Hawking Up Hairballs

Saturday, August 11, 2007


I've just re-read Dispatches by Michael Herr. I read it when it first came out almost thirty years ago, and it's still the best book about the Vietnam War that I've ever read. It's also just plain, good damned writing. The following passage is one of my favorites. Herr is describing his first trip into the combat zone. The Chinook he refers to is a large, transport helicopter.

"We were all strapped into the seats of the Chinook, fifty of us, and something, something was hitting it from the outside with an enormous hammer. How do they do that? I thought, we're a thousand feet in the air! But it had to be that, over and over, shaking the helicopter, making it dip and turn in a horrible out-of-control motion that took me in the stomach. I had to laugh, it was so exciting, it was the thing I had wanted, almost what I wanted except for that wrenching, resonant metal-echo; I could hear it even above the noise of the rotor blades. And they were going to fix that, I knew they would make it stop. They had to, it was going to make me sick.

"They were all replacements going in to mop up after the big battles on Hills 875 and 876, the battles that had already taken on the name of one great battle, the battle of Dak To. And I was new, brand new, three days in-country, embarrassed about my boots because they were so new. And across from me, ten feet away, a boy tried to jump up out of the straps and then jerked forward and hung there, his rifle barrel caught in the red plastic webbing of the seat back. As the chopper rose again and turned, his weight went back hard against the webbing and a dark spot the size of a baby's hand showed in the center of his fatigue jacket. And it grew -- I knew what it was, but not really -- it got up to his armpits and then down his sleeves and up over his shoulders at the same time. It went all across his waist and down his legs, covering the canvas of his boots until they were dark like everything else he wore, and it was running in show, heavy drops off of his fingertips..."

We're always told that in our writing we should show, not tell. This passage is an excellent example of that. The facts that Herr is relating are pretty simple. The helicopter in which he is riding is being shot at and hit. A soldier who is sitting across from him is hit and killed. Not much emotional impact there, but look at how Herr describes it. He's new to the war, so new that he at first doesn't even know that the helicopter in which he is riding in is being fired upon. He thinks that someone's banging on it with a hammer, and he can't figure out how they do that. Not only that, but he thinks that a soldier sitting across from him is trying to jump to his feet, when he has in reality been shot and killed. You can just imagine Herr sitting there wide-eyed with disbelief. The wound starts out as a dark spot that's the size of a baby's hand. He'd have to be in a state of shock for his mind to come up with that kind of comparison, but he can't look away. He has to watch as the dead man's blood spreads and spreads. Brilliant writing.


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