illusions of control: Michael Herr on war #amreading

As a fantasy and ancient history enthusiast, I’ve only recently started getting into reading about modern history; to be honest, I only really started properly caring about the First and Second World War after I studied them as part of a distance-learning course on theatre. So I decided to start reading Michael Herr’s Dispatches, a book on war that I’d actually heard about (I can’t remember where, but I remember reading it was a book that reinvented war reporting).


Image of the cover from the Picador website

After struggling a bit with the language (took me a while to get used to reading about ‘gooks’ and ‘spooks’ and ‘grunts’, as well as the ‘VC’, ‘DMZ’, and the ‘NVA’), I really started getting into it. Reading about war reported in such a way that doesn’t glorify it – without getting too lost in the political details either – made me realise how little the human race has changed over the centuries. Of course, this isn’t news for anyone who’s read a bit of history: it stretches back all the way to classical Greece and beyond. Even then, wars were fought for all the known reasons: political control, gain, and of course to cultivate and/or protect certain people’s ‘interests’ (that is, to keep feeding the fat cats and warmongers).

That’s not to say the human race hasn’t created wondrous things- like art – but there is so much room for improvement… anyway, I’m probably not the first (or the last) to realise or say something like this (and, let’s be honest, many people before me have expressed themselves much more aptly), so let’s skip straight to what prompted me to write this post today.

In the section I’m reading right now (titled ‘Breathing In’), right at the end of the 3rd chapter, Herr starts to discuss things like when the Vietnam war actually began, whether certain killings are considered part of the war or not, how the authorities (in America) had claimed it was going to be a short war, and so on. In this part of the book, he describes something that (for me) strikes a terrifying resemblance with what’s going on in the world today. Some people, if they could draw a line from the Vietnam war to today, might even go so far as to point out that ‘the war’ has never really stopped.

Question is, what do we do about it?


That fall, all the Mission talked about was control: arms control, information control, resources control, psycho-political control, population control, control of the almost supernatural inflation, control of terrain through the Strategy of the Periphery. But when the talk had passed, the only thing left standing up that looked true was your sense of how out of control things really were. Year after year, season after season, wet and dry, using up options faster than rounds on a machine-gun belt, we called it right and righteous, viable and even almost won, and it still only went on the way it went on.

Dispatches, Michael Herr


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