This article was published in The eXile on June 28, 2002
by Michael Herr , Vintage 1977
Everything We Had
ed. by Al Santoli , Random House 1981
Once A Warrior King
by David Donovan , Ballantine 1986
by Robert Mason , Penguin 1983
We Were Soldiers Once…And Young
by Lt. Gen. Harold G. Moore (ret.) and Joseph L. Galloway , Harper Perennial 1992
Mel Gibson’s Vietnam movie We Were Soldiers just hit New Zealand, so I’ve had to deal with endless commercials of that sagging beagle-face of his, carefully smeared with artificial dirt and smoke, rallying the troops in a laughable attempt at a Southern accent. Having seen The Patriot, featuring Mel doing a similarly rotten Carolina accent as he ran around chopping up Redcoats with a teeny little tomahawk, I think I’ll skip his remake of Vietnam.
But it did send me back to reread the book Mel bought to use as the basis of the film: We Were Soldiers Once…and Young. It seemed like a good occasion to review some of the innumerable Vietnam memoirs I’ve bought over the years.
Yes, chillun, I am old enough to remember that once upon a time, nice people didn’t even want to talk about Vietnam, let alone read about it. Now how did it git so’s they don’t hardly wanna talk ’bout nuthin’ else? Gather ’round the fire and I’ll tell you all about it.
Avoiding Nam was pretty much a fulltime job for sensible Americans of the 70s. It didn’t look like fun yet — not when it was actually happening. That took several years and about a thousand war memoirs. At the time, it looked like a remarkably uninteresting war, with wretched losers from inland America standing around the paddies twitching nervously, wondering whether the water buffalo in the next field was going to whip out a Kalashnikov and start shooting.
That changed very slowly. The first book to make Nam seem cool was Michael Herr’s Dispatches. This was the first Nam book taught at universities (I encountered it in a course at Berkeley). Herr wrote as one of the college boys who didn’t fight. He was there to watch, write, and make a name for himself. He wrote guilty erotica, and spoke for the smart guys who got themselves deferments but always wondered what they would’ve done if they’d gone: “You know how it is, you want to look and you don’t want to look. I can remember the strange feelings I had as a kid looking at the war photographs in Life…”
Since the deferred guys were the core of the teaching pool at most American universities, they tended to assign Herr’s book, and it became one of those “instant classics” which make it more for demographic than artistic insights. Herr’s book was a first draft of Apocalypse Now, with Hendrix soundtrack and quick cuts between cool gore and Saigon lies. It doesn’t read particularly well now; there’s too much caution there, like someone trying to do Hunter S. Thompson after halfheartedly inhaling one tiny line of speed. But then that’s always the way to crack the upscale porn market: just a little whiff of the really hard stuff, enough to grab the safe people. After all, the safe, guilty males of the Nam era had two advantages over the ones who went: they had graduated to teaching jobs and could force large numbers of students to buy the book — and they were alive.
Herr’s book came out in ’77, two years after the fall of Saigon. It was a while before anybody wanted to hear from the losers who’d actually gone and fought in Nam. It took a lot of concerted lying, in films like Deer Hunter, to erase all those images and persuade the home folks that the enterprise had been a noble one.
In strictly literary terms, this great lie was of some benefit, because there are few genres as rich as the war memoir. Virtually anyone who saw combat and has a decent memory can write a decent book about it — and Vietnam, a war characterized by thousands of small skirmishes, was richer in incident and gore than an inner-city basketball tournament. When next you hear that rough voice asking, “War — what is it good for?”, you tell it: “First-person memoirs, that’s what!”
By 1981, the memoirs were coming fast. The first and in some ways still the best was Everything We Had, a collection of oral reminiscences by 33 vets who’d done everything from nursing the wounded to slitting throats with Bob Kerrey and his pals. I’d still recommend this book as a starter-kit for the prospective Nam fan, because the 33 voices offer something for virtually everyone. Parts of the book are very funny, as when Gayle, the cute li’l nurse, recalls her answer when asked if she’d serve on a ward for Vietnamese casualties: “And I said, ‘No, I would probably kill them.’ and she said, ‘Well, maybe we won’t transfer you there.’” And they say the Army has no heart!
By the early 80s, it was not just cool to’ve served in Nam; it was glorious. It was, in fact, the only sort of martial glory available (Grenada didn’t quite carry the same “cachet,” as they said in the Reagan era.) Every Vet still alive and compos mentis — and some who weren’t — headed for that early-model KayPro or Northstar keyboard to turn his ranting into cash. They were a little confused at first, having been shunned and pitied as they dragged their way from halfway house to detox to medium-security institution…but slowly a canny ambition shouted down the voices babbling in their addled heads with the news that the war stories which had driven the wife and kids to move out with no forwarding address were now box-office boffo.
And damned if many of them, fingers trembling on the keyboard, one hand on the Jack Daniels or rolled-up twenty, didn’t hunt-and-peck out some quite good books.
This high literary output was a delayed gift of the utter lack of strategy which doomed the American enterprise in Vietnam: a war which consisted largely of sending small contingents of infantry out into the jungle to find the enemy, usually by getting ambushed, is bound to be a military disaster — but equally bound to produce an extraordinary number of fantastic combat tales. As Walter puts it in Big Lebowski: “Me and Charlie, eyeball to eyeball.” Throw in the treachery of the South Vietnamese, the social and racial bombs going off non-stop back home, the feeling of abandonment, the music — greatest soundtrack of any war ever — and you had the elements of better stories than more intelligently-conducted wars could ever yield. (If there were any true aesthetes worthy of Oscar Wilde’s mantle, they’d've agitated for the continuation of the war at all costs. Alas, dreary Utilitarian ethics have conquered us so thoroughly that not a single voice urged the continuation of the war as the greatest performance art of the century.)
I’ve read a dozen of these memoirs, and enjoyed almost all of them. They come in all flavors. There’s the raunchy defeatism of F. N. G., which describes a “fuckin’ new guy” entering an infantry squad after Tet, when the Americans had pretty much given up trying to win and were fighting a strange, highly mobile but essentially defensive war. Then there’s Once A Warrior King, describing one very conservative Virginian’s relatively straightforward war, working with a fiercely anti-VC village in the Delta. This is Greene’s Quiet American told by the quiet A. himself, as it were — and he tells a good story. It’s the food I remember best, in that one: the long descriptions of roasted rat with fish-sauce. That’s one of the delights of war and prison memoirs: you can count, in these solidly grounded stories, on some excellent descriptions of meals good and bad. (The POW memoir, combining the genres, often yields the most mouth-watering descriptions of all; if you want a book full of the delight of eating, read Brendan Behan’s one good book, Borstal Boy.)
The best of all these might be Chickenhawk, the story of a helicopter pilot who was, as Martin Sheen says of “Chef” in Apocalypse Now, “…wound up a little too tight for Vietnam.” Robert Mason, the pilot-narrator, takes the reader in and out of so many LZs, hot, cold and medium, that you develop a veteran’s wince everytime his slick starts descending toward the purple smoke.
One of the many delights of Mason’s book is that it describes the battles for the Ia Drang — the same campaign glamorized in We Were Soldiers Once…and Young, the book Gibson filmed. The campaign, which is depicted as a noble, though doomed, strike for freedom in We Were Soldiers…. doesn’t come off so well in Mason’s memoir. In fact, he and his fellow pilots seem to have done something the generals in charge of the operation didn’t do: read the books about earlier French campaigns against the Viet Minh in that same valley. Mason and his drunken buddies end up predicting the failure of the campaign while their superiors are still sending home the sort of communiques which did so much to cement the American Army’s reputation for…er, “emphasizing the positive,” let’s say.
But Mason’s topper, his most brilliant passage, comes at the very end, in the epilogue summarizing his messed-up return to civilian life. Here’s the superb two-paragraph conclusion, describing his next move after the early drafts of his Nam memoir had been rejected and he’d failed in everything he tried since getting back to The World:
“What did the desperate man do? I can tell you that I was arrested in January, 1981, charged with smuggling marijuana into the country. In August 1981, I was found guilty of possession and sentence to five years at a minimum-security prison. I am currently free as of February 1983, appealing the conviction.
“No one is more shocked than I.”
Just roll that last sentence over on your tongue. “No one is more shocked than I.” Now there is a meal. Even the fussily correct grammar, that annoying “…than I” rather than the colloquial “than me” or “…than I am”; so perfectly droll, such a change from the Nam dialogue in which every other word is “fuckin’”. And the grand historical irony, that the junked helicopter jock should become desperate enough to sell his one skill to the only people who wanted it, the drug dealers, designated New Enemy of the Reaganites. And the timing! Mason’s manuscript got four rejections in the years leading up to 1981, when the memoirs started appearing. A little later, and he’d've been cool. But that would have been disastrous. To go to prison for piloting a helicopter full of drugs, albeit unworthy boring drugs like marijuana, even as that great war-dodging hypocrite Reagan shoved his leathery grin in front of the flag — ah, It’s a fate better than death.
This article was published in The eXile on June 28, 2002
The recent death of Andrea Dworkin didn’t even make the small print news in Russia. Feminism, at least the feminism of the kind Westerners take for granted, never caught on. Patronizing Westerners often see that as a sign that Russians are culturally too primitive. Russians, particularly Russian women — and particularly the Russian female intelligentsia — literally laugh and roll their eyes when you mention feminism of the American or West European brand. The reason is fairly simple: Russians haven’t quite learned the Western art of sloganeering for radical philosophy without meaning a word of what they say. A Russian woman would assume that if you’re a feminist, you’d actually have to live out the philosophy. In that sense, Andrea Dworkin was, in her own way, the only “Russian” feminist in America — and that is why she was so hated.
Auden is the worst famous poet of the 20th century. He simply cannot write a decent line, let alone a decent poem. Some of his very worst poems are among those “classics” found in every anthology of Modern poetry. They’ll continue to clog those penitential first-year university texts until we find the courage to laugh out loud at stanzas like this:
You wouldn’t have guessed he’d shoot himself, but it made sense after the fact. He always meant what he said and did, and he always had the guns around. It was right that he used one to blow his brains out.
I can’t remember the last time a celebrity death made me sad like this. I’d been meaning to write a tribute to him, because I consider him a great and underrated writer. Too late now. (more…)
In memory of our favorite dead warmongering neocon, Christopher Hitchens, The eXiled is reposting Dr. Dolan’s classic review of Hitchens’ fake waterboarding stunt in 2008.
Hitchens Gets Waterboarded, Withdraws from Iraq in 11 Seconds
by John Dolan
Stop the presses! Christopher Hitchens just noticed that waterboarding is torture!
Hitchens announced the news like he’d brought it down from Mount Sinai, in a Vanity Fair article. “Believe me,” he told a waiting nation, “it’s torture.” Well, yeah. It usually is, when it happens to you. When it happens to somebody else, it’s “extreme interrogation.” (more…)
They think that things are all right/For the deer and the dachshund are one.
– Wallace Stevens
I just came back from two days of snubbery at a conference in Budapest, and I’m here to tell you that even in middle age, getting snubbed is mighty uncomfortable.
You think it’s the kind of thing that only hurts in high school, but nope; all the old pain receptors are in place and ready to start throbbing. Of course, I was out of pain-shape and that made it worse. The past few years, people have been so nice to me I forgot what a primate quorum can do to the odd ape out, how easily they can make him feel like the unworthiest chimp in the jungle.
It was my own fault. It’s always my own fault. I’m getting tired of that. Never mind the old whinge, “Where is the justice?” My question: where the Hell is the injustice? A little injustice would warm me up no end. Instead I just go around getting what I deserve. (more…)
I’ve had Reagan all my life. In 1967, 13 years before the rest of you got President Reagan, he became governor of California. It was the terrarium in which Reagan’s tinkerers figured out how to stimulate the beasts in the tract houses to hatred and bathos, the tools with which they ruled and destroyed the nation.
Nixon usually gets the blame for that, but I’ve always found Nixon a rather sympathetic figure: wretched, ugly, and without much malice for either the forests or the ordinary American. Nixon didn’t even share the worship of “business” forced on us all in Reagan’s reign. Nixon’s dreams were old-fashioned Soviet machinations, full of maps and coups; he was willing enough to toss the rest of us a few bones if we’d let him play with his schemes undisturbed. And some of the bones he tossed us were rather significant. It was Nixon who created the EPA and OSHA. Reagan would have strangled both in the cradle. (more…)
In all of America, isn’t there one person brave enough to dump wet cement on Reagan’s Hollywood Boulevard star? Isn’t there one bitter reject with nothing to lose, willing to pour lighter fluid over the “tributes” Reagan’s fans have been laying outside the funeral home?
Every fool in America is deep in mourning for this worthless man, who had no conscience, no intellect and no shame. He had all the faults and none of the virtues of the fascist: malice without frankness; cruelty without courage; pomp without dignity. And if all 285 million of you suckers are willing to sit there and let the jerks lie about him to your face, then you deserve him. He really was your kind of man. (more…)
Meet John Agresto, the corrupt neocon labeled a “mediocrity” by 16 academic organizations
The slime just keeps spewing from the blubbery lips of my former employer, John Agresto, Provost of the American University of Iraq-Suleimaniya (AUI-S). As those who’ve read my last eXiled article will recall, Agresto hired me as an associate professor of English at AUI-S in 2009; I taught there—damn well, by the way—in the 2009-2010 academic year, and was signed to a new, two-year contract in May 2010. But over the summer, an enemy on the faculty fed Agresto copies of an antiwar article I’d written way back in 2005, and so naturally Agresto fired me for it. In July 2010.
Agresto seems to have been outraged, that I would dare to object to being fired in midsummer via email, and responded with a surprisingly lame attempt at slander, called “John Dolan: Academic Fraud.”
Like the bomb under Ace Rothstein’s caddy, Agresto’s article is “strictly amateur night.” For one thing, he never even gets around to accusing me of anything that could be called “academic fraud.” Academic fraud means faking one or more of a short set of credentials: degrees, recommendations, publications, teaching experience, student evaluations. And my creds in all these areas are solid, to say the least. (more…)
The hero of this story is the $100 bill — or rather, the wad of $100 bills. My first meeting with those lovely $100 bills came at the end of my interview for a job teaching English at the American University of Iraq Sulaimaniya (AUIS). At the end of the interview, the Chancellor, Joshua Mitchell asked me what my travel expenses had been and pulled out a wad of $100 bills. He peeled off 11 of them — the cost of my ticket — and slapped them down on the table, snarling, “There, that’s how I do business!”
It certainly wasn’t the way most American academics do business. Most Americans are horrified by the sight of large amounts of cash, and American academics, an even more squeamish lot than most, would never have slapped that much money down on a table without asking for a receipt or any other formality. I was impressed; there’s something appealing about raw gangsterism popping up when you expected overcautious pedantry — especially when that raw gangsterism is giving you cash. (more…)
If you’re like us, you’re sick and tired of having to wait around for some loathsome celebrity to die just to read their obituary. Who says we can’t read the obituary before they die, on our own time? This is about empowering us, the non-celebrities, so that we can get our celebrity ghoul-pool porn fix when we feel like it, rather than waiting for their terminal illness to decide.
Which is why we here at The eXiled have developed a revolutionary new tool that will transform the literary death-watch. It’s a new technology we call “The Pre-legy.” At eXiled, we’re not content to wait for the doctors to give us the thumbs-down and the ol’ sad face. We want to know what folks’ll be saying after a celebrity death, without waiting for that celeb’s pig-valve heart to flatline.
Take our old friend Christopher “Hic!” Hitchens: instead of waiting for the throat cancer to take him away, we decided to get proactively involved in the ol’ warmonger’s impending death by generating, through our new technology, The Big Eulogy (or “Pre-legy) we’re all waiting for: the Martin Amis funeral speech, before it’s written. We managed to get ahold of the Amis eulogy in-advance thanks to an old Russian software programmer we know, who zombied up for us a virtual Martin Amis that can squirt out highbrow virtu-tears over the upcoming death of Amis’ best bud, Chris Hitchens. (more…)
When Amazon started printing readers’ book reviews on the net, a window opened briefly on the mental worlds of ordinary people — or, as Harry Dean Stanton so memorably called them, “ordinary fuckin’ people.”
Everyone should have a look at these reviews once in a while, to get an idea of what actually goes on in the heads of the other people who sit in a theater with you, not laughing at all the best lines, and applauding all the stuff you hate.
Hell, it turns out, isn’t other people; Hell is other people reviewing on Amazon.com. (more…)
This review was first published in The eXile on March 21, 2002.
Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Corrections, billed as a masterpiece, is a worthless fraud, a hopelessly trite story gaudied up with tedious overwriting. The overwriting is meant to conceal the fact that this novel is a simple mix of three of the most hackneyed storylines in American fiction:
The picaresque adventures of a feckless male academic, borrowed from DeLillo;
The sentimental tale of the decay and death of one’s parents as in Dave Eggers’s “masterpiece”;
The old, old plot device of the family Christmas reunion to bring the centrifugal parents and kids back together again against all odds, as in every sentimental John Hughes movie ever made and about a thousand more before him.
That, folks, is all there is to this mess: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation meets dying-parents memoir meets Manhattanite satire Lite. God help me, but that’s it! (more…)
This is the 5th installment of John Dolan’s work-in-progress “Stupid (Or, How To Lose Money Running A Speed Lab).” Read the previous installment “Every Flake A 20 Dollar Bill” by clicking here.
Butler knelt by the beaker while the white flakes drifted down, chanting “every one a $20 bill.” There didn’t seem to me to be as many as there were supposed to be, a light snow at the bottom of whatever toxic liquid was in the beaker. But he was the Chem Major, not me.
And the sooner we finished the final sacrament the sooner we could pack up the Frankenstein glassware and pour the leftover poisons down the sink and get out of there.
I did feel bad about leaving my parents’ property steeped with the cat-pee smell of speed cookery. Even asked Butler to help me wipe the walls down, but he had to tend to the product. We bagged it, still wet and yellower than I’d expected, more like a paste than powder. He double- and triple-bagged it, put it inside his Clark Kent sportcoat and headed back to Berkeley. (more…)
This article was first published in The eXile in November, 2002.
Look down at your hand. Flex the tendons, watch them ripple under the skin. What a nice design! So silent and quick. That’s what they never get in these cyborg movies: the fact that a really good design doesn’t whirr and clank. It’s silent and quick, like bodies are. Like yours. Yours, these sinews; and that long, stretchable leg, genital toy, brave shoulders, stubborn toes, a zoo of perfect forms and all yours for the price of admission. (more…)
“Polidori once asked Byron what, besides scribble verses, he could do better than Polidori himself. Byron icily replied: ‘Three things. First, I can hit with a pistol the keyhole of that door. Secondly, I can swim across that river to yonder point. And thirdly, I can give you a damned good thrashing.’”
OK, somebody go find a black goat somewhere, sharpen me a steak knife, and buy us some spray paint for a pentagram, ’cause we’re gonna resurrect us a champion who can kick the necessary ignorant Protestant ass and make it look easy. (more…)
This article was first published in The eXile on June 8, 2000, issue 92.
How can we best promote world peace? As always, Thomas Friedman has a stunningly original answer: by building more McDonald’s. Here’s Friedman’s “Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention” from his new book The Lexus and the Olive Tree: (more…)
This article was first published in The eXile on June 22, 2000.
Reading Bobos in Paradise, I realized that it’s not so hard to make money by writing: all you have to do is suck and swallow several million people at once. It’s certainly worked for David Brooks, who sucks like a Black Hole, and could give Linda Lovelace swallowing lessons. He’s making a fortune from this book, which is nothing more than fellatio in print. (more…)
I came to extreme poverty late in life, and did very badly at it. I should have done some kind of crime. But what kind? That’s what I couldn’t figure out. What kind of crime can you actually do, if you aren’t a lawyer and don’t understand computers?
There were certainly plenty of people who could have offered me some advice on the matter. We were living on a boat, moored in a skuzzy little harbor full of small-time criminals. The one guy who went off to a job every day was a figure of awe and mockery, a freak. Everybody else scavenged or stole to buy their booze and weed. (more…)
I’ve been reading anthologies again, God help me. It’s all about money, as in we ain’t got none. So it’s back to teaching, and that means reading the anthologies that attempt to take a bunch of innocent kids through the dismal art of the twentieth century in one semester. Today’s culprit is The Norton Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century. It’s not bad. I guess. No worse than the others. The problem is the century itself, anyway, not the anthology.
A bad one. It makes no sense at all. This creature, your relative—Hell, your dog—was a constellation, a huge Venn diagram of metonymies, with a middle name and opinions and allergies and anecdotes. Doesn’t much matter if they were bad anecdotes, annoying opinions, a stupid middle name; there was the same density of little fiber-optic cables spreading out from them that mattered.
He may be dead now, I don’t know. He should have been dead long ago, but these early boomers, born in California, have many lives. From some angles, Alex’s life was clear proof of what spoiled, invincible brats they were, the ungrateful beneficiaries of hippie primogeniture.
I remember him sitting in the little room his wife had assigned him in their hilltop mansion, his “study.” What Alex studied, mainly, was how to get more crack and get more blowjobs from prostitutes on his nightly forays into West Oakland. (more…)
There are three animals to welcome me home to California: the ants, the grasshoppers and the mockingbirds. To meet them, you walk past the traffic walls to the trash desert. There’s a shortcut to RiteAid across the army-colored dirt, trails scuffed out between the Australian-colored scrub with the Safeway bags snagged on it.
Way off there, over the Fort Apache fences protecting the houses, you can see the real mountains, with a few dirty scraps of leftover snow. There ought to be nothing sadder than those few gullies of snow, but in the interim I’ve been cold and I don’t, can’t love the snow the way I did growing up here. I appreciate the warmth of the ground, could all but lie down in the warm khaki gravel where the ants have their many bloodthirsty Mayan cities.
(Lately we’ve been hearing a lot of crazy talk about a “nuclear-free world.” So what better time than now to rerun an eXile classic by Dr. Dolan–an elegy penned before its time, to the nuclear winter which never arrived, and now is gone forever. Amen.)
There are no nihilists — but suppose there were. What would they say?
Once you dare to consider this question, the answer seems obvious: if there were any real nihilists, they would praise nuclear weapons as the means to bring an end to the world via nuclear winter. They would sing hymns to the warheads, seeing in them the first weapon we have ever obtained against the universe which has brought us into being to suffer and die. Even if these imaginary nihilists were too squeamish to advocate nuclear winter outright, they would be compelled to praise nuclear winter as the first real CHOICE any organism has ever had about whether to continue in the fated cycle of birth, pain, and death. (more…)
“If you’re going to talk truthfully about the world, you might as well start with the bottom line: killing people in your way.” Listen to the first episode of our new eXiled Radio hosted by John Dolan. In this premiere, Dolan strolls around the 20th century’s great killing fields with Philip Short, author ofMao: A Lifeand Pol Pot: Anatomy of a Nightmare.
This article was first published in The eXile on November 5, 2007 FRESNO, CA — By the time you finish this column you will be able to destroy huge buildings, kill hundreds of people in a few minutes, and strike terror…
I think I’ve finally found a religion I can convert to. I’m thinking of turning Sikh. And we’ll just slide right by all the puns popping into your little heads, if you don’t mind. The Sikhs are just the coolest warrior tribe around. Take their scripture.
This article is a War Nerd Classic Christians are stone killers. You put a Christian and a lion in an arena and I’ll bet Toyotas to Subarus the Christian’ll have the lion for lunch. Just look around you: lions are…
But let’s take the question seriously for a second here: who won in Iraq? To answer it, you have to start with a close-up of the region, then change magnification to look at the world picture. At a regional level the big winner is obvious: Iran. In fact, Iran wins so big in this war that I’ve already said that Dick Cheney’s DNA should be checked out by a reputable lab, because he has to be a Persian mole.
There are actual American heroes. Not a lot, and you don’t hear much about them, but there are a few. I don’t mean working moms who spend their Saturdays spooning soup into winos. I mean classic citizen-soldiers who get it right every…