This extract is taken from PN Review 10, Volume 6 Number 1, September – October 1979.
In this time of daily apocalypse, it is important to consider why we are supplied with harbingers of doom with such alarming frequency; the end is no doubt coming, but then again, that’s never not been the case. This article, extracted from a 1979 issue of the magazine, shows the power and motivation behind the reporter’s lens, before the total democratisation of the technology of taking pictures and the means of distributing them removed such weight from documentation, and normalised violent footage.
I’ve Seen Fire and I’ve Seen Rain: Vietnam Again
THE LITERAL meaning of apocalypse in Greek is “an uncovering”, and it is quite possible that the divinities dis-covered in apocalyptic experience are neither amused nor gratified by such human intrusiveness: in fact resent it as the drunken Noah did, and punish the leering son accordingly.
With Romanticism, occidental energies turned defiantly to blasphemy, and with the First World War, apocalypse became official. Since then we have re-shot the movie several times (in the Gulag, at Belsen, Hiroshima, etc.) and it seems unlikely that Vietnam was the last go round. Presumably we must keep at it until we get it right.
Oh dear: manic prose again. The culprit is that increasingly ubiquitous technology which has progressed us from the iconic gravity of Genesis to the terminal whimsy of celluloid. The communicating media mediate, yes, they do, dis-cover divinity as if it were only today’s news, which of course it is: provide us with such knowledge and no forgiveness: you can’t sin without the words to sin in. But if the devil’s last trick is indeed to convince us he doesn’t exist, then his work is now almost done, and there need not be many more Vietnams.
Strictly speaking, all wars count as Dionysiac revelry: dangerous overflows, as it were, of carnival. In the less convivial terms of the Jews, when Cain eats Abel he is trying to abolish death, but in fact inventing murder. Whichever myth you follow, what distinguishes one war from another, for religious purposes, is the degree to which the dismemberment is both vivified and economized by symbolic ritual; thus, for example, an engagement which is resolved by two champions in single combat, watched and applauded by their respective armies, is both vivid and economical, high culture in fact. So too is the primitive warrior who, having killed his foe, must live isolated in a state of ritual pollution for some weeks until the mana in his meal has been digested.
At the other extreme comes the shapeless barbarism of trench warfare. La Somme: Passchendaele: endless corpses edifying no-one. Since then the spectacle has become even less edifying, as mechanization has rendered the violence even more abstract. In Vietnam, for example, death almost always came in on the freaky-fluky, which couldn’t be further from the sacred tearing and eating of flesh. It looks as if we don’t get a meal until Big Mama comes to collect us.
So much for background. The question I am concerned with here, mercifully, is less vast, and is considerably illuminated by Dispatches, Michael Herr’s recent book on his experiences as a reporter in Vietnam. Simply put, how much of his movie should we be watching? Should we be watching at all? Can we stop watching? watching?
Mr Herr has asked this question as intelligently as any of the Vietnam reporters, which means he is by no means certain how to answer it. From the very outset he places himself in the landscape with quiet accuracy: listen to him quote a soldier on the relevance of ideology to the war: ” ‘All that’s just a load, man. We’re here to kill them. Period.’ Which wasn’t at all true of me. I was there to watch.” Admirably put. There are two kinds of players in Vietnam, the ones who load and shoot guns, and the ones who load and shoot cameras. What’s the difference? The irony snuggling behind “at all”, somewhat arch, accurately places Herr’s awareness of some connection just on the threshold of his consciousness. The trouble is that he doesn’t work hard enough at making the connection explicit, and so in the end it eludes him, leaving him mildly spooked.
Here’s a theory. The enemy isn’t really dead until he’s been shot by both guns. The M-16 rifle blows him away, renders his body incoherent, and the camera puts him back together again, shapes the unshapely, captures the life that escapes him, reconstitutes the fragments, re-presents the corpse for mental consumption. Torn flesh, after all, can be taken in the mouth or in the mind, and for several reasons our lips are sealed; which places the second shot higher in the national interest-any old grunt can fire an M-16. Hence the reporter as artist-priest, his Pentax and his pen composing the alchemy whereby sheer bloody incoherence is transubstantiated into something rich and strange.
Here’s another theory. The disturbing truth behind our inability to make the death real is our deeper concern to make it unreal. The panoply of technologies at our disposal (the guns and the cameras) invite us so to abstract the perception of death as to disperse utterly its radical particularity, abolish its terror, dismantle the ground from which all life starts and to which it returns. If death can be dismantled, made really unreal, then we are finally spaced out, extra-terrestrial, beyond gravity; which means, heaven knows, anything goes.
The struggle is no longer between man and man, but rather between Mother Nature and our lunatic son the Robot, while we stand around watching.
This extract is taken from PN Review 9, Volume 6 Number 1, September – October 1979.