Normally speaking, I hear about books from a variety of sources. And it’s mostly informal. Sometimes, it’s from a friend, that standard dinner table suggestion over a glass of wine or what not that is usually along the lines of, “Oh, you should check that book out. I really liked it.” Other times, it’s from a review I happen to randomly come across, or a newspaper’s snappy one-liner, tight and concise to draw in as much attention as possible with as few words as possible. I’ve even overheard a conversation taking place next to me in a restaurant, two friends discussing how they felt about the story, gushing over the characters and how they were on the edge of their seat the whole time.
Normally, when I bump up against a review, the catchy, cliché buzzwords are flowing freely – “gripping,” (yikes) “riveting,” (one of my favorites however much it continues to nauseate me) “taut,” (ooh) “tense,” (ahhh) “brilliantly defies categorization,” (can’t wait) “absorbing,” (a very nice one, just the word brings you in) “definitive,” (okay) “epic,” (a little hard to swallow). The list goes ever on and on. And I have found that it is not always the case that the books hold fast and strong within the garrison of these mighty words. Sometimes, the catch words are accurate. Sometimes, not so much. Other times, not at all. But I feel strongly that anyone would be hard pressed not to describe Michael Herr’s war memoir with those same words and further, that the words would all cry out as true with such strength and vigor that any attack against them would be thwarted without effort.
When I opened the book, I knew it was about Vietnam, that much was true. It was also true that I have read enough books about war and the suffering that goes along with it, that I felt (at least in some ways) I knew what I was getting into. I was expecting another memoir from a soldier, a grunt, a “ground pounder,” a military type (one who enjoyed the military lifestyle or not), an enlisted or an officer. And he completely caught me off guard when I discovered that he wasn’t affiliated at all with the military, but was a war correspondent. A civilian. And I had no idea what I was getting into. This was gonna be unique.
From the opening pages, his writing knocks your britches off and never relents. He keeps driving at you, into you, paragraph after paragraph, sentence after sentence, right up until the last word when I was left feeling quite thoroughly exhausted (in a good way). So excrutiatingly authentic was his writing, that when I closed the book after finishing it, I discovered I had been transported back to and into my own war (more on that in just a bit).
I enjoyed thoroughly his personification of feelings, objects, and others. It was very effective. He gives them, especially the feelings, a life of their own, a breathing life that takes on an eerie, dark, and scary ambience. What he expressed is those dark places of the mind that a soldier goes, whether he or she wants to or not, both while in fear and during the numbing process that war inevitably inflicts. It’s the shadowy recesses where morality and the good, innocent self breaks down, where all the civilized behaviors we’ve been taught are discarded and in turn, what emerges is a calloused, cynical shell of what was once a human being. Everyone I knew in Iraq felt this, was both oppressed by it and liberated by it. Some initially tried to run away from it, but couldn’t. Some embraced it, even fell in love with it. But all of us, in the end, became specters of our former selves. Michael saw it, knew it, experienced it, and brought it to life on the page.
He uses longer sentences, run-ons I guess you would call them. I know a fair amount of people who don’t favor this style of writing. For me, there is a stream of consciousness about his writing that never strays into incoherency. He seems to know when to stop, to leash it in, so as to not bog down the reader. His descriptions are very vivid, bringing to life everything around him–the smells, the sights, the sounds, the tastes. You are there with him. He’s also very grounded in history, the history of not only Vietnam, but of humanity and the political climate at the time. So important to memoir writing.
Structurally, I must admit, I was a bit puzzled. It didn’t seem to be so much chronological, but more what I would call linear. It seems place oriented, I don’t know what you would call that. He seemed to organize his chapters surrounding the major places he spent time, whether or not that was chronological, I couldn’t be sure all the time. A good example of this is right at the beginning, when he sets you down right in Vietnam, without any background, any contextual information to give a foothold of sense, and background. And there was the entire passage about his friends in the press. That seemed more like a dissertation on them, almost a separate entity in terms of time and space. Whatever structure one wants to pin on it, it worked. And worked very well. It was never confusing or incoherent. But most of all, there is an immediacy to his writing, as if he were speaking to you at the time, when the threat of war could bear down you on at any moment while you are listening. In the end for me, it didn’t matter much if it was chronological, linear, thematic, whatever else. No matter what, I was there with him, walking with him through it all.
There were several places where I felt a cold shudder go through me and I was immediately transported back to Iraq. I’ll go through a couple, places I’d like to briefly share. On page 14, he writes: “… and I saw that everyone around me was carrying a gun, I also saw that any one of them could go off at any time, putting you where it wouldn’t matter whether it was an accident or not.” And further, “… the VC got work inside all the camps as shoeshine boys and laundresses and honey-dippers, they’d starch your fatigues and burn your shit and then go home and mortar your area. Saigon and Cholon and Danang held such hostile vibes that you felt you were being dry-sniped every time someone looked at you, and choppers fell out of the sky like fat poisoned birds a hundred times a day.”
Wow. Okay. I can vividly recall a time in Iraq when I looked around me and was astounded at how many guns I saw. They were everywhere and my mind was stretched thin in even the most whimsical attempt to mentally count them all. Pistols, machine guns, assault rifles, bolt-action rifles, grenade launchers, you name it. And I remember at the time I had to grimly chuckle because I was instantly transported back to my basic training days at Ft. Leonard Wood. The first time we were issued rifles by the drill sergeants (and the first time we were going out to a rifle range), I was completely (and fearfully) astonished at how careless most of the boys (I use that word deliberately) were with those instruments of death. A group of them ran around like school children, laughing, aiming them at each other, jogging toward each other, their rifles butting up against one another in a mock hand-to-hand fight. It reminded me of the opening scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the apes were playing with the bones of the dead. They had no conception of the power they were wielding.
And in Iraq, I was in the mess hall one evening when an officer who had neglected to clear his weapon upon entering, accidentally discharged it in line. The bullet ricocheted off the floor and into the wall. It scared me to death because it was then that I realized, just like Michael, that the danger of being killed or wounded was just as real, as random and as lethal from our folks as it was from the Iraqis.
As I wrote in Lines in the Sand, it was with dumbfounded confusion that we watched the Iraqi workers come on and off base day after day, some with those infamous green tags, some with the red tags. I don’t think it mattered what tag they were wearing. The odds were good, better than good, that most if not all of them were at least partially responsible for mortaring us when they were released from the menial work assigned to them. More than some things never change in war.
Further on in the book, he made this statement which jarred me: “Years of thinking this or that about what happens to you when you pursue a fantasy until it becomes experience, and then afterward you can’t handle the experience.” It’s become all too abundantly obvious to me as the years have progressed how my little childhood fantasy of being like my father, serving in the military, and fighting in a war, has come back to haunt me day after day.
And finally, I loved how he described the members of the press corps. Of being parasites and I got a sense he felt strongly that in some ways he was intruding on sacred ground of the soldiers by doing what he was doing. I think some of us felt that way toward the civilian contractors who worked over in Iraq. They didn’t have to be there. We did. And they made more money and had better conditions and lived a more free life. They could even go home if they wanted to. Like Michael experienced, there was always a certain mixed amount of contempt, awe, even blind hatred between us that was always just behind the eyes, no matter how polite we tried to be with each other.
I could go on. Many passages, sentences, and words are underlined in my copy, places where I would like to revisit, just as I revisit Iraq every night.