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Literature, History, and the Vietnam War


Michael Herr (1940-2016)


Writing a preview of the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I suggested all History students should read literature.  I was reminded of this today when I read the (belated – he died in June) obituary of Michael  Herr in The Guardian.  Herr’s book, Dispatches (1977), was one of the most powerful pieces of writing dealing with the war in Vietnam and provided the basis of one of the best Vietnam war films, Apocalypse Now.  Reflecting the “new Journalism” that emerged in the 1960s, Herr was in Vietnam as a reporter for Esquire magazine between 1967 and 1969. He didn’t just give facts but located himself in the narrative, reporting what he saw and conversations he had with the “grunts”, American GIs, and what he experienced, often in a stream of consciousness style of writing. Herr often just lets the men speak for themselves, thus providing voices for the ordinary soldier. But his style and language sums up much of the war and its pointlessness:  looking at a map of Vietnam he remarks “for years now there had been no country here but the war.”   A GI describes America’s role in the conflict:  “Vietnam, man. Bomb’em and feed ‘em, bomb ‘em and feed them.”

Vietnam was the rock n’roll war, a “headset war” – the soldiers went into conflict carrying tapes of Jimi Hendrix, the Animals, Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan  – the most popular song was the Animals “We Gotta Get Out of this Place”  but “Certain rock and roll would come in mixed with rapid fire and men screaming.”  When Herr was overcome by a flashback, his friend says it is nothing to worry about – “Just your nineteenth nervous breakdown.”   In the end Herr “couldn’t tell the Vietnam veterans from the rock and roll veterans. The Sixties had so many casualties, its war and its music had run power off the same circuit for so long they didn’t even have to fuse.” In a conversation with one soldier Herr is told simply “Patrol went up a mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.”  Herr doesn’t tell us what happened, but what the experience of war felt like. As one reviewer said, “Michael Herr paid the men he encountered a substantial tribute by reporting the details as they would understand them.  Just the truth, no message.”   A must read for the History student.

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