My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A vivid portrayal of life at the front of the Vietnam War. Michael Herr, working for Esquire magazine, picked up his notebook and headed out to where the was happening. He was at the Citadel in Hue during the Tet Offensive; he also travelled to Khe Sahn. He talks about being afraid but moving forward anyway “I didn’t go through all that not to see.” (p 256)
Herr does an exquisite job of describing the grunts (he spent most of his time with the Marines). Of a 19 year old Marine he says “He had one of those faces, I saw that face at least a thousand times at a hundred bases and camps, all the youth sucked out of the eyes, the color drawn from the skin, cold white lips, you knew he wouldn’t wait for any of it to come back. Life had made him old, he’d live it out old”. (p 16)
Herr, writing in the 60s and 70s, is extremely critical of the war and the way it was waged (but then weren’t most people?). He knew that “A lot of people knew that the country could never be won, only destroyed, and they locked into that with breathtaking concentration.” (p 59). He discusses some of the difference between the Army and Marine approach to the war: “That belief [that one Marine was worth 10 dead Vietnamese] was undying, but the grunt was not, and the Corps came to be called by many the finest instrument ever devised for the killing of young Americans.” (p102)
It was interesting to read this after having read Gregg Jones’ “Last Stand at Khe Sanh: The U.S. Marines Finest Hour in Vietnam.” Jones does an excellent job of describing the tactics and flow of battle giving details based on interviews with survivors years later. Herr’s story is much more immediate. While you don’t get a sense of the ebb and flow of the stand, you get a gritty, realistic view of life in the mud of the bunkers and trenches.
I read this book back in the 70’s and was glad I picked it up again. If we are going to put our young men and women through pain and misery that will last a lifetime, sometimes a very short lifetime, we should be damn well clear that it is worth it for us.