The first line of the Daily Telegraph’s obituary of Michael Herr tells us that he was “the author of Dispatches, the definitive account of the war in Vietnam.” Whether the authority for such an extraordinary statement is the blurb from John le Carré, which calls it “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time,” or something else is unclear. But how, you’ve got to wonder, can the anonymous author of the obituary square such high praise for Dispatches with his or her own subsequent description of the book?
Written with both high-octane immediacy and trance-like lyricism, it conveyed precisely not the events of the war, nor even perhaps episodes which had actually happened, but its mood, in which the eternal certainties of death and defeat were dulled by drugs and embraced to a soundtrack of rock 'n’ roll.
Does calling the book a “definitive account,” then, merely represent ignorance of the meaning of the word “definitive”? It may well do so. I understand from Private Eye that the Telegraph has lately fired many, or perhaps most, or perhaps all of its sub-editors, who might have been relied upon to catch such an egregious mistake. On the other hand, it may be no more than an example of ideological or some other kind of arrogance: mere ad-speak puffery designed to claim way more for the product than it can possibly justify, however good it may be. Or perhaps it is a sly allusion to the late Mr. Herr’s own ironic use of “definitively” on page one (actually page eleven, which is page one of my edition) in his description of how American troops captured VC positions “definitively” only to see them re-occupied a month later.
In one way, I suppose you could say the book was definitive—that is, in the way its impressionistic, gonzo, semi-hallucinogenic style defined not Vietnam but writing about Vietnam for those who, like Mr. Herr, saw an opportunity in the war for self-advancement with a reading public eager for such stuff. For those too impatient to read it, just watch Apocalypse Now, parts of which Herr wrote and which, as the Telegraph obituarist says, “shared many of the characteristics of Herr’s book.” Boy, did it ever! Neither the book nor the movie tells us anything about the war that the media, echoing the anti-war movement, hadn’t already told us. On the contrary, both existed to confirm our prejudices about the war as senseless, savage, insane, and criminal.
Michael Herr was just like the Fat Boy in Dickens who wants to make your flesh creep—except that he had a political motive for the mischief, which was to flatter the post-Vietnam intellectual mood of utopian pacifism. His success in doing so is demonstrated each time the anti-war crowd turns out with its comparisons to Vietnam (or Hitler) whenever the use of military force is mooted today. Dispatches, it could also be argued, was the beginning of what is now called virtue signaling. Those who didn’t go to Vietnam were only too eager to find a retrospective justification in depictions of the war’s insanity, and they could even cast themselves in a heroic mold for having doubted the war in their tender consciences all along.
At any rate, with Dispatches the Vietnam War became in retrospect no longer about Vietnam or communism or American foreign and military policy but rather about Michael Herr’s precious conscience and shattered feelings after witnessing what he had sought to witness when he proposed going to Vietnam as a correspondent for Esquire. “Yes, I’ll just have some of that too,” thinks the high-minded fellow who only witnessed the war on TV. Indeed, we—the whole country if you like—were all “traumatized” by Vietnam just like poor Mr. Herr, who famously had a nervous breakdown between returning from the war and writing Dispatches.
It was this psychological approach to the war that helped to turn the whole country’s interest in it away from its rationale and conduct, which could have borne a good deal of dispassionate examination, and towards the newly discovered consequence of war known as “post-traumatic stress syndrome”—whose recognition as a medical diagnosis came three years after Dispatches was published. With our acknowledgment that large numbers of Vietnam veterans and, since then, veterans of all other wars were sufferers of PTSD, we also retrospectively granted Mr. Herr the literary license to treat the human experience of terror, pain and death as all there is to war and all there can be.
If there could be such a thing as a “definitive account” of the war in Vietnam, it would be H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, which minutely traces the political chicanery, mainly orchestrated by Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara, by which the war came about and the seeds of failure that were sown there by the sort of thinking that has continued to be influential in later military failures down to the present day. We continue to see it today in Barack Obama’s apparent belief that our country’s enemies really want to be our friends, and will stop killing us if only we will refrain from antagonizing them too much.
In addressing graduates of the Air Force Academy at the beginning of June, Mr. Obama “cautioned that the United States must ‘never celebrate war itself’,” reported The New York Times, “and urged the soon-to-be second lieutenants to embrace the use of diplomacy and other nonlethal tools to resolve disputes around the world.” He cited his own agreement with Iran as an example of using negotiation as an alternative to war. Like Lyndon Johnson, in other words, he doesn’t understand that diplomacy is useless without a credible threat of force to back it up—something our president is here and all too typically signaling he has no wish to make. Since most people understand this, and Donald Trump routinely tells people that he understands it, the fact that Mr. Obama (like, presumably, Mrs. Clinton) does not could go a long way towards explaining the Trump phenomenon.