Dispatches by Michael Herr , Vintage 1977
Everything We Had ed. by Al Santoli , Random House 1981
Once A Warrior King by David Donovan , Ballantine 1986
Chickenhawk by Robert Mason , Penguin 1983
We Were Soldiers Once...And Young by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway , Harper Perennial 1992
Mel Gibson's Vietnam movie We Were Soldiers just hit New Zealand, so I've had to deal with endless commercials of that sagging beagle-face of his, carefully smeared with artificial dirt and smoke, rallying the troops in a laughable attempt at a Southern accent. Having seen The Patriot, featuring Mel doing a similarly rotten Carolina accent as he ran around chopping up Redcoats with a teeny little tomahawk, I think I'll skip his remake of Vietnam.
But it did send me back to reread the book Mel bought to use as the basis of the film: We Were Soldiers Once...and Young. It seemed like a good occasion to review some of the innumerable Vietnam memoirs I've bought over the years.
Yes, chillun, I am old enough to remember that once upon a time, nice people didn't even want to talk about Vietnam, let alone read about it. Now how did it git so's they don't hardly wanna talk 'bout nuthin' else? Gather 'round the fire and I'll tell you all about it.
Avoiding Nam was pretty much a fulltime job for sensible Americans of the 70s. It didn't look like fun yet -- not when it was actually happening. That took several years and about a thousand war memoirs. At the time, it looked like a remarkably uninteresting war, with wretched losers from inland America standing around the paddies twitching nervously, wondering whether the water buffalo in the next field was going to whip out a Kalashnikov and start shooting.
by Michael Herr
That changed very slowly. The first book to make Nam seem cool was Michael Herr's Dispatches. This was the first Nam book taught at universities (I encountered it in a course at Berkeley). Herr wrote as one of the college boys who didn't fight. He was there to watch, write, and make a name for himself. He wrote guilty erotica, and spoke for the smart guys who got themselves deferments but always wondered what they would've done if they'd gone: "You know how it is, you want to look and you don't want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had as a kid looking at the war photographs in Life..."
Since the deferred guys were the core of the teaching pool at most American universities, they tended to assign Herr's book, and it became one of those "instant classics" which make it more for demographic than artistic insights. Herr's book was a first draft of Apocalypse Now, with Hendrix soundtrack and quick cuts between cool gore and Saigon lies. It doesn't read particularly well now; there's too much caution there, like someone trying to do Hunter S. Thompson after halfheartedly inhaling one tiny line of speed. But then that's always the way to crack the upscale porn market: just a little whiff of the really hard stuff, enough to grab the safe people. After all, the safe, guilty males of the Nam era had two advantages over the ones who went: they had graduated to teaching jobs and could force large numbers of students to buy the book -- and they were alive.
Herr's book came out in '77, two years after the fall of Saigon. It was a while before anybody wanted to hear from the losers who'd actually gone and fought in Nam. It took a lot of concerted lying, in films like Deer Hunter, to erase all those images and persuade the home folks that the enterprise had been a noble one.