Friday, June 02, 2006

What Were We Going To Teach Them About Fire?

Michael Herr was a correspondent in Vietnam and the author of Dispatches, a penetrating examination of the American experience in southeast Asia. He wrote the narration of Captain Benjamin Willard for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning movie about Vietnam. Herr was also a co-auther, with Stanley Kubrick and Gustav Hasford, of Full Metal Jacket.

Here is an excerpt from Dispatches:

Prayers in the Delta, prayers in the Highlands, prayers in the Marine bunkers of the “frontier” facing the DMZ, and for every prayer there was a counter-prayer — it was hard to see who had the edge. In Dalat the emperor’s mother sprinkled rice in her hair so the birds could fly around her and feed while she said her morning prayers. In wood-paneled, air-conditioned chapels in Saigon, MACV padres would fire one up to sweet muscular Jesus, blessing ammo dumps and 105’s and officers’ clubs. The best-armed patrols in history went out after services to feed smoke to people whose priests could let themselves burn down to consecrated ash on street corners. Deep in the alleys you could hear small Buddhist chimes ringing for peace, hoa bien; smell incense in the middle of the thickest Asian street funk; see groups of ARVN with their families waiting for transport huddled around a burning prayer strip. Sermonettes came over Armed Forces radio every couple of hours, once I heard a chaplain from the 9th Division starting up, “Oh Gawd, help us learn to live with Thee in a more dynamic way in these perilous times, that we may better serve Thee in the struggle against Thine enemies…” Holy War, long-nose jihad like a face-off between one god who would hold the coonskin to the wall while we nailed it up, and another whose detachment would see the blood run out of ten generations, if that was how long it took for the wheel to go around.

And around. While the last falling-off contacts were still going on and the last casualities being dusted off, Command added Dak To to our victory list, a reflexive move supported by the Saigon press corps but never once or for a minute by reporters who’d seen it going on from meters or even inches away, and this latest media defection added more bitterness to an already rotten mix, leaving the commanding general of the 4th to wonder out loud and in my hearing whether we were or weren’t all Americans in this thing together. I said I thought we were. For sure we were.

Michael Herr was obviously deranged. How could he have called our noble effort in Vietnam a jihad?


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