The Art of Memoir - Mary Karr (2015)

Chapter 23. Michael Herr: Start in Kansas, End in Oz

Oh, return to zero, the master said.
Use what’s lying around the house.
Make it simple and sad.

Stephen Dunn, “Visiting the Master”

I. What He Does

Every reader who didn’t fall for Michael Herr’s voice in his seminal war memoir Dispatches (1977) fell for it as a moviegoer in the haunting narration of Apocalypse Now or his later script for Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, both of which echo the book:

How many people had I already killed? There was those six that I know about for sure. Close enough to blow their last breath in my face. But this time it was an American and an officer. That wasn’t supposed to make any difference to me, but it did. Shit . . . charging a man with murder in this place was like handing out speeding tickets in the Indy 500. I took the mission. What the hell else was I gonna do? But I didn’t know what I’d do when I found him.

Charley didn’t get much USO. He was dug in too deep or moving too fast. His idea of great R&R was cold rice and a little rat meat. He had only two ways home: death, or victory.

Apocalypse Now

Michael Herr invented what Americans think of as the hypnotic, surreal sounds of that awful war (maybe any awful war), and it made him famous in a movie genre I’ve heard him darkly refer to as Vietnam porn.

Dispatches landed the unassuming Syracuse dropout in the upper echelon of literati working in English. (John le Carré called it “the best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”) The Vietnam War era perhaps ushered in the great age of the liar—Nixon confessing that he’d been bombing Cambodia all along after denying it, his collusions with Watergate burglars, his paranoid tapes.

In the 1970s, kids like me who found Herr’s work in Rolling Stone or Esquire cherished him as the folk hero who’d called bullshit on the government reports we’d been fed about Vietnam for decades. Enemy body counts had been beefed up, a fact later confirmed in defense secretary Robert S. McNamara’s memoir. Our massive bombing runs had so decimated and exfoliated the country that we could never win the people’s faith. (“We never announced a scorched-earth policy, we never announced any policy.”) Drugs we went to jail for in the States were practically handed out with mess kits over there, and My Lai wasn’t an isolated incident. Herr’s cynicism about the big dogs made him a beacon. He even dubbed high command “The Mission”—ironically marrying military goals with so-called spiritual ones. In Vietnam, Herr tells us, whether we came feigning or intending rescue or not, we still wound up invaders.

So Herr’s über-trippy view actually came off as “truer” than the other war noises we’d heard; but his was that new truth—it came with quotes around it. I sometimes wonder if Dispatches doesn’t mark that place in history when subjective truth began its rise to supplant historical and religious certainties—a trend that helped the current craze for memoir along. Coincidence doesn’t imply causality, but still. However a warped memory might have marred Herr’s unique take on that bloody patch of history, we trusted him more than we did officialdom, perhaps because he wrote like he was on acid half the time. He lacked the steely piety of official government dispatches. And his passionate sense of his own moral culpability—even for just watching the war—affirmed our national feelings of shame about the conflict.

Herr claims much of Dispatches is mashed-up characters and unchecked facts. (It was published as fiction in France.) Despite that, he recently told me he cared about nothing so much as veracity. He’d gone half nuts trying to write it, his wife coming home to find him in a chair surrounded by wadded up yellow legal-pad pages, and then, “I finally gave myself a kind of permission that I’d been reluctant to give to write about certain things. Now it sounds so pompous to say it—a truth telling.”

While other reporters went out with troops for short stints, then came in to wire stories on deadline, Herr had no deadlines. He’d stay embedded for months, and all that time, he was cramming his notebook, capturing dialogue that still prowls my head—“‘We had this gook, and we was gonna skin him’ (a grunt told me). ‘I mean he was already dead and everything.’” Herr’s talent rests in weaving together conflicting voices, juxtaposing dialogue from all over, the tender and the monstrous side by side. He speaks in rock-and-roll lyrics, hippie aphorisms, hep-cat ebonics, army acronyms, and the pop religion of redneck grunts, and lacing it all together is his own elegiac longing for some solid ground he never really finds.

This talent for capturing unforgettable dialogue no doubt grew from a childhood of innocent curiosity about strangers. Playing detective as a kid, he mastered memorizing the spoken word at an age when his peers were fixated on their Little League swings: “I was a voyeur. . . . I trained myself to eavesdrop while looking out the train window and not to miss a word. I used to walk around when I was twelve and follow people home. This would involve even taking bus rides with them. I just wanted to see where and how they lived” (Los Angeles Times, April 15, 1990). The fractured poetry of American idiom naturally enthralled him, and he cultivated an ear for the small majesty of the average human unit speaking.

Herr confesses that much of Dispatches was pieced together. But he stands by the quotes that ring so true: “Very few lines were literally invented.” In other words, the voices that transfix us—and for me form the core of his talent—may be the closest to verbatim reportage.

Plus his lack of historical method is moot anyway. We read Herr not to nail down external events—the date of this bombing raid or that regimental movement—but to share the journey of the narrator’s terrified, puzzled, heartbroken, outraged psyche. The landscape he reports on never stops shape-shifting. So blurry and hallucinatory is his crazy-quilt collage, you’d no more look to him for facts than a court would privilege an eyewitness on ’shrooms at the time. Listen to how he appropriates the bureaucratic natter about why we were there—and ends with a scary truth about why he was:

[You’d] hear some overripe bullshit about it: Hearts and minds, Peoples of the Republic, tumbling dominoes, maintaining the equilibrium of the Dingdong by containing the ever encroaching Doodah. “All that’s just a load, man. We’re here to kill gooks. Period.” Which wasn’t at all true of me. I was there to watch.

We emerge from his sentence about Dingdong and Doodah into the presence of a young grunt hungry for murder, and from that into Herr’s dark vigilance—I was there to watch—which comes with a backwash of being mortified. “You want to look and you don’t want to look.”

This moral struggle shapes that inner enemy I keep squawking about. Like Hemingway before him, Herr had gone to war in part to satisfy his young man’s thirst for adventure—an obscene wish, he later felt. His desire to be there implicated him, as if Vietnam were a giant snuff film he supported by buying a ticket to it. Seeing the dead was like looking at “all the porn in the world.”

I could’ve looked till my lamps went out and still wouldn’t have accepted the connection between a detached leg and the rest of the body or the poses and positions that always happened . . . making them lie anywhere and any way it left them, hanging over barbed wire or thrown promiscuously on top of other dead or up in the trees like terminal acrobats. Look what I can do.

He undercuts the drama of the scene with that black humor common among some vets—the dead like acrobats, saying, Look what I can do.

The moral certainty he craves always eludes him, for lies and mystery cover every scene. Spooky is a word he uses, a phrase coming from a pop song of the day. A soldier enigmatically says, “Spooky understands.” And Herr’s able to make us feel both the vastness of that mystery and the chilling breath of wind around some ghosts that haunt him. He doesn’t obscure facts or withhold them—he says everything he can about what he’s staring at, and it still denies him any certainty. He makes it sound as if many people survive war by grasping a single truth—Those people were monsters we had to destroy, say—clutching it like a god, while a thousand conflicting truths go unstudied.

Herr never makes himself a figure of pity, but I disagree with a reviewer who claimed the book is not about him. It’s not in the sense that he’s never doing what Leo Tolstoy blames Ivan Turgenev for—“pointing to the tear in his eye.” As with many great memoirists, you are never not behind his eyes.

The carnage, of course, sparks a natural urge toward moral outrage, a position that demands somebody be blamed. But blame makes deep compassion impossible, and in spiritual terms—which is what Herr grows into by book’s end, when he becomes a Buddhist—only compassion can bring about deep healing. He can never reconcile the beauty and joy he found in the war with the horror—“It wreaks havoc on the Western mind,” he notes. “It was way off the ordinary scale of good and bad. It’s just another level.” For Herr, the war’s gorgeous polyglot of voices—however beautiful and horrifying and, in his word, glamorous—keeps the nature of information fluid. The constantly mutating landscape prevents him from finding a moral stance that doesn’t include rage at somebody—rage, again, serving as a compassion blocker. Nowhere is ethical judgment more desperately called for, and nowhere is it more impossible.

His tenderness for the young soldiers is infectious. “I had such love for them and thought I wasn’t supposed to,” he says. They were capable of profound barbarity: “[They] threw people out of helicopters, tied people up and put the dogs on them.” But those same young men also took bullets for each other and threw themselves on grenades. They quite literally kept him alive, laying down fire for him in a hot zone so he could dash to a helicopter whenever he fled a place they were often doomed to die in. They offered to hump Herr’s pack or give him the only warm sleeping spot in a wet trench (he never let them). Herr admires, pities, adores, and shrinks from them over the course of the book: “I stood as close to them as I could without actually being one of them, and then I stood as far back as I could without leaving the planet.”

Herr’s compassion for the soldiers—“How do you feel when a nineteen-year-old kid tells you from the bottom of his heart that he’s gotten too old for this shit?”—somehow mitigates his horror, and ours:

Was it possible they were there and not haunted? No, not possible, not a chance, I know I wasn’t the only one. Where are they now? (Where am I now?). . . . But disgust was only one color in the whole mandala, gentleness and pity were other colors. . . . I think all those people who used to say they only wept for the Vietnamese never really wept for anyone at all if they couldn’t squeeze out at least one for those men and boys when they died or had their lives cracked open for them.

But of course we were intimate, I’ll tell you how intimate: they were my guns, and I let them do it. We covered each other, an exchange of services. . . .

Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony: I went to cover the war and the war covered me. . . . I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed there in your eyes. Time and information, rock and roll, life itself, the information isn’t frozen, you are.

The book’s darkness relents in the clown play of the Mission. I spit coffee reading his interview with General William Westmoreland. Sending Herr in to speak with him is like sending the visionary William Blake into the tent of Attila the Hun. The general expects, since Herr’s from Esquire, that he’s “writing ‘humoristical’ pieces.”

I came away feeling as though I’d just had a conversation with a man who touches a chair and says “This is a chair,” points to a desk and says, “This is a desk.” I couldn’t think of anything to ask him.

Herr’s ability to mock “official military speak” rivals comic genius Joseph Heller in Catch-22. Herr will set out by quoting somebody, and then he’ll twist out of present reality, reeling the point of view inside his own head, where we “hear” through the warp of his psyche.

His interior is the home place for the reader, the helicopter pickup point. Whenever we wander off into some awful jungle scene, we do so alongside that richly observant speaker. It’s Herr’s desire for a solidity inside—for some truth—and his inability to get a firm grasp on that truth that keeps him fumbling around like a blind man.

Now a practicing Buddhist in a fairly rigorous (as I understand it) Tibetan mode, Herr recently told me by phone that before Vietnam he hadn’t known we’re not just responsible for all we do, but for all we see, too. This frees us from blaming or judging anybody. (In this, it echoes my Catholic notion of original sin—we’re all the same!) “Great bodhisattvas get sick and die from taking on the suffering of others. They pray to be reborn in hell.” (Hell being the first place Jesus went after the cross.)

Reading Michael Herr puts you in touch not just with the brutality we humans are capable of, but with some nobility that persists and persists and is made glorious by refusing defeat in horror’s presence. It’s not sweet and noble to die for one’s country, but anyone who insists on leaning into the light in the face of so much darkness enacts perhaps the hardest-won of fortitudes.

A friend of mine recently diagnosed with one of the scarier cancers spoke of the unexpected comfort reading Dispatches gave him. On the phone, Herr was so touched. “Doesn’t get any better than that. I always tell people, ‘Don’t worry, it has a happy ending.’”

II. How He Does It

(Note: Again, the lapidary work here—intended for the practitioner—may bore the general reader.)

If you bring a jeweler’s loupe to Michael Herr’s first chapter, analyzing it line by line the way poets do with a gloss or exegesis of an otherwise mysterious work, you can isolate that memoir’s key machinery. That’s what I get my grad students to do for any stylistic master—to pick apart one sentence at a time how a book’s opener sets the terms for a whole book.

Read that way, Herr summarizes all of memoir’s key elements. He lures us in with direct carnality, with information packaged in sizzling and evocative ways. His inner conflict never fades from you—the psychological stakes and that inner enemy that make the book cohere and lend us the impetus to keep reading stay on display. Mainly, he creates an intimate psychic space—a mind perceiving and remembering and analyzing and pondering with such variety that we cleave to it. Herr becomes, as you read him, as familiar and comforting as any friend.

A book known for its bizarre, hallucinatory surface opens with the cheapest writing of all—dull recorded fact, describing a static physical artifact. After coming back from the bush, Herr studies the antique map left on the wall. It’s a quiet scene any reader can imagine herself inside. Then, line by line, he builds up to the jazzy surface his book is known for.

The map embodies the book’s central worry—how “hard data” or “official information”—the stuff most reporters are shopping for—avoids the real impenetrable mystery of human suffering and nobility always evident in war’s carnage. A “real” reporter trucks in simple data. Luckily for us, Herr clung to his talent—that poetic sensibility and ear for dialogue and story and atmosphere. He left hard facts to the trusted journalists, letting his true nature shine through.

There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, I’d lie on my bed and look at it, too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real anymore. For one thing, it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Frenchman, since the map had been made in Paris. The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted. Vietnam was divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, and to the west past Laos and Cambodia sat Siam, a kingdom. That’s old, I’d tell visitors, that’s a really old map.

If dead ground could come back to haunt you the way dead people do, they’d have been able to mark my map CURRENT and burn the ones they’d been using since ’64, but count on it, nothing like that was going to happen. It was late ’67 now, even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much anymore; reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind. We knew that the uses of most information were flexible, different pieces of ground told different stories to different people. We also knew that for years now there had been no country but the war.

1. Take it a phrase at a time. There was a map of Vietnam. If the current craze for over-the-top drama had affected the writing of Dispatches, Herr might have started with some fiery, guts-spilled war scene. Instead, he starts with a carnal object, and his reflection on it. A “true” thing—maps are meant to convey veracity. We should be able to find our way with them. He starts in a small, almost dull, everyday object that just happens to be left behind in his transient’s apartment.

2. too tired to do anything more than just get my boots off. Herr doesn’t just tell us he’s tired; he gives us dramatic evidence of the extent. It’s another carnal moment of a type we all understand.

3. That map was a marvel, especially now that it wasn’t real anymore. This is his interior interpretation of the map—it’s a marvel, some kind of miraculous phenomenon, which is a theme that occupies most of the book. The phrase introduces his notion of unreality or impermeable mystery of war.

4. For one thing, it was very old. It had been left there years before by another tenant, probably a Frenchman, since the map had been made in Paris. Its antiqueness gives the map a kind of special radiance—a spiritual value, if you will. We also see Herr’s mind feeling for the truth, guessing that since it was made in Paris, a Frenchman had probably left it. It’s his first use of the word probably—the qualifier of a more truthful memoirist. He’s showing us his mind in action, his thoughtfulness, and how he tries to deduce the truth based on hard evidence.

5. The paper had buckled in its frame after years in the wet Saigon heat, laying a kind of veil over the countries it depicted. This again is carnal evidence, conjuring the tropical feel of Saigon, a place whose soppy atmosphere insidiously seeps in to warp the map, as the war he’ll show us will warp him and those he meets. The physical veil or mist acts as a physical metaphor, embodying the notion of “spookiness” or mystery. Whatever truth exists about the war is “veiled,” as the map is.

6. Vietnam was divided into its older territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, and to the west past Laos and Cambodia sat Siam, a kingdom. These old places have an exotic echo, and Herr’s listing them again shows his interest in historical information. Siam’s being a kingdom brings up for my generation the musical The King and I. But even if you don’t have those associations, its being a kingdom suggests an enchanted realm.

7. If dead ground could come back to haunt you the way dead people do, they’d have been able to mark my map CURRENT and burn the ones they’d been using since ’64. Being haunted by the dead is a psychological driver for the book, and here’s the first time Herr suggests burning up some dishonest depiction of the country—in this case the maps the military had been using. The disinformation of high command is part of what will obscure the truth for Herr—and, through him, for us—throughout the book. He calls them “they” here, making them separate from him, other. The capitalized CURRENT mimics an official stamp of the type military personnel used. The capitals suggest certainty, which—in Herr’s view of this war—is always bogus. He occupies a visionary’s demimonde.

8. but count on it, nothing like that was going to happen. The “count on it” is a little piece of hippie-esque locution that brings you inside the more intimate, colloquial speech Herr will use. The interjection forms a kind of bond with the reader. On a literal level, he’s also saying the military will never rethink their maps’ accuracy, because they lack the curiosity or fluidity of thought that makes changing their minds possible—and also makes truth impossible for them.

9. It was late ’67 now. A simple statement of fact, this locates us in the time of his being there, at the height of the conflict. The phrase is also an infusion of quotidian reality after the “spookiness” of the sentence before.

10. even the most detailed maps didn’t reveal much anymore. Again, you can’t get true information from military maps and “official” evidence. We’ll come to depend on the suggestively “spooky.”

11. reading them was like trying to read the faces of the Vietnamese, and that was like trying to read the wind. This beautiful metaphor makes even the native citizens impossible to “read” or serve as a source, and it makes mysteries of the indigenous. The wind is also invisible, mysterious as the veil of moisture over the map or the ghosts that haunt him.

12. We knew that the uses of most information were flexible, different pieces of ground told different stories to different people. This is the first time Herr uses “we.” It seems to mean everybody but high command, but in some ways it also invites the reader into his wondering. Again, the impossibility of locating the true “story” is what he wants throughout the book—what drives him.

13. We also knew that for years now there had been no country but the war. Despite all the disinformation, there is one fact “we”—him and other correspondents? him and everybody in the war? him and us readers?—know. I sort of think he encompasses all those possibilities. The war has devoured everything. The war is everything.

This setup about the curious uses of information leads us to Herr’s first three characters. These three voices are the three main arenas of (dis)information—an American press official, who’s clueless; a great, scary, medicated warrior in a tiger suit, a man at home in combat; and Herr himself as hypervigilant mediator, crouching in terror in combat. The press officer and the warrior are both confident in their beliefs; Herr’s the confused one. And his confusion becomes our home, our certainty, our resting place.

The characters throw each other into relief, starting with the officer reporting in official speak. On a helicopter tour, he shows Herr from the air how strikes had leveled the ground beneath what had been the Ho Bo Woods—a place wholly denatured by chemicals and plows and endless fires, “wasting hundreds of acres of cultivated plantation and wild forest alike.” Describing the process seems to thrill the officer, who’s been telling the same story over and over to every visitor from “half the armies in the world.” Herr’s cool eye studies the guy’s seeming thrill, letting him celebrate the story, till Herr eventually incorporates the guy’s own voice into his interior. Herr’s head just eats the guy’s voice at the end, entering into a long sentence of official-sounding bullshit that warps at the end to Herr’s judgment:

It seemed to be keeping him young, his enthusiasm made you feel that even the letters he wrote home to his wife were full of it, it really showed what you could do if you had the knowhow and the hardware. . . . And if in the months following that operation incidences of enemy activity in the larger area of War Zone C had increased “significantly,” and American losses had doubled and then doubled again, none of it was happening in any damn Ho Bo Woods, you’d better believe it.

This is the first time Herr appropriates somebody’s voice to channel it like a medium—“none of it was happening in any damn Ho Bo Woods, you’d better believe it.” Moving someone else’s voice into his own head is one way he makes you feel intimate with him as a narrator and with the otherwise wild experiences he writes about.

The officer’s voice stands in stark contrast to the surreal magic of Herr—a man “not nervously organized for war.” He’s the next character, and we see him embedded with troops in a state of profound, ass-clenching fear. How close is he to the grunts? He starts out smelling the awful breath they get from doing speed for night patrols.

Going out at night the medics gave you pills, Dexedrine breath like dead snakes 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. . . . A couple rounds fired off in the dark a kilometer away and the Elephant would be there kneeling on my chest, sending me down into my boots for breath.

And from there, he shows the other side of the horror show of war—a guy who’s great at it—a long-range reconnaissance patroller, “Lurp,” in a tiger suit, with Dexedrine in one pocket and downers in the other.

I think he slept with his eyes open, and I was afraid of him anyway. All I ever managed was one quick look in, and that was like looking at the floor of an ocean. He wore a gold earring and a headband torn from a piece of camouflage parachute material, and since nobody was about to tell him to get his hair cut it fell below his shoulders, covering a thick purple scar. Even at division he never went anywhere without at least a .45 and a knife, and he thought I was a freak because I wouldn’t carry a weapon. . . . His face was all painted up for night walking like a bad hallucination, not like the painted faces I’d seen in San Francisco only a few weeks before, the other extreme of the same theater.

All these different people are like places on that earlier map. They’re brought together by the accident of history and geography, but what unifies them is that they all pass through Herr’s curious, loving, horrified, beautifully worried mind.

So right off, he readies us for voices weaving together and for radical shifts in tone from light to dark. As a writer you can’t just start jamming stuff together, hoping the reader will magically know what’s in your mind. You have to start out slowly, by laying transitions—like leaving breadcrumbs for the reader. Then the transitions get quicker through the book. As you get used to the method, the breadcrumbs grow fewer and eventually vanish. By the end, it’s all sped-up jump cuts with invisible connections the reader’s already mastered.

A serious student of memoir can pick apart or analyze any master this way to start dismantling the underlying architecture of an otherwise seamless piece of prose.