Sunday, July 20, 2003

# Posted 8:14 AM by Patrick Belton  

WAR AND LITERATURE: OxBlog Lower East Side correspondent Liz Goodman on why Vietnam is a recurring metaphor for war - partly, she says, because the literature that came out of Vietnam and seared it on our national consciousness was just so good:
It occurs to me suddenly that the reason that Vietnam gets brought up so often in conjunction with any kind of American military incursion is that the war stories field reporters told about their experiences and their mission in Vietnam were better and more compelling than any job-narratives since. I've just been rereading Dispatches, by Michael Herr, which John le Carre called "The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time."

"I see a road. It is full of ruts made by truck and jeep tires, but in the passing rains they never harden, and along the road there is a two-dollar piece of issue, a poncho, which had just been used to cover a dead Marine, a blood-puddled, mud-wet poncho going stiff in the wind. It has reared up there by the side of the road in a horrible, streaked ball. The wind doesn't move it, only setting the pools of water and blood in the dents shimmering. I'm walking along this road with two black grunts, and one of them gives the poncho a helpless, vicious kick. 'Go easy, man,' the other one says, nothing changing in his face, not even a look back. 'That's the American flag you getting' your foot into.'"

On the one hand, I think most reporters would love to have the sense of purpose and storytelling ability of a Michael Herr; I think the myth of Dispatches is that war correspondents were in the trenches desperately trying to tell the truth to a country that did not want to hear them. On the other hand, it's a brilliant, terrifying book. I try to reread Dispatches every time the Vietnam analogy comes up or American soldiers are at risk in some foreign place. I find that it greatly helps me to remember exactly what we mean by "quagmire."
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