Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Michael Herr’s Heroic Honesty; Hemingway’s Unhappy Soldier

Robert Stone, on his way to giving a glowing review in The New York Times Book Review to Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, nominates Michael Herr’s Dispatches (Vintage, $12.95) as “the most brilliant exposition of the cultural dimension of an American war ever compiled.” He notes, moreover, that Mr. Filkins’ book is “in the tradition of Dispatches.” He’s right, of course—but to give the comparison the weight it deserves, we need to remind ourselves of just how comprehensively brilliant Mr. Herr’s book is. Endlessly quotable (“Airmobility, dig it”), packed with stories and scenes that will stay with you permanently—though you may want to forget some of them—Dispatches, as Mr. Stone points out, is also “a profound personal journal.”

Here’s a sample:

“There wasn’t a day when someone didn’t ask me what I was doing there. Sometimes an especially smart grunt or another correspondent would even ask me what I was really doing there, as though I could say anything honest about it except ‘Blah, blah, blah, cover the war’ or ‘Blah, blah, blah, write a book.’…

“Talk about impersonating an identity, about locking into a role, about irony: I went to cover the war and the war covered me; an old story, unless of course you’ve never heard it. I went there behind the crude but serious belief that you had to be able to look at anything, serious because I acted on it and went, crude because I didn’t know, it took the war to teach it, that you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did. The problem was that you didn’t always know what you were seeing until later, maybe years later, that a lot of it never made it in at all, it just stayed stored there in your eyes.”

When you mix honesty with moral clarity (“I went to cover the war and the war covered me”; “you were responsible for everything you saw as you were for everything you did”), what you get is truth. Michael Herr tells the truth about the war, and about Michael Herr, too.

And that’s the exalted standard Dexter Filkins is aiming for.

 

FOR THE FLIP SIDE—what happens when you misrepresent yourself and the war you watched or fought—see Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home” from his first collection, In Our Time (Scribner, $14):

“At first Krebs, who had been at Belleau Wood, Soissons, the Champagne, St. Mihiel and in the Argonne did not want to talk about the war at all. Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it. … Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie and after he had done this twice he, too, had a reaction against the war and against talking about it. A distaste for everything that had happened to him in the war set in because of the lies he had told. All of the times that had been able to make him feel cool and clear inside himself when he thought of them; the times so long back when he had done the one thing, the only thing for a man to do, easily and naturally, when he might have done something else, now lost their cool, valuable quality and then were lost themselves. …

“Krebs acquired the nausea in regard to experience that is the result of untruth or exaggeration, and when he occasionally met another man who had really been a soldier and they talked a few minutes … he fell into the easy pose of the old soldier among other soldiers: that he had been badly, sickeningly frightened all the time. In this way he lost everything.”

Our Critic’s Tip Sheet on Current Reading: Michael Herr’s Heroic Honesty; Hemingway’s Unhappy Soldier