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The Best of Michael Herr's Dispatches

Since Michael C is spending a month writing about intelligence and evidence, (Which is awesome, because, as a lay person, I’ve learned a ton.) I’ve decided that I’m going to spend a month discussing the seminal Vietnam war memoir, Dispatches.

If you missed my review last week, check it out. Or check out my compilation of “War at its Worst” passages, “Hell Sucks in the Imperial City”. Today, I’m going to share some more great Dispatches’ passages. (Side note: this still doesn’t cover the greatness of Dispatches. For the sake of not reposting the entire book, I had to leave out the brilliant chapters on Khe Sahn, the adventures of Mayhew and Daytripper, and the last chapter’s brilliant biography of Tim Page. And next week I’ll have more humorous passages from later in the book.)

Here are some of my favorite passages from Dispatches, arranged chronologically:

“At the end of my first week in-country, I met an information officer in the headquarters of the 25th Division at Cu Chi who showed me on his map and then from his chopper what they’d done to the Ho Bo woods, the vanished Ho Bo woods, taken off by giant Rome plows and chemicals and long, slow fire, wasting hundreds of acres of cultivated plantation and forest alike, “denying the enemy valuable resources and cover.”

“But what a story he told me, as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard, it took me a year to understand it:
   ‘Patrol went up a mountain. One man came back. He died before he could tell us what happened.’
   I waited for the rest, but it seemed not to be that kind of story; when I asked him what had happened he just looked like he felt sorry for me, f***ed as if he’d waste time telling stories to anyone dumb as I was.”

“There was a camp at Soc Trang where the man at the LZ said, “If you come looking for a story this is your lucky day, we got Condition Red here,” and before the sound of the chopper had faded out I knew I  had it too.
   ‘That’s affirmative,’ the camp commander said, ‘we are definitely expecting rain. Glad to see you.’ He was a young captain, he was laughing and taping a bunch of sixteen clips together bottom to bottom for faster reloading, “grease.” Everyone there was busy at it, cracking crates, squirrelling away grenades, checking mortar pieces, piling rounds, clicking banana clips into automatic weapons that I’d never even seen before. They were wired into their listening posts out around the camp, into each other, into themselves, and when it got dark it got worse. Th moon came up nasty and full, a fat moist piece of decadent fruit. It was soft and saffron-misted when you looked at it, but its light over the sandbags and into the jungle was harsh and bright...”No sense us getting too relaxed. Charlie don’t relax. Just when you get good and comfortable is when he comes over and takes a giant shit on you.” That was the level until morning, I smoked a pack an hour all night long, and nothing happened. Ten minutes after daybreak I was down at the LZ asking about choppers.”

“The ground was always in play, always being swept. Under the ground was his, above it was ours. We had the air, we could get up in it but not disappear in to it, we could run but we couldn’t hide, and he could do each so well that sometimes it looked like he was doing them both at once, while our finder went limp. All the same, one place or another it was always going on, rock around the clock, we had the days, and he had the nights. You could be in the most protected space in Vietnam and still know that your safety was provisional, that early death, blindness, loss of legs, arms or balls, major and lasting disfigurement...could come in on the freakyfluky as easily as in the socalled expected ways...and choppers fell out of the sky like fat poisioned birds a hundred times a day. After a while I couldn;t get on one without thinking I must be out of my fucking mind.”

“I only jumped in once, spontaneous as shock, during Tet when I heard a doctor bragging that he’d refused to allow wounded Vietnamese into his ward. ‘But Jesus Christ, “ I said. “didn't you take the Hippocratic Oath?” but he was ready for me. “Yeah,” he said. “I took it in America.”

“Oh, that terrain! The bloody, maddening uncanniness of it! When the hideous Battle of Dak To ended at the top of Hill 875, we announced that 4,000 of them had been killed; it had been the purest slaughter, our losses were bad, but clearly it had been another American victory. But when the top of the hill was reached, the number of NVA found was four. Four.”

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Next week’s post will have humor posts from Dispatches.