them myself, a little contact or anything that even sounded like contact would give me more speed than I could bear.’ Two sentences, 47 breathless words, all of it about ‘you’ and, more significantly, ‘I’. In case we hadn’t got it before—i.e. before we opened the book—Michael Herr is telling us this is about him. Hunter S Thompson might be feted as the only true gonzo journalist, but there were a lot of others doing it. And somehow there’s an inevitability about Herr starting his account with the routine use of drugs.
It’s no accident that those night raids he mentions are in the plural. Herr is giving us, here and for most of the rest of this long first section, an impression of deliriously, nightmarishly repeated experiences. Night raids, long route-marches involving soaking days of rain, helicopter pickups from whatever counts as an lz in whatever godforsaken spot he finds himself. And, worst of all, the bodies. There must already have been half a dozen descriptions of US soldiers in body bags, not yet in body bags, being unceremoniously jammed into body bags, in the mud, hitching a ride on a helicopter, giving a pilot a shock as he realises all his passengers except two, Herr and the gunner, are dead. You should have seen his face by the end of that. And don’t even get me started on the dead VC.
It isn’t random, although that’s the impression we’re getting. And we don’t even have Herr’s word for it that what he’s describing are all things that happened in these early months of his time in Vietnam. Through the collage or layering effect, we come to understand that it never gets easy. He, like everybody else, gets used to routine atrocities—but every time he gets back to Saigon he’s wiped out, again. And then it’s 1968—not that Herr uses dates, as far as I can remember—and the existential shift in the head that is the Tet Offensive. As ever, Herr isn’t here to give us the bigger picture. He’s here to tell us how it was for him, and so we’re off to Hué in the short Hell Sucks chapter, and the first city battle he and those he’s with have had to experience. For some it’s exciting… but after long days and weeks of attrition comes confirmation of what we already knew. Personnel and fire-power might win back territory—this time, at great cost to the fabric of what had been the most beautiful city in Vietnam—but, aside from the few dead the VC have been forced to leave unburied, there’s little enough to show for their efforts.
As for poor old Michael, he’s tired out. He’s told us about the lieutenant who apologises for constantly drifting off into sleep as he stands talking to Herr—he’s always doing that, he says—and men who just don’t seem to know what sleep is any more. But writers get tired too, and it’s only his own exhaustion he can describe from the inside. So that’s what he does.
This is the long central chapter of the book, taking up almost a third of its length, and… and what? I guess it’s Herr’s way of using a single, almost stand-alone episode in the war to represent all of it. He writes about it as it takes place mostly in the first half of 1968, because he was often there at the time and it really does allow him to pick over the destructive pointlessness of a single so-called battle. In fact it was no such thing, more a siege that was never allowed to be called that, which ended in the Americans first retaining the plateau and then withdrawing from it. These were the outcome of an unimaginable campaign of carpet-bombing—and carpet-napalming—of dozens of square miles of the once beautiful hunting-grounds of the ancient emperors. Herr states explicitly that the High Command never referred to a scorched earth policy, but that’s what it was. And, at the end, the NVA seems to have lost interest anyway. Khe Sanh was never the strategic hub it had come to be seen as.
There are a lot of details specific to this episode, but that doesn’t stop Herr tacitly encouraging us to extrapolate the attitudes and methods into the war as a whole. Lyndon Johnson himself forced every member of the top brass to sign a pledge that Khe Sahn would never be surrendered, and we guess it was this kind of top-down decision-making that left generals to explain or cover up failures rather than execute the war in their own way. Which is not to say, of course, that their own way would have been effective long-term. By the end of this chapter it’s becoming more and more clear that whatever they are throwing at the so-called Viet Cong—I don’t think Herr ever uses that term—and however many they might think they are killing, it is never going to be enough. Army staff cite numbers of enemy casualties that bear no relation to the number of bodies anybody ever finds. There’s even speculation that thousands of Americans were kept pinned down at Khe Sanh by a much smaller number of North Vietnamese than they had always thought. The enemy, they know, are good at husbanding their own resources. During an episode in an earlier chapter, Herr had thrown in the estimate that they caused as much destruction with one round of ammunition as 50 expended by the Americans.
Herr leaves open the question of whether the North Vietnamese were using Khe Sahn to distract from the more strategic Tet Offensive of early 1968 or, as High Command would have it, the opposite was the case. Whatever, The NVA counted Khe Sanh as a victory in the end. But by spending something like 80 pages on Khe Sanh, Herr is able not only to focus on questionable decision-making and the spin later put in place to justify errors. He can also spend much longer on the day-to-day, week-by-week lives of ordinary soldiers. The chapter opens with an episode that focuses on one of them, a grunt whose year-long tour of duty is over, but who is so traumatised he can’t ever quite bring himself to run the short distance to whichever helicopter is supposed to be taking him away. The seen-it-all-before cynicism of the grunts makes it all goofily hilarious, but Herr doesn’t pull back on how appalling it is too. Nobody ever called it shell-shock—and PTSD was an acronym nobody had yet come up with—so it was ‘battle fatigue’. And on the basis of its first appearance in Esquire, it’s this episode that made it into Tom Wolfe’s New Journalism anthology some years before Herr put together his own book. You can see why.
There are no other set pieces quite like that, but at least three named (or nicknamed) soldiers get their places in the sun in the Khe Sanh chapter. Or in the monsoon rains that last far longer than usual, hampering any efforts to bring forward any decisive action. In the second half of the chapter, the odd couple Mayhew and Day Tripper become not exactly a comic double-act, but a pair of eccentrics proving that in this most American of wars, individuality is not dead. Mayhew is tiny, boyish, and takes outrageous risks all the time, apparently convinced there is no way he can possibly be killed or even hurt. His oddball behaviour is the opposite of the cautious Day Tripper, who seems to want to look like a Black gangster, but can’t hide his gentleness. In the chapter’s postscript, set in the R&R haven that is China Beach, Herr discovers that Mayhew is dead. Day Tripper had tried to persuade him that extending his tour by four months was not going to be a good idea.
The other character is… never mind. He’s the one whose wife writes that she’s only five months pregnant, so he isn’t the father—but that he knows the father well. He spends the rest of his time determined to survive so he can go home and shoot her dead. It’s another gruesome mix of the appalling and the hilarious. It isn’t hilarious at all—which is the point. These men are beyond traumatised. Years later, Herr was an adviser to Stanley Kubrick on Full Metal Jacket. He knows that war doesn’t accidentally brutalise soldiers. It’s considered a fundamental part of the training.
And throughout, of course, there’s Herr himself. Maybe I was too dismissive of his gonzo habits earlier, because now I find him less intrusive. Instead, he and his fellow-correspondents, and the way they are treated by almost everybody, become an integral aspect of the story. They are treated with more or less unfailing courtesy and consideration by soldiers who in every other way appear brutalised. These are still ordinary American boys, who want the ‘reporters’ to tell their stories. Herr illustrates this with little incidents in this chapter, as he has done before, to show that its always like this—to the extent that when anybody acts differently, there has to be a special reason. One time, a black soldier freezes him out with a look—and later apologises. News of the death of Martin Luther King had made him forget for a while that not every white man is the enemy.
But I think my favourite parts of this chapter are when we see the top brass. There’s the one who seems stupid, but probably cultivates that in order to deflect proper scrutiny of what he and his bosses are up to. There are plenty of yes-men, apparently incapable of independent thought, so that the journalists don’t spend any more time with in their company than they absolutely need to. Karsten Prager, a German who’s lived in New York long enough to acquire an impeccable Brooklyn accent, asks a general a long and detailed question, that Herr promises us takes about three minutes, about the nightmare scenario of a multi-pronged attack from the North. The general’s first reply is, ‘What?’—so Prager repeats it. Instead of Herr’s hope, that he would admit this to be a terrible thing, the general finally struggles to say, ‘That… is… exactly what we want him to do!’ Prager and Herr simply thank him for his time and look for somewhere to sleep.
Finally, of course, there are the ones who simply don’t answer. Herr goes to see one of these with Peter Braestrup, another seasoned correspondents, whose carefully crafted question about the conditions in Khe Sanh—Herr gives it to us verbatim—eventually gets a response from the general. ‘Peter, I think you’re hitting a small nail with an awfully big hammer.’ Herr is so pleased to have been presented with this archetypal smokescreen that he ends a section with it.
Illumination Rounds, Colleagues, Breathing Out
All three of these chapters, the first and last of them quite short, have a retrospective feel. Illumination Rounds is a collection of snippets and slightly longer passages, ranging from half-a-dozen lines to a page or two. Almost any one of them would make a good story in a social situation, and you can imagine Herr telling them: ‘A 24-year-old Special Forces captain was telling me about it…’ and it turns out to be about how a single VC killed and a prisoner freed by one man is rounded up by the major to fourteen killed, six liberated. We aren’t a bit surprised, obviously. Colleagues, at 60 pages—well over a fifth of the whole book—is a sprawling memoir of the correspondents he met, from bored time-servers to writers and photographers with a passion for what they did. And Breathing Out is a short chapter in which Herr puts himself in the foreground again, describing the complexities of his and other people’s gradual return to a sense of living an ordinary life in America once more. Not that it’s ever going to be so simple.
By the time we’ve reached these chapters, it’s starting to feel as though Herr has made a lot of his points already. The new anecdotes in Illumination Rounds feel as though they might have come earlier, if Herr could have found a place for them. And did we really need so much information about the lives of correspondents in general—Herr wasn’t one himself, but a feature writer with Esquire who didn’t have the relentless daily deadlines of the newspapermen—and a handful of glamorous near-heroes in particular. Sean Flynn, son of Errol and a one-time movie actor himself, the extraordinary Brit, Tim Page who only just survived the last of his many brushes with death, and another ten or a dozen he names and describes. It’s Herr making the case for the importance of the work they were doing… and I’m not going to argue with him. The best of them saw their role as telling it, or photographing it, as it was. Most of the last dozen pages of the chapter focus mainly on Tim Page, perhaps the epitome of the obsessive hold that Vietnam could have on people. At 23 he had already left it for good, he said—he briefly caught two days of the June war in the Middle East in 1967—but then he’s back, and he’s caught a two-inch piece of shrapnel in his brain by the time he’s 25. The shrapnel in other people’s heads—not that Herr labours the point—is maybe not so different.
As I said, there’s a retrospective feel, and a lot of it is a (sometimes repetitive) meditation on the kinds of things you’d expect. Friends killed, soldiers who absolutely understood what the correspondents were trying to do—and those who didn’t—and the inevitable sense afterwards that, having been so close to death, nothing in life will ever match it.
In the very final paragraph, he describes a photograph of a North Vietnamese soldier sitting exactly where the American press centre had been in Danang. This must be after the final evacuation, an event Herr only briefly sketched in earlier, and there’s an ambiguous, elegiac element to his musings now. ‘He looked so unbelievably peaceful, and … there’d be people over there talking about the bad old days … and one of them would remember and say, Yes, never mind, and there were some nice ones too. And no moves left for me but to write down some few last words and make the dispersion, Vietnam Vietnam Vietnam, we’ve all been there.’