Michael Herr’s Dispatches: Retrieving the “Secret History” of the Vietnam War for the Post-9/11 Era
But what a story he [an anonymous lurp (long range reconnaissance patroller)] told me [on Herr’s first coming to Vietnam], as one-pointed and resonant as any war story I ever heard, it took me a year to understand it.
Michael Herr, Dispatches
A Shau Valley had ended abruptly after two weeks, like a speech cut at mid-sentence
Michael Herr, Dispatches
The Vietnam War bore witness to the fulfillment and self-de-struction of the logic of American exceptionalism and its redemptive errand in the world’s wilderness. Prior to that very heated Cold War historical moment this redemptive logic remained invisible because it was, in Antonio Gramsci’s resonant term, hegemonic: “It is,” as Raymond William put it, “a lived system of meanings and values – constitutive and constituting – which as they are experienced as practices appear as reciprocally confirming. It thus constitutes a sense of reality for most people in society, a sense of absolute because experienced reality beyond which it is very difficult for most members of society to move in most of their lives.”1 During the Vietnam War, for reasons it will be the purpose of this essay to disclose, this hegemonic truth surfaced into visibility as a fiction. That moment in the development of the logic of the exceptionalist ethos – I will call it liminal – disclosed the violence intrinsic to America’s perennial redemptive errand that the dominant culture has always disavowed: an apparent truth – the way things “really” are – came to be seen as a vulnerable ideology. It is no accident that it was in the immediate wake of America’s disastrous war on “the New Frontier” (as John F. Kennedy called Southeast Asia at the beginning of his presidential administration)2 – and the polyvalent protest movement its violence precipitated – that the phrase “American exceptionalism” surfaced as an issue of contestation in the United States.3
Along with the emergence of biopolitics, we can observe a displacement and gradual expansion beyond the limits of the decision on bare life, in the state of exception, in which sovereignty consisted. If there is a line in every modern state marking the point at which the decision on life becomes a decision on death, and biopolitics can be turned into a thanatopolitics, this line no longer appears today as a stable border dividing two clearly distinct zones. This line is now in motion and gradually moving into areas other than that of political life, areas in which the sovereign is entering into an ever more intimate symbiosis not only with the jurist but also with the doctor, the scientist, the expert, and the priest. In the pages that follow, we shall try to show that certain events that are fundamental for the political history of modernity (such as the declaration of rights) – as well as others that seem instead to represent an incomprehensible intrusion of biopolitico-scientific principles into the political order (such as National Socialist eugenics and its elimination of “life that is unworthy of being lived,” or the contemporary debate on the normative determination of death criteria), acquire their true sense only if they are brought back to the common biopolitical (or thanatopolitical) context to which they belong. From this perspective, the camp – as the pure, absolute, and impassible biopolitical space (insofar as it is founded solely on the state of exception) – will appear as the hidden paradigm of the political space of modernity, whose metamorphoses and disguises we will have to learn.5
Understood in the context of this egregious recuperative forgetting of the carnage unleashed by the United States’ redemptive errand in the Vietnamese wilderness, our liminal post-9/11 occasion – particularly at the present moment in which the civil wars in Iraq and Syria are bearing witness to the de-stabilizing consequences of the United States’ invasion – calls urgently for the retrieval of the memory of that catastrophic “preventive war,” that liminal historical point that, in fulfilling its benignly redemptive imperatives, disclosed the polyvalent violence intrinsic to the founding exceptionalist ethos of the United States. And, I suggest, for this initiative of retrieval, few documents of that forgotten time come more resonantly to mind than Michael Herr’s Dispatches. 6I am referring to the series of fragments – so postmodern in their deliberate refusal of closure – sent by an American reporter for Esquire magazine back from “Indian country,” during the Tet Offensive (launched by the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese forces under General Giap) on January 30, 1968, when America’s war to “save” Vietnam from Communism was exacerbated into an all out “War of Attrition” against a people struggling to achieve self-determination, first, from a European colonial power, and, then, from a “democratic” – “anti-colonial” – United States of America, to a rapidly dividing American public, part of which was hoping desperately for closure and the other, now acutely aware of the contradictions inhering in the exceptionalist ethos, symptomatically attempting to articulate an alternative polis.
In coming to Vietnam at the liminal point of the war, Herr, unlike most of his media colleagues, as we shall see, does not rely on the daily briefings sponsored by the American military command (MACV: U.S. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam) in Saigon; rather, he, like his maverick photographer friends, Sean Flynn, Tim Page, and Dana Stone, goes “in country,” where the war is being fought by soldiers who, in referring to themselves as “grunts,” symptomatically sense that they are, to their superiors, disposable – or , in Agamben’s more current language, “bare life.” Herr enters the destructive element, as it were, and, in thus exiling himself from the discourse of the exceptionalist homeland – in thus becoming an outside insider – he is enabled to perceive what most of the American military command and the media personnel had been blinded to by their insider perspective – by, that is, their reliance on seeing from a distance: the essential epistemological perspective of the American exceptionalist ethos and of the relay of commands, from MACV and the army of cultural advisors in Vietnam to the Pentagon and the presidential administration in the United States, that determined the American Army’s mode of warfare. I will return to this mode of warfare later in this essay. Here, it will suffice to point to the essence of the former – the epistemology on which the unexceptional exceptionalist American concept of warfare was founded. I mean the metaphysical/panoptic perspective, identifiable with the very founding of the West that, in spatializing (or structuring) time, enables the inside perceiver to think he/she can see everything and every event at once and whose symbolic practical manifestation is the modern map: the cartographic visual image, inaugurated by Mercutor’s projections, that, not incidentally, enabled the conquest and colonization of the “barbarian” world beyond Europe, not least the Americas.
There was a map of Vietnam on the wall of my apartment in Saigon and some nights, coming back late to the city, I’d lie out 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 old territories of Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China, and to the west past Laos and Cambodge sat Siam, a kingdom. That’s old, I’d tell visitors, that’s a really old map.
If dead ground could come back and 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 here but the war.(D, 3)
This introduction, which invokes a map that historical events have rendered radically out of date, is the telling means Herr employs to suggest at the outset that the “Truth” that has determined the United States’ intervention in Vietnam and its mode of warfare is a fiction whose origins, in fact, go back not only to the founding of America – the Puritans’ encounter with the “nomadic” natives who roamed the New World wilderness – but also the very founding of the West, when, that is, it distinguished its sedentary (civilized) society from the nomadic (“savage”) tribes that wandered the terra incognita beyond the periphery of the civilized and civilizing metropolis of the terra orbis. The map, the archetypal symbolic visual manifestation of the Truth of Western metaphysical thinking (thinking meta-ta-physika: from after or above things-as-they-are – from a panoptic distance – spatializes historical time and thus enables “progress”: a narrative, from the past through an uncertain present to a future resolving “Telos (beginning, middle, and end). It was this exceptionalist cartographic mentality that both justified the West’s “civilizing” mission, i.e. its colonization of the inferior nomadic peoples beyond the metropolitan periphery, and the mode of warfare that enabled that colonization. I am referring to the concept of warfare that pits an army on one side of a dividing line against another and thus privileges a forwarding momentum that is intended to end in a decisive battle called victory – and, of course, peace (Pax).
This telling fictionality of the map, the vulnerability of the powerful forwarding American mode of warfare it enables – and the lunacy of its underlying raison d’être – is underscored by what immediately follows Herr’s juxtaposition of the map of Vietnam and the contradictory reality that is Vietnam in the present historical moment. It constitutes an exemplary retrospective narrative of a massive American military action in a strategically important forested region of Vietnam during which every conceivable technological “hardware,” firepower, and chemical was used, indiscriminately, to achieve its decisive exceptionalist objective: to clear that “wilderness” of Viet Cong partisans. Nor is it an accident that Herr intends us to hear the filmic “Indian-hater” voice of John Wayne in the excessive words of the American information officer’s “decisively” concluding remarks about this massive action:
This Mission was always telling us about VC units being engaged and wiped out and then reappearing a month later in full strength, there was nothing very spooky about that, but when we went up against terrain we always took it definitively, and even if we didn’t keep it you could always see that we’d at least been there. 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 wild forest alike, “denying the enemy valuable resources and cover.”
It had been part of his job for nearly a year now to tell people about that operation; correspondents, touring congressmen, movie stars, corporation presidents, staff officers from half the armies in the world, and he still couldn’t get over it. It seems 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 know-how 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. . . . (D, 4)
What Herr encounters symbolically in the stark contrast between the map he is looking at in his apartment and the actualities of history at this late – liminal – stage of the Vietnam War is not only the bankruptcy of this relay of exceptionalist Western Truths, but also, as the radical difference between the information officer’s decisive words and historical reality testifies, the apocalyptic violence that is intrinsic to the benign objective logic of the mapping mentality – the ultimate unexceptional exceptionalism of the United States’ “errand.” These opening pages of Dispatches, in other words, become a symptomatic fore-structure that the rest of Herr’s tour as a correspondent in the Vietnam wilderness will articulate and decisively verify.
“Story,” as we shall see, is an important word in Herr’s reportorial language. Indeed, it could be said that it is determinative of his discourse. But what should not be missed, as the very structureless structure of Dispatches makes patently clear, is that the word is being used ironically – a symbolic means of deconstructing the very idea of narrative – that mode of representation privileged by the West since Aristotle’s Poetics. For at this liminal point of Western history – particularly in its relation to its Oriental other – under the aegis of its American exceptionalist version of the presiding concept of narrative – of story – self-de-structs. The history to which Herr (and his friends Sean Flynn, Tim Page, and Dana Stone) is bearing witness as an outside insider at this liminal point in the war in Vietnam is totally antithetical to the beginning-middle-end structure. To appropriate W. B. Yeats’s poem to my purposes, “Things fall apart, the center will not hold.” Herr’s “story” is, in reality, a series of dispatches triggered by his intuition, derived from the anachronistic – once “true” – map of Vietnam, that the narrative informing America’s forwarding errand in the Vietnamese wilderness has been rendered inoperative by the radically different – “nomadic” – cultural understanding of time/space informing the military practice of the United States’ insurgent “Orientalist” enemy.
The [traditional] historian offers this confused and anonymous [modern] European, who no longer knows himself or what name he should adopt, the possibility of alternate identities more individual and substantial than their own . . . . Historians supplied the Revolution with Roman archetypes, romanticism with knights armor, and the Wagnerian era was given the sword of a German hero – ephemeral props that point to our own unreality. . . . The new historian, the genealogist, will know what to make of this masquerade. He will not be too serious to enjoy it; on the contrary, he will push the masquerade to its limit and prepare the great carnival of time where masks are constantly reappearing. No longer the identification of our faint individuality with the solid identities of the past, but our “unrealization’ through the excessive choice of identities – Frederick of Hohenstaufen, Caesar, Jesus, Dionysus, and possibly Zarathustra. Taking up the masks, revitalizing the buffoonery of history, we adopt an identity whose unreality surpasses that of God who started the whole charade. “Perhaps, we can discover a realm where originality is again possible as parodists of history and buffoons of God.” [Nietzsche] In this, we recognize the parodic double of what the second of the Untimely Meditations called “monumental history”: a history given to re-establishing the high points of historical development and their maintenance in a perpetual presence, given to the recovery of works, actions, and creations through the monogram of their personal essence. But in 1874, Nietzsche accused this history, one totally devoted to veneration, of barring access to the actual intensities and creations of life.10
This characteristic genealogical gesture in the parodic mode, which entails the “unrealization” of the (hegemonic) “real” by way of pursuing its logic to its self-destructive limits, becomes especially manifest in the first section of Dispatches entitled “Breathing In.” Invoking the liminality of the United States’ military/cultural strategy, Herr chooses as the exemplary cultural figure of this transformation Robert Komer, the cultural mastermind of the Phoenix Program – better known as “Pacification” – and its “New Life Hamlets,” the ostensible purpose of which were to provide the Vietnamese peasantry with better and more secure lives, but in reality entailed the uprooting of these unwilling peasant from their villages and their ancient rice culture and their incarceration in camps for the ostensible purpose of depriving the insurgents of resources and cover
The Mission and the motion: military arms and civilian arms, more combatant between themselves than together against the Cong. Gun arms, knife arms, pencil arms, head-and-stomach arms, hearts-and-minds arms, flying arms, creeping-peeping arms, information arms as tricky as the arms of Plastic Man. At the bottom was the shit face grunt, at the top a Command trinity: blue-eyed, hero-face general [William Westmoreland], a geriatrics-emergency ambassador [Averell Harriman] and a hale, heartless CIA performer. (Robert “Blowtorch” Komer, chief of COORDS [sic], spook anagram for Other War, pacification, another word for war. If William Blake had “reported” to him that he’d seen angels in the trees, Komer would have tried to talk him out of it. Failing there, he’d have ordered defoliation.) . . . If milk snakes could kill, you might compare the Mission and its arms to a big intertwined ball of baby milk snakes. Mostly they were that innocent, and about that conscious. And a lot, one way or the other, had some satisfaction. They believed that God was going to thank them for it. (D, 44)
That this dis-closive liminal genealogical perspective in the parodic mode is indeed Herr’s throughout Dispatches is borne witness to not only by the parallel between the above and Herr’s introduction about “the vanished Ho Bo Woods,” but also, even more decisively, by the following account of the futile spectacular (Ahabian) American action in the province of Ben Tre at the outset of the Tet Offensive:
We took a huge collective nervous breakdown, it was the compression and heat of heavy contact generated out until every American in Vietnam got a taste. Vietnam was a dark room full of deadly objects, the VC were everywhere all at once like spider cancer, and instead of losing the war in little pieces over years we lost it fast in under a week. After that, we were like the character in pop grunt mythology, dead but too dumb to lie down. Our worst dread of yellow peril became realized; we saw them now dying by the thousands all over the country, yet they didn’t seem depleted, let alone exhausted, as the Mission was claiming by the fourth day. We took space back quickly, expensively, with total panic and close to maximum brutality. Our machine was devastating. And versatile. It could do everything but stop. As one American major said, in a successful attempt at attaining history, “We had to destroy Ben Tre in order to save it.” That’s how most of the country came back under what we called control, and how it remained essentially occupied by the Viet Cong and the North until the day years later when there were none of us left. (D, 71)
What these passages bear witness to in a compelling synecdochical way is not simply the deeply inscribed American exceptionalism that perceives the Vietnamese insurgents as a “yellow peril” and the American Mission in Vietnam as a History-ordained errand of redemption at all costs. They also testify to the deeply inscribed narrative perspective – cultural and military – intrinsic to America’s exceptionalist ethos: the psychological need for closure, the decisive battle that will turn a state of uncertainty (the middle) into a spectacular decisive victory – that “justifies” the inordinate violence this end entails. From Herr’s parodic genealogical perspective, so proleptic of Foucault’s, these passages, precisely in their liminality, also bear demystifying witness to the lunacy that the “Truth” of this official American exceptionalism entails.
The section of Dispatches which narrates Herr’s experience during the “Battle” of Khe Sanh (June 21-July 9, 1968) constitutes an extended and amplified version of his multiple previous synecdochical accounts, articulating in greater detail the same (anti)story that pits the official representation (narrative) of the Vietnam event and the actuality of the war as perceived by an outside insider. Throughout this long section on “The Battle of Khe Sanh” it is the startling contrast between, on the one hand, the scenario of official America – from President Lyndon Johnson, the Pentagon, the military command in Vietnam, and, as we shall see more fully, the majority of reporters who have come to “cover” Vietnam and who, in one way or another, see Vietnam all at once, from a mediated distance (as on a map), and, on the other, the witness of those who are immediately (existentially) there –“in country.” This disclosive contrast takes the form of a series of stark juxtapositions between the official generalizations about the strategic importance of the Khe Sanh base and a number of sporadic conversations between Herr and two “grunts” who have befriended him, a white man, Mayhew, and a black man, “Day Tripper,” who are members of a Marine battalion stationed in and experiencing the dreadful realities of soldiering in Khe Sanh.
Tactically, its value to the Command was thought so great that General Westmoreland could announce that the Tet Offensive was merely Phase II of a brilliant Giap [commander of the North Vietnamese army] strategy. Phase I had been revealed in the autumn skirmishes between Loc Ninh and Dak To. Phase III (“the capstone,” the general called it) was to be Khe Sanh. It seems impossible that anyone, at any time, even in the chaos of Tet, could have actually called something as monumental (and decisive?) as that [Tet] offensive a mere diversion for something as negligible as Khe Sanh, but all of that is on record. (D, 104).
]Henceforth, the language of “siege” comes into being in the discourse of the Command and the media and with it the inevitable ominous comparison within these communities with the fall of Diem Bien Phu, in the Viet Minh’s war against colonial France:
It was at about this time that copies of the little red British paperback edition of Jules Roy’s The Battle of Dienbienphu began to appearing wherever members of the Vietnamese press corps gathered. You’d spot them around the terrace bar of the Continental Hotel, in L’Amiral Restaurant and Atergea, at the 8th Aerial Fort of Tan Son Nhut, in the Marine-operated Danang Press Center and in the big briefing room of JUSPAO [Joint United States Public Affairs Office] in Saigon, where every afternoon at 4:45 spokesmen conducted the daily war briefing which was colloquially referred to as the Five O’ Clock Follies, an Orwellian grope through the day’s events as seen by the Mission. (It was a hard-line.) Those who could find copies were reading Bernard Fall’s Dien Bein Phu book, Hell in a Very Small Place, which many considered the better book. Stronger on tactics, more businesslike, with none of the high level staff gossip that made the Roy book so dramatic. (D, 99-100)
And in Washington this anxiety-provoking – and rejuvenating – jeremiadic representation of Khe Sahn became a national concern when, as Herr puts it, Lyndon Johnson, echoing the myth of the Alamo, made it a crucial symbolic moment of his presidency:
And by then, Khe Sanh was famous, one of the very few place names in Vietnam that was recognized by the American public. Khe Sanh said “siege,” it said, “encircled Marines” and “heroic defenders.” It could be understood by newspaper readers quickly, it breathed Glory and War and Honored Dead. It seemed to make sense. It was good stuff. One can only imagine the anxiety which the Commander in Chief suffered over it. Lyndon Johnson said it straight out, he did not want “any damn Dinbinfoo,” and he did something unprecedented in the history of warfare. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were summoned and made to sign a statement: “for the public reassurance,” asserting that Khe Sahn could and would be held at all costs. (D, 105).
This official spectacle-oriented initiative – this staging for effect – intended to strike the American spectator dumb (bereave him/her of speech), as I have shown elsewhere by way of a genealogy of the current post-9/11 era phrase “Shock and Awe,”11 is intrinsic to the American exceptionalist ethos. In the context of Khe Sanh, it involved, as Herr meticulously shows, a massive build-up of military fire power at that base that was calculated to precipitate a decisive battle – “at last” – one that would bring the United States’ redemptive war in Vietnam to a triumphant narrative closure. I quote Herr at length at this resonant critical juncture of his “(anti-)narrative” to convey the historical scope and depth of his awareness of the hegemonic power of the American exceptionalist ethos – and its disavowals:
All that was certain was that Khe Sanh had become a passion, the false love object in the heart of the Command. It cannot even be determined which way the passion travelled. Did it proceed from the filthiest ground-zero slit trench and proceed outward, across I Corps to Saigon and on (taking the true perimeter with it) to the most abstracts reaches of the Pentagon? Or did it get born in those same Pentagon rooms where six years of failure had made the air bad, where optimism no longer sprang from anything viable but sprang and sprang, all the way to Saigon, where it was packaged and shipped north to give the grunts some kind of reason for what was about to happened to them? In its outlines, the promise was delicious: Victory! A vision of as many as 40,000 of them out there in the open, fighting it out on our terms, fighting for once like men, fighting to no avail. There would be as battle, a set-piece battle where he could be killed by the numbers, killed wholesale, and if we killed enough of him, maybe he would go away. In the face of such a promise, the question of defeat could not even be considered, no more than the question of whether, after Tet, Khe Sanh might have become militarily unwise and even absurd. Once it was all locked in place, Khe Sanh became like the planted jar in Wallace Stevens’ poem. It took dominion everywhere. (D, 106-107)12
Announcing a huge build-up of the North Vietnamese army in the “spooky” highlands surrounding the highly “rational” Khe Sanh, MACV, Herr tells us, inaugurated a massive artillery and air bombing campaign to instigate the reciprocal massive reaction it wanted from its enemy. In the next several months the North Vietnamese forces unleashed a sustained artillery barrage against the Khe Sanh base that killed and wounded many American soldiers (including Herr’s friend Mayhew), but it did not directly assault the American base. And sometime in the process, they withdrew their always invisible forces, a predictable refusal of direct engagement to participate in the view of outsiders insiders like Herr and many of the grunts who were suffering the results of the questionable and indecisive artillery and American aerial bombing campaign, but not to the American Command. It is to convey this virtually willful blindness of MACV and the Pentagon administrators – their seeing from a distance – that Herr tells the anti-story of “The Battle of Khe Sanh” by way of presenting the spectacle-oriented official narrative in counterpoint with his and especially his two grunt friends’ always parodic pop commentary.
“Oh, you mean Stoner.”
“No, It wasn’t that. He was always hanging out with Day Tripper. The guy I mean extended back in March. A crazy, funny little guy.”
They looked at each other, and I was sorry I’d asked.
“I know the guy you mean,” one of them said, “He was always running around singing real crazy shit? Yeah, I know. He got killed. What was that little fucker’s name?”
“I don’t know which one,” the other Marine said.
“Shit, yes, he got greased out on that brilliant fuckin’ operation down from Hoi An. ’Member, in May?”
“Oh yeah. Him.”
“Took a fuckin’ RPG round right in the chest. God damn, I’ll think of his name.”
But I already remembered it now, and I sat their playing with a bottle of suntan lotion.
“It was Montefiori.”
“No, but it started with an M,” the other one said.
“No, dumb shit, now does Winters start with an M?”
“That kid Morrisey.”
“You’re just fuckin’ with me now. Morrisey got sent home last week. . . .”
They went on like that. They really couldn’t remember it. It was a matter of pride or politeness for them to come up with the name of a dead buddy, they were going to try, but when they thought I wasn’t watching, they looked at each other and smiled. (D, 165-166)
Given this unerring, callous, and distanced optimism of the official representation of the rapidly deterioration of the American war in Vietnam, it is no accident that Herr follows his contrapuntal account of the “Battle of Khe Sahn” with a series of episodes that discriminate between those “irregular” correspondents, like himself and his photographer friends, Sean Flynn, Tim Page, and Dana Stone, and the “regulars” who come to Vietnam to “cover “ the errant war. As I have observed, the difference is that the former enter the destructive element, where the lowly and expendable grunts live their precarious lives, whereas most of the journalists in Saigon either rely for their reports to the homeland (the “World” as the soldiers called it) on the daily official briefings conducted by MACV, what Herr calls “the 5 o’clock follies” or, if they do go “in-country,” bring with them – and impose on what they experience – the deeply inscribed hegemonic discourse of American exceptionalism, particularly the narrative of its redeeming errand in the wilderness.13
And always, they [the grunts Herr encountered in country] would ask you to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World knew about it. They may have been a bunch of dumb, brutal killer kids (a lot of correspondents privately felt that), but they were smart enough to know that much. There was a Marine in Hue who had come after me as I walked toward the truck that would take me to the airstrip, he’d been locked up in that horror for nearly two weeks while I’d shuttled in and out, and when he caught up with me he grabbed my sleeve so violently that I thought he was going to accuse me or worse, try to stops me from going. His face was all but blank with exhaustion, but he had enough feeling left to say, “Okay, man, you go on, you go on out of here you cocksucker, but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man. If you don’t tell . . .” (D, 206-207)
Herr’s deliberately erratic, episodic, and inconclusive dispatches from in-country, as we have seen, constitutes his unconventional way of telling the untold grunts’ story. But what is particularly unique about Herr’s telling is, as we have seen, that these preterite grunts’ untold experience is indissolubly related to the deeply backgrounded American exceptionalist grand narrative or, more precisely – contrapuntally – to what this spectacular narrative necessarily disavows – and the military practice, based on the exceptionalist assumption of a decisive battle that would bring the carnage to an end: the ethos and practice, ironically, that produced the very unending “quagmire” they were intended to prevent at all costs to foe and friend. This, I suggest, is the burden of Herr’s insistent, self-implicating reference, to a “secret [spectral] history” that the discourse – the stories – emanating from Washington and repeated by the ventriloquized American media willfully repressed. Herr, tellingly, inaugurates this spectral motif at the beginning, where he traces the cultural origins of the war back to the “proto-Gringos who found the New England woods too raw and empty for their peace and filled them up with their own imported devils”:
Straight history, auto-revised history, history without handles, for all the books and articles and white papers, all the talk and the miles of film, something wasn’t answered, it wasn’t even asked. We were back-grounded, deep, but when the background started sliding forward not a single life was saved by the information. The thing had transmitted too much energy, it heated up too hot, hiding low, under the fact-figure crossfire there was a secret history, and not a lot of people felt like running in there to bring it out. (D, 50)
And, Herr brings this historical reference to its culmination near the end in his brilliant – self-implicating – commentary on “Trouble Comin’ Every Day,” the popular song of The Mothers of Invention (Frank Zappa’s rock band) satirizing the immense, yet anxiety-provoking, distance between American television’s optimistic representation of the late phase of war (the Tet Offensive) and the daily reality of unending and indiscriminate death and mutilation:
That wasn’t really about us, no, we were so hip, and we’d laugh and wince every time we heard it, all of us, wire-service photographers and senior correspondents from the networks and special-assignment types like myself, all grinning together because of what we knew together, that in back of every column of print you read about Vietnam there was as dripping laughing death-face; it hid there in the newspapers and magazines and held to your television screens for hours after the set was turned off for the night, an after-image that simply wanted to tell you at last what somehow had not been told. (D, 218)
Herr, rightly, does not name this unnamable “secret history” – the specter that, in some degree, haunted every American in Vietnam and the United States. But, as I have been suggesting by way of underscoring his insistent reference to, on the one hand, the indissoluble relationship between the American exceptionalist narrative and American military practice, and, on the other, the refusal of the Vietnamese enemy to be answerable to that conclusive narrative/practice, this “secret history” – this untold, indeed, untellable, “story” – had to do with the United States’ unexceptional exceptionalist fulfillment in modernity of the binary logic of the West that, from the very beginning of its existence, represented its Others, the peoples of Orient, for example, as inferior – and thus colonizable – because these, unlike the West’s sedentary civilization, were nomads who roamed the forests rather than cultivating the land. As I have shown, Herr deliberately and insistently focuses on the strategic function of the nomadic tactics of the Vietnamese insurgents, the deliberate tactics that disintegrated the enormous power of the American military juggernaut and, in the end – at the liminal point of the latter’s pursuit of its unerring narrative logic – compelled the United States to resort to the indiscriminate killing of the “War of Attrition”: the body count. What, then, Herr’s anti-narrative narration of his tour in Vietnam, which, to reiterate, appears at the liminal point of the United States’ intervention, suggests without naming it, is that this “secret history,” which haunted Americans but which few wished to run “in there to bring it out,” was precisely the spectral sense that it was the very (teleological/logocentric) “Truth” of the American way of life and its “History-ordained” errand in the world’s wilderness that was at stake – and, of course, the unacceptable alternative of rethinking its exceptionalist global mission in the shadow light of the spectral imperatives of the disclosure of that Truth to be a lie: a cover up of the priority of errancy over narrative.
What retrieving Herr’s witness at the liminal point of the United States’ intervention in Vietnam, when it inaugurated its “War of Attrition” as a last resort to achieving its narrative Telos, for the contemporary post-9/11 occasion starkly reminds us of, as we have seen, is that the deeply backgrounded exceptionalist logic of the Eisenhower, Kennedy, and particularly Johnson and Nixon administrations – the very “redemptive” logic that the Bush administration employed to justify its invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq – self-de-structed. By this I not only have meant that America’s conduct of the war at this liminal point dis-closed the polyvalent and indiscriminate violence – epitomized by such obscene pervasive practices as the “body count;” the establishment of “New Life Hamlets” (official euphemism for the [biopolitical] pacification camps in which the displaced native villagers of an ancient rice were forced to “live”); the chemical defoliation of vast amounts of Vietnamese forests; and the massive B-52 bombings of North Vietnam – intrinsic to the American exceptionalist ethos, but which could hitherto be disavowed by representing it as the “collateral damage” incumbent on fulfilling the redemptive errand. I also have meant that the self-de-struction of the American exceptionalist ethos made visible the inordinate will to power that also informs its “benign” logic, more specifically, the indissoluble relay of coercive political practices on which the imperial project depends: 1) preemptive war: attacking an “enemy” that is alleged to be “a rogue state” threatening the security of the United States; 2) the employment against its technological inferiors of the spectacle – the “shock and awe” tactics that, in bereaving its recipients of speech (a polity), is intended to cow them into submission; 3) regime change: the imposition of “democratic” governments that are intended to ventriloquize the American narrative (there were, not incidentally, at least seven of these regime changes imposed by the United State in South Vietnam during the war); and, not least, 4) the rendering of the state of exception as the norm, in the name of which anything, both abroad and at home, becomes possible, or, in the post-9/11 vocabulary this relay from the Vietnam era is intended to evoke – and Herr’s Dispatches anticipates – the reduction of human life at large to “bare life,” life that can be killed without its being called homicide. (HS, 170-171) This – and 5) the onto-political alternative that takes its directives from thinking the positive possibilities of the “other” demonized by the exceptionalist state – I suggest, constitutes the “secret history” to which Herr bore proleptic contrapuntal witness in the mid-1960s, when, in the wake of the inauguration of the United States’ “War of Attrition,” he identified American exceptionalist cultural and military practice with “story” (narrative structuration) and the Vietnamese’s refusal to accommodate their post-colonial insurgency to its imperative of direct engagement as “anti-story” – “like a speech cut at mid-sentence,” as my second epigraph puts the gist of the lurp’s “story” in the first. And it is precisely because, unlike most recent “worldly” critiques of the United States’ global intervention which overdetermine the political site, Herr’s “anti-story” points to the ontological basis of its political practice – the indissoluble relay between America’s representation of being and its politics of violence – that the resonant witness of his errant dispatches speaks so forcefully the lie of the Truth to the American power that continues to deform the present post-9/11 global occasion.
In 2008, I published American Exceptionalism in the Age of Globalization: The Specter of Vietnam, in which, by way of close readings of Graham Greene’s novel The Quiet American; Philip Caputo’s memoir, A Rumor of War; and Tim O’Brien’s autobiographical fiction, Going after Cacciato, I attempted to record the self-de-struction of the American exceptionalist ethos – the disclosure, at the liminal point of the war, of the violence intrinsic to its perennial redemptive errand, which in the past Americans could disavow in the name of its benignity. In the process, I also showed that the dominant culture, profoundly conscious of the inhibiting political implications of this self-inflicted disclosure, mounted a massive ideological campaign intended to forget Vietnam by representing the healthy interrogation of the exceptionalist ethos it precipitated as a national neurosis – “the Vietnam Syndrome” – an amnesiac campaign the success of which enabled the first George Bush administration to inaugurate the first Gulf War against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and, then, after 9/11, the second Bush administration’s invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in the name of America’s History-ordained errand in the global wilderness, that is, as Project for the American Century, the think tank that formulated the policies of the latter, put it, the Pax Americana.
Raymond William, Marxism and Literature (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 110.