Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes @ the Photographers’ Gallery

‘The fact that I never had a family, a place or a story that defined me, inspired a need in me to join the community of mankind. I did so by inventing a poetic form linking this community, at least symbolically, in my imagination, through this form.’ (Dave Heath)

This is the first major UK exhibition dedicated to the work of American photographer Dave Heath (1931-2016).

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath started taking photos towards the end of his stint in the Korean War (1950-53). All his photos from Korea ignore battlefield heroics, firefights, explosions and hardware – instead showing the average grunt as isolated individuals caught in moments of thought, looking down, looking sad.

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

Korea, 1953 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath, Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, NYC

And this is the sensibility he brought back to civilian life. Of the 109 photos on display here, I only saw three where the subject is smiling or laughing. The other hundred and six show individuals or couples looking moody, intense, sullen, lost in thought. Inhabitants of solitude. Aficionados of introspection.

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Elevated in Brooklyn, New York City, 1963 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Even the handful of photos which aren’t of people, but of buildings or the sidewalk, manage to make them look lost in thought and downbeat. The result is tremendously atmospheric if, on occasion, a bit samey.

Biography

The downbeat tone was set early in Heath’s life. He was born in Philadelphia in 1931 to very young parents who abandoned him at the age of four after which he was sent to a series of foster homes before being placed in an orphanage. From then on he carried a sense of loss and abandonment which he projected, very successfully, onto everything around him.

Heath became interested in photography as a teenager, and joined an amateur camera club. He read the photo essays in Life magazine and cites one in particular as having a decisive impact on his future. Bad Boy’s Story by Ralph Crane depicted the emotional experiences of a young orphan not unlike young Heath.

In a flash Heath realised that photography could be a means of self-expression, a way of shaping the external world to fit his experiences, and a way of connecting to others.

In his early twenties he set about becoming an expert in photographic techniques, taking courses in commercial art, working in a photo processing lab, and studying paintings at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. His stint in the army as a machine gunner interrupted his career for a few years, but crystallised his approach to subject matter, his skill at capturing a wide range of people in moments of thought and vulnerability.

On his return, Heath developed this aptitude for capturing an ‘inner landscape’, seeking out the lonely and lost and fragile on the streets of big city America. Most of the photographs on display here were taken on the streets of Chicago and New York (where he moved to in 1957).

Heath’s subjects seem eerily detached from their physical context, shot either singly or in couples, but always intensely aware of – almost physically projecting – their isolation.

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Collection Torosian, courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and the Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath is quoted as saying:

My pictures are not about the city but from the city. I’ve always seen it as a stage and I’ve always seen the people in the streets as being actors, not acting out a particular play or story, but somehow being the story itself…

It would be wrong to think that all his photos are close-ups of alienated individuals or couples. There’s more variety than that. At the busy end of the spectrum there’s a photo of a crowd gathering round a policeman in Central Park guarding the spot where a suicide has been discovered. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes he picked out just details, lost property, street detritus, close-ups of parts of people’s bodies, which manage to convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment.

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

California, 1964 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Heath’s photos capture that eerie moment in American history just before the 1960s exploded, just around the time JFK was assassinated and Civil Rights began to become an enormous, society-sundering issue and then, of course the growing opposition to the Vietnam War.

He had always been interested in exploring how individual photos could be tied together into sequences which created something larger than the sum of its parts. Heath once wrote that ‘the central issue of my work is sequence’ and thought that the rhythm of images arranged in collages or montages created a deeper and more complex psychological state than a single image.

A master printer – so good that other photographers asked him to make their prints for them – Heath also crafted handmade books and experimented with multimedia slide presentations. All this thinking and experimentation culminated in the book which is considered his masterpiece, A Dialogue with Solitude, published in 1965.

A Dialogue With Solitude

A Dialogue with Solitude was conceived in 1961 but not published till 1965. Heath chose 82 of his best or most characteristic photographs taken between 1952 and 1962 and grouped them into ten chapters dedicated to variations on the theme of solitude, being: violence, love, childhood, old age, poverty, war, race and death.

Each one is preceded by a short quote from a literary giant including: Matthew Arnold, James Baldwin, T.S. Eliot, William Hazlitt, Herman Hesse, Rilke, Yeats and so on. In other words, all the names you’d meet in a basic undergraduate course in comparative literature – or at least before the explosion of feminist and black and queer studies added a lot more women and marginalised writers to the canon.

The book is commemorated here by a wall-seized display which places scores of photos next to the bookish quotes, to create a sort of immersive visual and literary experience.

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitudes at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

Installation view of Dave Heath: Dialogues with Solitude at the Photographers Gallery, showing the wall-sized display of photos and texts from the book, Dialogue with Solitude. Photo by the author

In the opinion of the writer whose wall label accompanies this display, Francesco Zanot:

The primacy of montage and sequencing in Heath’s work is made obvious. The result has nothing to do with linear narration, but rather resembles a vast poem, rhapsodic and tormented. Heath merges together on the space of a page references as refined as they are distant from one another. The book, then, becomes the ideal medium by which to carry out a reflection both through and upon photography.

Thoughts

I liked the Korean War photos best. Soldiers in a war really have got something to be pissed off about. Guys lying on their bunks or sitting on a crate smoking a fag reminded me of all the crappy labouring jobs I’ve had, and how it feels when you get a break and five minutes to just sit staring into space, too tired to think about anything, too tired or too mind numblingly bored to say or do or think anything.

The photos of sad people in Philadelphia and Chicago and New York are undoubtedly atmospheric and poignant, beautifully composed and printed with a grainy effect that carries the viewer back back back to a historic era.

And yet… and yet…. I think I’ve seen too many photographs of unhappy Americans recently – the hundred or more photos by Diane Arbus currently at the Hayward Gallery, or the long career of Dorothea Lange devoted to documenting American misery and injustice, celebrated at the Barbican last summer, or the enormous brightly coloured images of alienation and being lost in the crowd created by Alex Prager.

Upstairs at the Photographers’ Gallery, right now, the works of Mark Ruwedel don’t feature any people but they, also, convey a tremendous sense of loss and abandonment via pictures of run-down shacks in the desert or the abandoned sites of military tests.

Abandonment, loneliness, isolation, solitude, unhappiness. These seem to be the default subjects of American art photographers.

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Washington Square, New York City, 1960 by Dave Heath © Dave Heath / Courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery, New York, and Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto

Independent movies

Off to one side of the main display rooms is a dark room where you can watch clips from cult independent films from the 1960s, contemporary with Heath’s works, which also focus on theme of solitude. These include:

1. Portrait of Jason by Shirley Clarke (1966), Jason being ‘a gay African-American hustler and aspiring cabaret performer’.

2. Salesman by Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Mitchell Zwerin (1968) a creepy depiction of slimy American salesman.

3. The Savage Eye by Ben Maddow, Sidney Meyers and Joseph Strick (1960)

Interview with Senior Curator, Karen McQuaid

Curators

  • Curated by Diane Dufour, Director of LE BAL.
  • Senior Curator for the Photographers’ Gallery, Karen McQuaid

Related links

Reviews of other photography exhibitions

Corita Kent: Power Up @ the House of Illustration

Corita Kent (1918-86) was a nun, who began making personal, rather Expressionist prints with religious subjects in the 1950s, and then swiftly evolved in the early 1960s into a pioneering political print- and poster-maker. In 1968, under pressure from the revolutionary times and enjoying greater artistic and commercial success, she asked to be released from her vows, left her order, and became a fully commercial artist, continuing to make prints as personal statements, but also for a wide range of commercial clients, up to her death.

The House of Illustration has brought together some 70 large, colourful Corita Kent prints to create the largest ever show in the UK of this ‘pop artist, social activist and nun’.

The exhibition is bright, uplifting, thought-provoking and, as usual, divided between the gallery’s three exhibition rooms and small video room.

Introduction room

In 1936, aged 18, Frances Kent entered the Catholic Order of the Immaculate Heart of Mary and took the name of Sister Mary Corita. In 1951 she was introduced to the technique of print-making by Maria Sodi de Ramos Martinez.

The first room displays a handful of Kent’s early works, which are dark and stormy, every inch of the surface covered with often dark browns and blacks, amid which you can see outlines of primitivist or Byzantine images of Christ the King. Dark and troubled, packed and claustrophobic, they’re redolent of the Abstract Expressionism which dominated the American art world of the time.

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

As A Cedar of Lebanon by Corita Kent (1953)

In their murkiness they reminded me a bit of the art of Graham Sutherland, the presence of the religious imagery reminding me of Sutherland’s work for Coventry cathedral.

Within a few years Kent had begun to experiment by including handwritten text into the designs. The need to make the text legible meant she had to declutter the images though they are still, in this first room, a little scary, apocalyptic, done in drab austerity colours.

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Christ and Mary by Corita Kent (1954)

Main room

This first room is sort of interesting but it doesn’t prepare you at all for the impact of walking into the next space, the gallery’s main room – which features a riot of colour, an orgy of huge colourful prints and posters, showcasing a wide range of fonts and lettering set against vibrant dynamic colour designs.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by the author

It’s difficult to believe it’s the same artist. Out have gone the minutely detailed, busy and cramped designs, and in have come big white spaces used to emphasise the use of primary colours to bring out simple texts and slogans laid out in a dazzling variety of formats and designs.

Some of the prints still use religious texts from the Bible, but these are accompanied by slogans from protest movements, song lyrics, modernist poetry and lots of subtle or overt references to the signage and billboard adverts of Kent’s native Los Angeles.

There’s a sequence of searing prints protesting against the war in Vietnam and unashamedly using images lifted from magazines and newspapers, hard-core images of soldiers and war of the kind the American public was watching on their TVs every night from the mid-60s onwards, alongside images and slogans protesting against black segregation, celebrating the Civil Rights Movement, bitterly lamenting the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on.

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Where have all the flowers gone? by Corita Kent (1969)

Everywhere you look are classic slogans from the long-haired, dope-smoking, flower power protests of the day. ‘Where have all the flowers gone?’ ‘Stop the bombing’. ‘Get with the action’. ‘Violence in Vietnam’. ‘Yellow submarine’. ‘Come Home, America’, and the slogan which gives the exhibition its title, the words POWER UP spread across four enormous prints. (Which, on closer reading, we discover was the slogan used by the Richfield Oil Corporation in their ads, and one of the many elements of signage in the cluttered visual landscape of her native Los Angeles).

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation shot of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

It is an astonishing transformation, from the personal and cramped and expressive, to the public and political, big, bright and open, in half a decade.

One of the videos playing in the video room shows ancient footage of young men and woman dancing in circles and painting their faces and carrying all manner of props and decorations and art works, to and from the numerous ‘happenings’ which blossomed all over America.

Earnest young women in mini skirts, men in Grateful Dead sideburns, dancing and painting themselves, intercut with the usual footage of napalm over Vietnam, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and so on. It’s the ever-popular 1960s, the decade we can’t leave alone.

The exhibition feels like the poster and print accompaniment of that era, flower power, hippies, protest songs, the stormy later 1960s.

The Fraser Muggeridge studio

A word on the design and layout of the exhibition which is beautifully done by Fraser Muggeridge studio. They have very successfully replicated the super-bright, Pop Art colour palette of the original works without in any way over-awing them, which is quite a feat. The result is that the main and final room themselves take part in the exhibition’s vibrancy and dynamism.

At the end of the main room is a set of 26 prints, Circus Alphabet, from 1968, each one of which combines one of the letters from the alphabet done big, set against a fascinating variety of layouts, some simple, other cluttered with text, in a wide range of fonts. Reminded me of the imagery surrounding Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the song Being For the Benefit of Mr Kite.

Apparently, Kent was inspired by the poet e.e. cummings who was devoted to the institution of the American circus (‘damn everything but the circus’, he is quoted as writing), and the prints combine political texts with material she found at the Ringling Museum of the Circus in Sarasota, with images from A Handbook of Early Advertising Art, compiled by Clarence P. Hornung.

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

Circus Alphabet by Corita Kent (1968) Photo by Paul Grover

What fun! What a tremendous eye for layout and design. What an consistent thirst for innovation and experiment.

End room

The smaller final room is painted a deep azure blue. This space showcases work Kent produced after she asked to be released from her vows and left the convent in 1968. At which point she moved to Boston and became a fully commercial artist. Apparently, her sister became her business manager.

Installation view of Corita Kent at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

Installation view of Corita Kent: Power Up at the House of Illustration. Photo by Paul Grover

The photo above captures pieces which demonstrate a new variety and style in her work.

At the bottom right you can see ‘our country is red spilled blood’ from 1970, a poster commissioned by the Vietnam Moratorium Committee to promote a three-day fast for peace and depicting a Vietnamese woman grieving over the body of her dead husband. (At the turn of the 60s, early 70s, a lot of the titles omit capital letters, another testament to the influence of the laureate of lower-case, e.e. cummings).

The wide, thin poster to the left of it uses the slogan, ‘Come home America’, the slogan used in the campaign of Democratic Presidential contender George McGovern during the 1972 presidential campaign.

Above it, the piece divided between blue on the left and orange on the right, is ‘the Ellsberg poster’ from 1972, containing a quote from US government analyst Daniel Ellsberg who decided to leak the Pentagon Papers to the press in 1971 (subject of the recent Stephen Spielberg movie, The Post). The quote reads: ‘Wouldn’t you go to jail if it would help end the war?’

The display case in this room shows a number of books Corita illustrated, including several by Catholic priests protesting against the war.

But it isn’t all political protest. The two works on the right hand wall in the photo above, are designs to accompany purely literary texts, by James Joyce (on the left) and Rainer Maria Rilke (the pink and orange one on the right).

You have a sense that Kent was exploring beyond the dayglo and sometimes rather baroque stylings of the 1960s (the Sergeant Pepper circus chic) into a more laid-back 1970s. I suppose low-key minimalism was coming in during this period to replace plastic Pop Art.

The work in this room all feels cooler. More understated. The Joyce and Rilke ones look like a cross between Mark Rothko and Matisse’s late paper cuts in their combination of bold colour with abstract patterning.

And I also realised that the texts in all the works in that photo are hand-written and in relatively small point sizes. You have to go right up to the Rilke piece to even realise there’s writing on it. This is a sharp contrast with the Circus works – which use an entertaining variety of ready-made, machine fonts in massive sizes – and with the other more political works: these had non-machine font, hand-cut-out texts and slogans, but they were enormous and simple. The works in this room feel more… intimate in scale and effect.

On the wall opposite is a montage of prints featuring quotes from classic authors, each one treated in interesting new ways, experimenting with fonts and layouts and colours and designs. These are ads commissioned by Group W Westinghouse Broadcasting, a TV station. Kent began working with them as early as 1962 and continued to produce magazine-page-sized ads until nearly the end of her career.

A wall of Corita Kent's work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

A wall of Corita Kent’s work for Westinghouse Broadcasting. Photo by the author

The texts are fairly trite – worthy and high-minded quotes from Shakespeare or Dr Johnson or Thoreau – the kind of unimpeachable uplift any corporation could use to mask its commercial operations in spiritual guff (‘The noblest motive is the public good’). Taken together, I found they called into question the whole point of pithy slogans. Somehow the way she could turn her vivid imagination to souping up Shakespeare in order to promote a TV channel undermined the seriousness of the ‘political’ work. I could almost hear a stoned hippy saying ‘All artists sell out, man’. She was 52 at the dawn of the 1970s. ‘Don’t trust anyone over 30, man.’

Content aside, what impresses is the way Kent produces such a wonderful variety of fonts, designs and layouts in which to set the text, and yet still manages to retain a visual unity and identifiable style. No wonder Westinghouse stuck with her for nearly 20 years.

IBM

The whole final wall is a blow-up of a magazine advert for computer manufacturer Digital. They commissioned Kent to create three suites of screen-printed decorative panels for Digital’s range of desks and computer cabinets. You see the blue and green wash panels at the end of the guy’s desk, on the side of the filing cabinet? That’s Kent’s design. This was in 1978, ten years after the heady year of the King assassination, the Democratic convention riots and all the rest of it. Her designs no longer hope to change the world but to beautify its everyday element. ‘Sold out to the man, baby.’

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Advert for Digital computers by Corita Kent

Videos

In one of the two videos running in a loop in the small projection room (a spot of googling shows that there are quite a few films about Kent and extended interviews and documentaries), Kent is quoted saying something very interesting about the interaction of text and design. She relates it right back to the work of medieval copyists and the unknown monks who produced the extravagant decorations of illuminated manuscripts (of the kind to be seen at the British Library’s brilliant Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition).

As she puts it, from those early textual illustrators right up to the times of her and her peers, there is some kind of joy and delight in the way colour and pattern brings out additional meanings latent in texts, and words crystallise and empower what would otherwise be abstract colours and designs.

For some reason, no doubt to do with the wiring of the human brain and the way we separately register colour and meaning, the power and variety of interplay between the two systems can often be extremely powerful and, as her work goes to prove, seems to be never-ending.

In my ignorance I’d never heard of Corita Kent. This is a wonderful – and wonderfully designed and laid out – introduction to the development and variety and life-affirming positivity of this scintillating artist.


Related links

Reviews of other House of Illustration exhibitions

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

This was Vonnegut’s sixth novel and his commercial and critical breakthrough, quickly becoming a classic of counter-culture literature, its anti-war message chiming perfectly with the widespread protests across America against the Vietnam War, and then given an extra boost when it was made into a hit movie in 1972.

Both the anti-war message and Vonnegut’s laid-back, sardonic attitude are captured in the book’s jokey author biography:

Kurt Vonnegut Jnr
A fourth-generation German-American
now living in easy circumstances
on Cape Cod
[and smoking too much],
who, as an American infantry scout
hors de combat,
as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany,
‘The Florence of the Elbe,’
a long time ago,
and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel
somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic
manner of tales
of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers
come from.
Peace.

That final ‘Peace’ says it all. You can almost smell the dope and patchouli oil.

Vonnegut was an American POW during the Second World War. He was taken to Dresden and set to work along with other POWs – among other things in a syrup factory – and so happened to be there during the notorious Allied bombing raid which flattened this beautiful and historic city on the night of 13 February 1945.

Vonnegut survived because he and other POWs had been billeted in a disused slaughterhouse. This happened to have no fewer than three levels underground of natural cold rooms where meat had been stored. Vonnegut, fellow POWs and their guards took refuge there on the night of the Allied raid and firestorm.

Vonnegut gives this experience and much else of his own life to the novel’s protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, but mixes it – bewilderingly but powerfully – with a science fiction story wherein Billy is captured by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. And with a third element – which is that during the war Billy came ‘unstuck in time’ and from then on, periodically through the rest of his life, Billy’s consciousness keeps moving between different key moments of his life – one moment a POW captured in the snow in 1944, the next making a speech to fellow Lion’s Club members in 1967, one moment a boy of 12 taken to the Grand Canyon by his parents, the next a middle-aged man at his daughter’s wedding, and so on, for a number of other cardinal scenes in his life.

The text therefore mostly consists of fragments, any lengthy description of a particular scene liable to switch, with no warning, to another.

The odd thing is that despite this staginess, this artifice – it works. In fact it works more effectively than any straightforward account of the facts could have.

Even despite the opening chapter (pp.9-22) which consists mainly of fragments describing Vonnegut’s repeated failure to write this book. In these introductory pages he describes his visits to fellow war veterans and how, after a few drinks, they found they had nothing to say to each other. He candidly admits that, as a middle-aged man, he has gotten into the habit of staying up to late with a bottle of scotch, getting drunk and then ringing up old friends and acquaintances from the past, sometimes maundering on to complete strangers.

In other words, he sounds fucked. But it’s the inclusion of the admission of his failure to make his traumatic memories cohere, and his openness about the obvious emotional toll they’ve taken on him, which make the narrative which follows, deeply fragmented though it is, all the more powerful.

Billy’s biography

Despite all the apparent tricksiness, it is not too difficult to piece together Billy’s biography, in fact Vonnegut summarises most of it right at the start of chapter two, which is where the narrative proper begins.

Listen:
Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. (p23)

Vonnegut likes short declarative sentences. And short paragraphs. He worked on newspapers for a while. Then as a press officer. Which taught him to keep it short. And snappy.

Bill Pilgrim was born in 1922 in Ilium, New York, the only son of a barber. He grew up to be tall and gangly, looking like a Coke bottle. He attended the Ilium school of optometry for one term before being drafted into the army. He was taken prisoner during the German advance of the Battle of the Bulge (December 1944-January 1945). There is an extended sequence describing his miserable march through the snow with two scouts and an aggressive bullying corporal named Roland Weary. The scouts eventually leave them and, a little later, they hear them being shot by a German patrol. So it goes.

He and hundreds of other American POWs were transported by overcrowded trains to a POW camp. The bully who gave him such a time on the march, Roland Weary, dies on the train. The base is really an extermination camp for Russian soldiers who were being starved to death. Within this camp was a small number of British officers who’d been captured at the start of the war and were living very well on Red Cross parcels. After various incidents here (such as witnessing the British stage a production of Cinderella). Billy starts laughing at this, the laugh becomes uncontrollable and turns into a shriek. They give him a shot of morphine. So it goes.

Then he is shipped to Dresden where he is billeted in a disused slaughterhouse and set to various labouring jobs, clearing rubble, and helping out in a syrup factory (where everyone steals as much syrup as they can eat).

One night 600 Allied bombers come and destroy Dresden, sparking a firestorm which incinerates everyone above ground. When Billy and the Germans emerge they discover the entire city reduced to smoking rubble littered with what seem planks of burning wood but are, in fact, smouldering corpses. So it goes.

Billy is liberated by the Russians, repatriated to Allied lines, and then back to the States. He re-enrols in the Ilium School of Optometry and becomes engaged to Valencia, the fat, ugly daughter of the founder of the school, who is addicted to eating candy bars and cries on their wedding night because she thought no-one would ever marry her.

In 1948 Billy suffers a mental breakdown and checks himself into a ward for nonviolent mental patients in a veterans’ hospital near Lake Placid, New York.

Here he meets a character mentioned in previous novels, namely Eliot Rosewater, who introduces him to the works of a prolific science fiction writer, Kilgore Trout (who will be one of the two main figures in Vonnegut’s next novel, Breakfast of Champions). Later on, in 1964, Billy bumps into Trout, as he tyrannises the pack of newspaper boys who he bullies into delivering papers, his only form of income since nobody will publish his numerous novels and, even if they do, Trout never sees any money from them. Rosewater has a big trunk of Trout’s sci-fi novels under his bed and during his stay in the hospital, Billy becomes a big fan.

Then he checks out and resumes his career as an optometrist. Marrying the boss’s fat daughter was a shrewd career move. His father-in-law gifts him a successful optometrist’s practice and Billy goes from strength to strength. He gets rich. He has two children, Barbara and Robert. Barbara marries an optometrist. Robert has a troubled school career (alcoholic at 16, desecrates graveyards) but turns his life round when he joins the Marines and goes to Vietnam.

In 1964 Billy meets Kilgore Trout and invites him to a party of optometrists. Trout chats up the most sensationally sexy woman in the room. When, in his excitement, he coughs on a canape, fragments of wet food land in her cleavage. Trout is that kind of character. Vonnegut is that kind of writer. Billy had planned to give his wife a big jewel as a wedding anniversary present, but is overcome with memories.

In 1967 Billy claims he was kidnapped by Tralfamodorians and taken to their planet in a flying saucer, where he was put in a zoo for the entertainment of Tralfamadorian crowds, and was soon joined by former movie star Montana Wildhack. Billy is laid back about the experience. He’s seen worse. He’s seen nearly the worst that human beings can do to each other. But Montana is hysterical for the first few weeks. Eventually they settle down together in their cage and mate, much to the cheers of the Tralfamadorian crowds.

In 1968 Billy is aboard a planeload of optometrists flying to a convention which crashes into Sugarloaf Mountain, Vermont. Billy is the only survivor. His wife, Valencia, in her worry, drives to the hospital but at one stage hits the central reservation, scraping the exhaust off the car. By the time she gets to the hospital where Billy is she is suffering from a fatal dose of carbon monoxide poisoning, and dies. So it goes.

After getting out of the hospital Billy goes to New York City where he gets airtime on a radio station telling everyone about how he was kidnapped by aliens from outer space and kept in a zoo. His grown-up daughter, Barbara, is furious and insists on coming to look after him (which feels a lot to Billy like nagging, hectoring bullying).

Billy is killed on 13 February 1976. Remember the soldier who died on the train, Roland Weary. Well another soldier, a really unpleasant psychopath named Paul Lazzarro, gives Weary his word of honour that he’ll take care of the dirty rotten fink who Weary blames for his death – the entirely innocent Billy.

And so it is that in 1976 that same Paul Lazzaro assassinates Billy using a laser gun with telescopic sights, while Billy is addressing a big rally about his flying saucer experiences. So it goes.

(It’s worth noting that, in a few throwaway sentences, Vonnegut tells us that by 1976 the USA has been divided into twenty smaller nations ‘so that it will never again be a threat to world peace’. Chicago has been hydrogen-bombed by angry Chinamen, p.96. This is not intended as any kind of prediction, it just continues the vein of pointless absurdity.)

POW

Central to the impact of the book is the powerful account of being taken prisoner, packed into cattle trucks so full people take it in turns to lie down, for days surrounded by the smells of poo and piss, and then arriving at the death camp more dead than alive. The surrealism of the brisk well-fed British officers among the starving Russians (kept in a separate area, behind barbed wire) and then onto the detailed, first hand account of a) labouring in Dresden in the build-up and then b) the night of the firestorm and then c) the aftermath.

These scenes, in their winter misery, reminded me of concentration camp memoirs I’ve read:

They also account in a roundabout way for the comment Vonnegut makes about the nature of his own book (he is prone to stop and comment on the text at random moments.)

There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters. (p.110)

This fictional worldview, or attitude towards fiction, is related to the way Vonnegut repeatedly refers to people as machines. All the inhabitants of Tralfamadore are machines and don’t understand why the inhabitants of planet Earth won’t just accept this simple truth.

Tralfamadore

From the start of his career Vonnegut played the textual/fictional joke of having characters from one novel reappear in others.

Thus the town Billy’s born in, Ilium, is the setting for the first part of the novel Cat’s Cradle as is its General Forge and Foundry Company.

In hospital Billy is put in a bed next to Professor Bertram Copeland Rumfoord of Harvard, official Historian of the United States Air Force. This is a coincidence because the main character and master of destiny in The Sirens of Titan is Winston Niles Rumfoord.

The biggest recurring topic is the planet named Tralfamadore (which appears in five of Vonnegut’s novels). Anyone who’s read The Sirens of Titan knows that, on one level, it is all about a denizen of Tralfamadore marooned on Titan after his spaceship breaks down, and that all of human history (in this version, anyway) has in fact been shaped entirely by his home planet sending messages to him.

In Slaughterhouse-Five we learn that Tramalfadorians are:

two feet high, and green, and shaped like plumber’s friends. Their suction cups were on the ground, and their shafts, which were extremely flexible, usually pointed to the sky. At the top of each shaft was a little hand with a green eye in its palm. The creatures were friendly, and they could see in four dimensions. They pitied Earthlings for being able to see only three. They had many wonderful things to teach Earthlings about time.

So far, so frivolous and silly. But the biggest thing Billy learns from the Tramalfadorians is that:

’The most important thing I learned on Tralfamadore was that when a person dies he only appears to die. He is still very much alive in the past, so it is very silly for people to cry at his funeral. All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist. The Tralfamadorians can look at all the different moments just that way we can look at a stretch of the Rocky Mountains, for instance. They can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.’

Various other aspects and quirks of Tralfamadorian life and thought are made up for our amusement (such as that the Tralfamadorians have five sexes, all of which are required for successful reproduction). But this is the key one. They explain a) how all moments of time exist simultaneously so b) that is why Billy can slip between them so easily and c) that’s why it doesn’t matter. Which brings us to ‘so it goes’.

So it goes

The book popularised Vonnegut’s catch-phrase, ‘so it goes’.

The author writes this every time he describes anyone dying, either in the war or by accident or of old age. It appears several times on each page, and 99 times in the whole (relatively short) book. Once upon a time it was cool but I eventually found it irritating and distracting.

But on the same page as he explains the Tralfamadorian way of thinking about, and seeing, time, he also explains the phrase’s origin:

‘When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in a bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “so it goes.”’

So this phrase ‘so it goes’ turns out to have more philosophical (or theological) than first appears. It indicates why the Tralfamadorians are relaxed about death – because it is only one stage in a person’s existence, and all the other stages of his or her existence continue unaffected by their death. And so it indicates how the author, too, has adopted this point of view.

That’s the nominal aim. But having read the first chapter in which Vonnegut describes the psychological problems he had writing this book – plus the scenes of Billy Pilgrim in the mental hospital – it’s difficult not to read the entire ‘so it goes’, throwaway kind of levity as in fact a form of psychological defence mechanism.

As he describes atrocities, random deaths, cruel accidents, suicides, immolations, plane crashes and the endless dumb pointlessness of the world, it’s hard not to see the ‘so it goes’ mentality as the coping mechanisms of a very unhappy man.

Folk wisdom

Vonnegut is addicted to sharing his wisdom with us. He is in the line of what Saul Bellow described as ‘reality instructors’, a line which goes back to Thoreau and beyond.

All Vonnegut’s novels are designed to persuade us that there is no meaning to life… and it doesn’t matter.

The same thing is said time and again. Thus a German guard punches an American POW, knocking him to the ground. The American asks: ‘Why me?’ The German guard replies: ‘Vy you? Vy anybody?’

Similarly, when the Tralfamadorians abduct him, Billy asks them: ‘Why me?’ to which they reply that they are all of them just embedded in this moment of time, like a prehistoric ant embalmed in amber.

‘There is no why?’ ‘Why?’ is the wrong question to be asking.

You can see why this Zen-like sidestepping of the anxious questions of Western philosophy appealed to the 60s generation, the spirit that made Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance such an instant best seller when it was published in 1974.

But pretty often it sounds no different from homespun folk wisdom, with no particular secret or mystique about it. Here’s Billy chatting with a Tramalfadorian:

‘But you do have a peaceful planet here.’
‘Today we do. On other days we have wars as horrible as any you’ve ever seen or read about. There isn’t anything we can do about them, so we simply don’t look at them. We ignore them. We spend eternity looking at pleasant moments – like today at the zoo. Isn’t this a nice moment?’
‘Yes.’
‘That’s one thing Earthlings might learn to do, if they tried hard enough: Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’

‘Ignore the awful times, and concentrate on the good ones.’ Not a dazzling revelation, is it? But then the thing about living wisely – as of eating a healthy diet – is everyone knows what they ought to be doing, it’s just that most people can’t or won’t or don’t do it.

Vivid writing

Notwithstanding that Vonnegut’s baseline style is the crisp brevity of newspaper journalism, he routinely comes up with great lines, descriptions and verbal effects.

There was a still life on Billy’s bedside table-two pills, an ashtray with three lipstick-stained cigarettes in it, one cigarette still burning, and a glass of water. The water was dead. So it goes. Air was trying to get out of that dead water. Bubbles were clinging to the walls of the glass, too weak to climb out.

This description is charged by the fact that Billy is himself lying in a hospital bed, too weak to get out.

Elsewhere Vonnegut nails aspects of his society and times with an accuracy made all the more lethal by the calm simplicity of his phrasing.

Like so many Americans, she was trying to construct a life that made sense from things she found in gift shops.

Set pieces

And like the other Vonnegut novels I’ve read, it is just crammed full of stuff. Characters, events, insights, jokes, wisdom, the author’s own hand-drawn illustrations.

While he is in the prison camp Billy meets an American traitor, Howard W. Campbell Jnr who is trying to raise an American Nazi regiment to fight the Russians on the Eastern Front. Obviously he’s a traitor Fascist, but he is not stupid and Billy reads the lengthy monograph Campbell has written which is a cunning blend of truths and falsehoods about the American character, and which allows Vonnegut to slip in some pretty bitter home truths:

America is the wealthiest nation on Earth, but its people are mainly poor, and poor Americans are urged to hate themselves… It is in fact a crime for an American to be poor, even though America is a nation of poor… Americans, like human beings everywhere, believe many things that are obviously untrue, the monograph went on. Their most destructive untruth is that it is very easy for any American to make money. They will not acknowledge how in fact hard money is to come by, and, therefore, those who have no money blame and blame and blame themselves. This inward blame has been a treasure for the rich and powerful, who have had to do less for their poor, publicly and privately, than any other ruling class since Napoleonic times.

In a different mode, there is an impressive writerly tour de force where Billy has a vision of the bombing of Dresden happening in reverse, with miraculous old buildings rising from a rubble-strewn wasteland, friendly planes flying over hoovering up all those nasty bombs, flying back to England in pretty poor shape but, luckily, fleets of fighter planes meet them and suck out all the bullets and flak so that they finally land back at their airfields in pristine condition, and everyone is happy!

Shell shocked prose

But the most consistent style or tone is shell-shocked numbness. The author tells things in sequence like a zombie. Zombie prose. Then this then this then this.

Billy survived, but he was a dazed wanderer far behind the new German lines. Three other wanderers, not quite so dazed, allowed Billy to tag along. Two of them were scouts, and one was an antitank gunner. They were without food or maps. Avoiding Germans they were delivering themselves into rural silences ever more profound. They ate snow.

Dazed wanderer prose. Sometimes, when applied to actual combat, to soldiers shooting each other or planes dropping bombs, you can see how describing things in this simpleton, child’s eye way, is designed to undermine the army press release, conventional ways of seeing atrocities. To force us to realise that ‘combat’ means one bunch of men trying to send bits of metal at high velocity through other men’s bodies.

But at other moments this numb, dumb, dazed, zombie prose seems to me to convey nothing more than shell shock. Mental disturbance. An inability to function which isn’t glamorous or counter-cultural, but masks deep pain and unhappiness.

As a part of a gun crew, [Weary] had helped to fire one shot in anger-from a 57-millimeter antitank gun. The gun made a ripping sound like the opening of a zipper on the fly of God Almighty. The gun lapped up snow and vegetation with a blowtorch feet long. The flame left a black arrow on the ground, showing the Germans exactly where the gun was hidden. The shot was a miss.

What had been missed was a Tiger tank. It swiveled its 88-millimeter snout around sniffingly, saw the arrow on the ground. It fired. It killed everybody on the gun crew but Weary. So it goes.

Telling what happened with no emotion, affect or intellectual intervention, no defences, no assimilation. The wound still red raw and gaping.

It comes as absolutely no surprise to learn that Vonnegut suffered from chronic depression, and within a few years of Slaughterhouse being published, a difficult break-up with his wife and his son’s mental collapse prompted him to start taking anti-depressants. In 1984 he tried to commit suicide. I think you can hear not only Vonnegut’s war-torn past, but also his troubled future, in the prose of Slaughterhouse-Five.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke* – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut (1959)

The following is a true story from the Nightmare Ages, falling roughly, give or take a few years, between the Second World War and the Third Great Depression. (p.7)

Kurt realises the world is crazy

Kurt Vonnegut Junior was born in Indianapolis in 1922. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1943 and was deployed to Europe where he was captured by Germans during the Battle of the Bulge (December 44-January 45). Interned in Dresden, he witnessed the notorious Allied bombing of the city on 13 February 1945, and survived by taking refuge in a meat locker of the slaughterhouse where he was imprisoned, three stories underground. His mother had committed suicide the year before. As the bombs dropped Vonnegut had an epiphany about the complete meaningless of everything. Dresden had no military industries, no strategic importance, and so had been completely undefended, and had no air raid shelters. The beautiful city was utterly destroyed. Vonnegut realised that the war was crazy, people were crazy, the world was crazy.

Repatriated to the States, Vonnegut worked in the press department of General Electric for six years or so, in his spare time writing short stories, some of which got published in the early 1950s, giving him enough confidence to quit his job and try and survive as a freelance writer.

In fact he struggled for well over a decade, his books getting merely polite reviews, if any, until his breakthrough novel, Slaughterhouse 5, shot him to fame in 1969, mainly because the way it recycled his experience of the bombing of Dresden via a trippy science fiction scenario perfectly suited the anti-Vietnam War spirit of the times refracted through hallucinogenic drugs. From that point onwards Vonnegut became a hero of the counter-culture and a reliable liberal voice, publishing a series of satirical novels and wry essays.

All Vonnegut’s novels are characterised by a devil-may-care attitude to their content and form. Plot isn’t really a major concern. There is no attempt at suspense and little or no logic. People behave childishly, including the narrator, who is prone to repeating simplistic phrases in order to create an impression of simple-mindedness and thus ridiculing the very notion of a wise, all-knowing author. They actively campaign against ‘maturity’ and conventional values. After all, he had seen at first hand where those got you.

If in doubt, aliens are brought in from somewhere, with no concern for scientific plausibility, and who generally turn out to be as childish and aimless as the humans. Vonnegut’s novels are more like anti-novels.

The Sirens of Titan

For the first third or so of The Sirens of Titan we are caught up in the life of Winston Niles Rumfoord. He is one of the richest men in America so he builds a private spaceship (at a cost of $58 million) and sets off with his dog Kazan to explore the solar system.

Unfortunately he encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, a phenomenon which bends and stretches out space-time so that Winston and his dog are turned into a stream of wave patterns which stretch from the sun to Betelgeuse.

Every 59 days the earth passes through the infundibula and Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (it is one of Vonnegut’s tactics to spell out everybody’s names in full, partly to satirise the characters, partly to satirise the very notion of names and ‘identity’, partly to make the narrator sound mentally deficient) reappears on earth, at his mansion in Cape Code, where he dictates instructions to his butler Moncrieff, and terrorises his super-rich, elaborately coiffed wife, Beatrice.

On one of his appearances Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites Mr Malachi Constant (31) of Hollywood, California, the richest man in America to visit and watch his apparate. A deal of satire is generated by the media furores which accompany Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s apparitions, with crowds outside his mansion jockeying for autographs, TV commentators babbling, and Christian tele-evangelists (the Love Crusaders) inflaming their viewers against such godliness.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord informs Mr Malachi Constant that in the future, he will marry his (Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife) and travel to Mars, Mercury, the earth and then Titan, in that order.

It’s tempting to call all this surreal, but the truly surreal is unexpected and jarring and Vonnegut rarely gives that kind of genuine shock. I think it’s closer to the nonsense verse of Edward Lear. It is simply not trying to make sense, because nothing makes sense, so why not this non-sense as any other?

Mr Malachi Constant returns to Hollywood where he holds a party which lasts for 58 days (and which, interestingly, involves the consumption of marijuana and peyote) and wakes up to discover he has drunkenly signed away all his oil wells to his fifty or more guests. More to the point, he is completely bankrupt following an economic crash.

He flies to the headquarters of his firm, Magnum Opus Inc, where his business manager, Ransom K. Fern (the more nonsensical the names, the better) tells him he is bust and quits. A passage takes us back to explain how Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s father made his fortune, namely as a broken-down failure he started investing the last of his savings in companies in companies who initials matched the consecutive pairs of letters found in the opening sentence of the Gideon Bible he found in his hotel room.

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth

Thus he looked for firms whose initials were I.N. and T.H. and E.B.etc. Miraculously / absurdly / nonsensically, this strategy pays off and every company Noel Constant invests in doubles his money, till he is the richest man in America. When he dies he leaves it all to his son, Malachi.

Need one point out that this is a satire on the silliness of big business, global finance, the stock market, and capitalism?

Mr Malachi Constant is pondering his next move when a couple who had been drinking in the tavern across the road – Mr George M. Helmholtz and Miss Roberta Wiley – enter the room and make him an offer. Would he like to go to Mars?

‘I am here to inform you that the planet Mars is not only populated, but populated by a large and efficient and military and industrial society. It has been recruited from Earth, with the recruits being transferred by flying saucer. We are now prepared to offer you a direct lieutenant-colonelcy in the Army of Mars.’ (p.65)

Foolishly, Mr Malachi Constant agrees to go.

The Army of Mars (p.69)

The book had been silly up to this point but now I think it becomes actively unpleasant. We cut to the fascist drilling of the Army of Mars, tens of thousands of humans who have been gulled into flying to Mars where their memories are removed through brain surgery and they have antenna implanted in their skulls. Any questioning or disobedient thought is punished by the instant administering of extreme pain in the brain.

Among the ranks of soldiers marching, parading, halting, presenting arms etc on Mars, is a retard known only as Unk. He has had to go the hospital seven times to remove all traces of his personality and character. Because of his physical description, we know this poor unfortunate is none other than Mr Malachi Constant.

Maybe there is some moral here about the super-rich high and mighty being brought low. But it is mainly sick sadism. Unk is ordered to strangle to death with his bare hands another soldier tied to a post in front of the whole army, he hesitates a moment and immediately feels searing pain in his head, so carries on. The murdered man, we learn, was his best friend on Mars, Stony Stevenson.

Unk and all the men in his regiment are controlled not by the officers, who are themselves pain-driven zombies, but by commanders scattered among the men. In Unk’s regiment this is Boaz, smooth-talking black guy who enjoys using the device hidden in his trousers, with which he controls the men, all the while posing as one of them.

I suppose this is all ‘satire’ on militarism and the army, but, as the saying goes, it isn’t that clever and it isn’t at all funny.

Unk learns he has a son, Chrono, begotten on Beatrice, the wife of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord, who had also been abducted by recruiters from Mars and happened to be on the same flying saucer. Fellow abductees taunted Malachi into raping her as she lay half-sedated and helpless in a flying saucer storeroom. Reading this does not make the reader at all well-disposed to this, by now, revolting story.

As the rest of his regiment marches to the flying saucers which they will use to attack the moon base (there is always a moon base) and then go on to invade Earth, Unk goes AWOL to try and find his wife and child. Bee has also had her memory deleted several times and is not interested when he tracks her down to a gym where she is teaching new recruits on Mars how to survive (you swallow oxygen pills, Combat Respiratory Rations, otherwise known as ‘goofballs’, which mean you don’t have to breathe through your mouth or nose.) Then he finds his son, Chrono, now 14 and playing some pointless version of baseball with the handful of other kids on Mars. When Unk claims to be his father, Chrono couldn’t care less.

It all gets worse because it turns out that the entire Army of Mars is the brainchild of none other than Winston Niles Rumfoord. As he dispatches the vast fleet of flying saucers off to invade Earth, Winston Niles Rumfoord appears to Unk and explains what has happened to him.

The Martian assault on Earth is a pitiful failure. In his fake simplistic way, Vonnegut gives that statistics:

Earth casualties: 461 killed, 223 wounded, none captured, 216 missing
Mars casualties: 149,315 killed, 446 wounded, 11 captured, 46,634 missing (p.118)

Again, you could take this as satire on the absurdity with which armies publish super-precise figures about conflicts which in reality involve the evisceration and obliteration of unknown numbers of people. Or you could, as I prefer to, see it more as deliberately nihilistic nonsense.

The point is that, as soon as it realises it is under attack, the superpowers of Earth simply obliterate the approaching flying saucers with batteries of nuclear rockets, send nuclear bombs to blow up all the moon bases, and even send nuclear missiles to Mars, which obliterate the only city on it, Phoebe, leaving it completely uninhabited.

If any of the Martian ‘army’ got through, they landed in such scattered bands, were so weak and badly trained, that they were often rounded up by old ladies with vintage shotguns.

Unk has been captured and reunited with Boaz. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord explains to them both that the purpose of all this cruelty and suffering was never to win the war, but to let Earth exterminate so many relatively helpless people (including, towards the end, flying saucers which had only old people and children in them) that they will be overcome with shame and remorse. National borders will die out. The lust for war will die. All envy, fear and hate will die and a new religion will arise (p.128). Well, that’s the plan.

On Mercury (p.131)

Meanwhile, he packs Boaz and Unk off in a flying saucer which, unbeknown to them, is not headed for Earth at all, but flies directly to Mercury, where it burrows deep into a subterranean complex of caves. All the way Boaz is fantasising about reaching Earth and what a swell time he’s going to have in those great nightclubs. It comes as a shock to emerge into a cave 130 miles below the surface of Mercury.

They discover that deep in the caves of Mercury live Harmoniums, flat pancake like creatures which look ‘like small and spineless kits’ (p.132), which cling to the walls and oscillate in time with Mercury’s very slow ‘song’ (a note sometimes last a thousand years). Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord torments them by secretly arranging the Harmoniums on the walls to spell out messages, the first one being:

IT’S ALL AN INTELLIGENCE TEST!

Boaz becomes friends with the Harmoniums. He plays music from the spaceship (although very softly and faintly, otherwise the Harmoniums explode with pleasure). Unk meanwhile, roams far and wide in the caves, fondly imagining that the vast crystal pillars they saw as they briefly flew into Mercury, are skyscrapers full of rich people (a garbled memory of his life in the skyscraper of Magnum Opus Inc.) One day Unk reads another message spelled in Harmoniums: Turn the spaceship upside down. Of course! We were told it flew so deep into Mercury’s caves because it was programmed to hide deep below the surface. Turning it upside down will reverse the process.

Boaz and Unk split the supplies from the ship and say goodbye. Absurdly, Boaz has found his perfect place, where he can bring simple pleasure to the Harmoniums without causing harm. He has also refrained from telling Unk (still retarded) that he, Unk, murdered his best friend, Stony Stevenson, back on Mars. Unk thinks Stony is still alive and fantasises about the day when they’ll be reunited.

Back on earth (p.152)

It’s a Tuesday morning in spring back on earth, to be precise in the graveyard of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts. This is the new religion Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord promised, the one which united all mankind in brotherhood and love after they had massacred the helpless Martian invaders.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has also prepared the way for the return of Unk for hanging up in the church of God the Utterly Indifferent in West Barnstaple, Cape Cod, Massachussetts is a lemon-coloured, zip-up plastic jumpsuit in Unk’s size.

Satire on equality

There follows a passage satirising liberals’ quest for equality, namely that in the new world after the failed Martian invasion, in order to be equal, anyone with any gifts or exceptions from a narrow definition of average subjects themselves to handicaps. Thus the Reverend C. Horner Redwine wears 48 pounds of lead shot arranged in various bags around his body to slow him down. A man with exceptional eyesight wears his wife’s glasses to half blind himself. Any woman suffering the cures of being beautiful wears frumpy clothes and bad make-up in order to equalise themselves.

There were literally billions of self-handicapped people on Earth. And what made them all so happy was that nobody took advantage of anybody any more. (p.158)

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine madly rings the church bells to tell the people that the Space Wanderer has arrived. They’ve been expecting the Space Wanderer for years. Crowds gather and follow the Space Wanderer as he is pressed into the skintight yellow plastic suit (with foot-high orange question marks on the side).

The Reverend C. Horner Redwine warns Unk that whatever he says he must not thank God, that is plain against the doctrines of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent. Instead he must repeat the words of the prophecy:

I WAS A VICTIM OF A SERIES OF ACCIDENTS, AS ARE WE ALL.

Unk recites the words, the crowd goes wild, then he is carried by fire engine to the home of Winston Niles Rumfoord, Cape Cod, Massachussetts, Earth, Solar System.

Here a huge crowd has gathered to witness another materialisation of Winston Niles Rumfoord. This is a great carnival, with huge crowds and fairground stalls. Running one of these stands is Beatrice Rumfoord and her son, Chrono. Their flying saucer from Mars crash landed in the Amazon where the local tribe worshipped them as emissaries of the suns and moon. Now here they are selling voodoo dolls of Mr Malachi Constant. Because a key element of the new religion of the church of God the Utterly Indifferent, is that its great hate figure is Mr Malachi Constant, a man who had everything but never achieved anything or used it for good.

Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord presides as master of ceremonies. He welcomes the Space Wanderer in his bright yellow suit, the crowd gasps, Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord invites the Space Wanderer’s wife and child, Bee and Chrono, up onto the stage to join them. Unk is overwhelmed by all this, but flabbergasted when Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord reveals that he, Unk, is none other than Mr Malachi Constant (the crowd oohs), that he raped Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s wife, Beatrice, on a flying saucer to Mars (the crowd aahs), and that he strangled to death his only friend, Stony Stevenson, on Mars (the crowd boos).

Now there’s only one thing for it. Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord (who has retired to the upper boughs of a nearby beech tree) tells Mr Malachi Constant that he must climb up the very long ladder top the only remaining Martian flying saucer, which is perched atop a 98-foot high tower – along with his wife and child (Bee and Chrono reluctantly climb after him) and fulfil his destiny by flying to Titan.

On Titan (p.186)

There are three seas on Titan named Winston, Niles and Rumfoord, and on an island on one of them Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has taken up permanent habitation in a palace built as a replica of the Taj Mahal (remember: the more nonsensical, the better).

This final section, like all the others, is full of preposterous nonsense facts. The flying saucer carrying Malachi, Bee and Chrono lands on a shore by the lake among the two million life-sized statues which have been made by Salo.

Salo is an inhabitant of the planet Tralfamadore and, like all Tralfamadoreans, he is a machine. He was sent on a top secret mission to the other side of the universe but crash landed on Titan in 203,117 BC. He sent a message back to Tralfamadore (which is 150,000 light years from Earth) asking for the spare part he needed for his spaceship. The Tralfamadoreans replied via Earth, using various structures as encrypted messages. Thus Stonehenge means, in Tralfamadorean: Replacement part being rushed with all possibly speed, and various other structures (the Great Wall of China, the Kremlin) are in fact messages to Salo. He has watched entire Terran civilisations rise whose sole purpose was, unknown to them, to construct buildings which sent a message to a robot stranded on a moon of Titan.

‘Everything that every Earthling has ever done has been warped by creatures on a planet one-hundred-and-fifty-thousand light years away. The name of the planet is Tramalfadore.’ (p.207)

That would appear to be the meaning of all Earth history.

We now learn that Salo gave Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord the idea for the Martian invasion of Earth, helped him copy the design of his flying saucer, recruited the first humans, had the idea of implanting pain-giving antennae in their minds, Salo shared with Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord half of his power source, none other than the Unstoppable Will To Believe, all in the aim of creating a new religion of peace and harmony and equality on Earth.

Cut to the unhappy family made up of Unk – now mostly restored to his memory of being Malachi Constant – Bee and Chrono, picnicking by a Titan sea. They arrive just in time to watch Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord finally expire and disappear. Right up to the end he had begged Salo to open the sealed message which he had been tasked with carrying to the other side of the universe. Only once Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord has died and disappeared, does Salo open the message pouch. the message he has come all this way – and all of Earth history turns out to be merely messages sent to him while he waited repairs to his spaceship – this important message is: Greetings!

Malachi and Bee live to be in their seventies. Chrono goes to live with the birds of Titan. When Bee passes quietly away, Malachi persuades Salo to take him in his space ship back to Earth, specifically to Indianapolis, Indiana, USA, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way. It is deepest winter. Here Malachi, freezing to death in the snow, has a last vision that he is being warmly greeted by the close friend he has sought all these years, Stony Stevenson.

P.S.

The Sirens of Titan are three nubile young women who Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord shows Malachi Constant a photo of, way back at the start of the novel. Only in the final section on Titan do we learn that they are merely three of the two million humanoid statues which Salo made in the hundreds of thousands of years he spent hanging round on Titan waiting for the spare part for his spaceship to arrive from Tramalfadore.

In fact all three ‘sirens’ turn out to be situated at the bottom of Mr Winston Niles Rumfoord’s swimming pool in his fake Taj Mahal and, once he is dead, the pool clogs up with algae and when Malachi tries to drain it, the three beautiful statues end up completely covered in smelly green gunk. So much for… well… something.


Related links

Kurt Vonnegut reviews

  • The Sirens of Titan (1959)
  • Cat’s Cradle (1963)
  • Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
  • Breakfast of Champions (1973)
  • Slapstick (1976)
  • Jailbird (1979)

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick In 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped andys
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick In 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after a catastrophe on the moon

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?

1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the enormous monolith on Japetus
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, a moon of the former Jupiter, but the thriller aspects are only pretexts for Clarke’s wonderful descriptions of landing on Halley’s Comet and the evolution of wild and unexpected new forms of life on Europa

Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger (1920)

A figure stripped to the waist, with ripped-open back, leaned against the parapet. Another, with a triangular flap hanging off the back of his skull, emitted short, high-pitched screams. This was the home of the great god Pain, and for the first time I looked through a devilish chink into the depths of his realm. (p.31)

Ernst Jünger (1895-1998) fought for the German army in the First World War. Wikipedia gives a good summary of his wartime career.

Most other memoirs and fictions about the war took years to surface, while the authors struggled to manage their traumatic memories and to find the words to describe the experience.

No such hesitation for Jünger, who converted the 16 diaries he’d kept during his three-year period of service into a narrative – titled In Stahlgewittern – which he had privately printed in 1920 in an edition of 2,000.

Ernst Jünger in 1919

Ernst Jünger in 1919 – looking miraculously untouched after three years of war and some 20 wounds

Over the course of his very long life (he lived to be 102 years old), Jünger not only wrote many more books and articles, but he rewrote In Stahlgewittern half a dozen times, each time moving further from the diary format, adding passages of philosophical reflection, and altering the emphasis.

For example, the 1924 edition is the most blood-thirsty and gives precise details of how he shot British soldiers. The 1934 edition, by contrast, is much more muted and removes those descriptions. Jünger was by now reaching an international audience i.e. British and French readers, with whom he needed to be more tactful.

It was only in 1930 that Storm of Steel was first translated into English and given this English title. During the 1930s it quickly became acknowledged as one of the classic accounts of trench fighting in the Great War.

Translating Jünger into English

English written by an English person tends to indicate the author’s social class, with traces of the kind of school they went to (private or state), sometimes their regional origins, and so on. It is full of all kinds of traces.

Translations into English, on the other hand, generally tell you more about the translator than about the original author.

Clunky phrasing

The translation I read is by Michael Hofmann, the poet, and was published in 2003. Although it won several prizes, I found it very easy to dislike.

Hofmann’s English prose doesn’t flow, in fact it regularly (two or three times per page) breaks down into unidiomatic and clunky phrasing. Again and again I found myself thinking ‘No native English speaker ever spoke or wrote like that – so why are you?’

‘They asked us how things were back in Hanover, and whether the war might not soon be over.’ (p.8)
How about … ‘and whether the war was going to end soon’

‘I was given a couple of hours to find an exhausted sleep in a bare chalk dugout.’ (p.9)
‘To find an exhausted sleep’??

‘If it’s all one to you, I’d just as soon hang on to it.’ (p.18)
No English speaker ever said ‘If it’s all one to you’. An English speaker would say ‘If it’s all the same to you…’

We had the satisfaction of having our opponent disappearing for good after a series of shots had struck the clay ramparts directly in front of his face. (p.65)
Why the -ing on the end of disappear?

‘Recouvrance was a remote village, nestling in pretty chalk hills, to where all the regiments in the division dispatched a few of their young men to receive a thorough schooling in military matters…” (p.16)
Why not just delete ‘to’? And replace ‘dispatched’ with ‘sent’?

Maybe the resolutely un-English nature of many of the sentences and the un-English atmosphere which hovers over the entire text is a deliberate strategy to convey the un-English nature of Jünger’s original German.

But I doubt it because many of the sentences in Hofmann’s introduction have the same broken-backed, wrong-word-order, clumsy clauses, not-quite-English feel about them.

As I read Hofmann’s translation I compared it with the first translation of Storm of Steel into English which was made by Basil Creighton back in 1930, and which I borrowed from my local library. Creighton’s translation of that last excerpt reads:

Recouvrance was a remote little village hidden among delightful chalk hills. A certain number of the more youthful of us were sent there from the division to receive a thorough military training…

Though not perfect, Creighton’s version has more of the rhythm of ordinary English prose, and is therefore much more readable, than the Hofmann.

Erratic vocabulary and register

Hofmann is an acclaimed poet – which maybe explains why in some places he shows a deliberately refractory choice of phrasing and word order – why he often flaunts odd words and phrases – in a way common in modern poetry but which stands out next to Creighton’s straightforwardly factual (if sometimes dated) prose.

This often leads Hofmann into what I thought was a curiously tin ear for register, by which I mean the way a writer chooses vocabulary and phrasing, manages the positioning of subordinate clauses and so on, in order to create a consistent style or voice.

To give a specific example, Hofmann seems to deliberately combine terms which are inappropriate or anachronistic in order to create a clash of registers. Take this sentence:

After this incident I betook myself to my dugout, but today too there was no chance of any restorative kip. (p.74)

‘Betook myself to’? When do you think that phrase was last used in everyday speech or writing? It sounds like Dr Johnson and the Augustans to me. Googling it you find that ‘betook myself’ is included in Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven, which was written in the mid-19th century in a deliberately archaic and Gothic style. In other words, the phrase was old in 1845.

On the other hand ‘kip’ is a slang term for sleep which reminds me of George Orwell’s use of it in Down and Out in Paris and London in the 1930s, where it has the feel of the rough, lower-class, Victorian vocabulary used by Orwell’s tramps.

Bringing them together in the one sentence – an extremely archaic 18th century idiom running into a 1930s slang term – creates, for me, a car crash of registers. And neither of them are what you’d call modern colloquial or formal English. They create a made-up register, an invented English.

Why? Maybe we are meant to accept it as the style of a famous poet playing with language. ‘He’s a poet; of course he’s going to give you a poetic translation!’

Which is all well and good in the privacy of his own writing where he can do as he pleases – but when he is translating a notable foreign author surely he should try to recreate a consistent register of English which is the nearest possible replication of the original author’s tone of voice. Isn’t that the goal of most translations?

(Incidentally, the insertion of ‘too’ in the ‘betook’ sentence is something no English speaker would do, but is instead a quite obvious direct translation of the German word auch and is placed where the German word comes in the sentence: aber heute auch – ‘but today also’. An English writer might say: ‘After this incident I went back to my dugout but once [or yet] again there was no chance of a restorative sleep.’)

To take another tiny, jarring detail, I was pulled up short when Hofmann has Jünger use the term ‘grunt’ (pp.133, 196) for infantryman. Now ‘grunt’ is a well-known word to anyone who’s read about the Vietnam War of the 1960s, where it became the universal term for the American infantry, expressing a combination of embattled fondness for the dumb front-line soldiers with contempt for the shitstorm their superiors had dumped them in. Looking it up, I find that ‘grunt’ was first recorded in this sense in print in 1969.

My point is that all this word’s associations are to Vietnam – to choppers, ‘gooks’, napalm at dawn and so on. Dropping it into your translation of Jünger describing the First World War is like dropping a couple of seconds of colour film into a black-and-white Charlie Chaplin movie. It is a deliberately jarring anachronism.

It seemed to me that at moments like this the translator is grandstanding, making more of an effort to display his modernist taste for unexpected juxtapositions of register, signalling what a poet he is – rather than concentrating on translating Jünger into clear, effective and tonally consistent prose.

Sometimes Hoffman has Jünger use low-class phrases like ‘argy-bargy’ (pp.155, 245) and ‘getting on our wicks’ (p.149) – phrases more evocative of Eastenders than an élite Germany infantry officer of 1917.

But at the other extreme of class diction, after our hero survives a violent foray into the British trenches, Hoffman has him overhearing a common soldier saying:

‘I must say, though, that Lieutenant Jünger is really something else: my word, the sight of him vaulting over those barricades!’

‘I must say… My word’! Does Hoffman really think that an ordinary squaddie – one of the common infantry he describes as ‘grunts’ – would actually talk like that? While he has posh, upper-class officers says things are ‘getting on our wicks’. It is a topsy-turvy use of registers.

Where and when is this English set? Is it with Edgar Allen Poe in 1845, with Orwell’s tramps’ during the depression, 1920s Jeeves and Wooster banter, or in 1967 Vietnam slang? This prose is all over the place.

German word order

I studied German at GCSE level. Not enough to be fluent but enough to have a feel for its grammar and very different word order from English. So I kept having the feeling that Hofmann, happy to play havoc with the register of his prose, also made a point of clinging to the original German word order.

Maybe, again, this is a deliberate strategy to convey the ‘otherness’ of the original German, but too often it simply has the result of obscuring Jünger’s actual meaning.

For example, Jünger first experiences a really heavy artillery barrage at les Éparges in 1915. He feels weirdly disconnected from the mayhem around him. Hofmann has:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Note the way he handles the subordinate clauses in these sentences. French and German users often put descriptions of something or someone or an action that the subject of the sentence has taken, into a subordinate clause right next to the subject or object. They write:

The ball, having been kicked by Daisy, rolled across the grass.

Francois, a man I had never liked, opened the door.

It often makes French and German prose, if translated literally, feel clotted or lumpy. Deciding what to do with these stumpy subordinate clauses is one of the chief problems facing anyone translating from those languages into English.

Because in flowing, idiomatic English, we prefer to give such clauses a main verb and subject of their own, sometimes inserting them into the main sentence, or – if that’s too tricky – just breaking a long clotted sentence up into two simpler ones. This makes them flow better, and it makes the prose more punchy and effective because, instead of a passive past participle, you have an active verb. So we write:

Daisy kicked the ball and it rolled across the grass.

Francois opened the door. I had never liked him.

Clearer, simpler, more active. Let’s look at that passage again:

This meant I was unafraid; feeling myself to be invisible, I couldn’t believe I was a target to anyone, much less that I might be hit. So, returned to my unit, I surveyed the territory in front of me with great indifference. (p.27)

Twice in this short passage Hofmann uses subordinate clauses, and these create a sense of passivity: ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ and ‘returned to my unit’ are both adjectival phrases describing the ‘I’ which immediately follows. They blunt the potential for active verbs. They weight the subject down like a ball and chain. They make the prose inactive and heavy.

Compare and contrast with Creighton’s translation of the same passage:

At the same time I had no fear. For I felt that I was not seen, and I could not believe that anyone aimed at me or that I should be hit. Indeed, when I rejoined my section I surveyed our front with complete calm. It was the courage of ignorance.

Not perfect prose either, I grant you, but note:

  1. Hofmann’s passive subordinate clauses have become phrases led by an active verb – ‘feeling myself to be invisible’ has become ‘I felt that I was not seen’, and ‘returned to my unit’ becomes ‘when I rejoined my section’. Feels brighter and more lively, doesn’t it? The point is that Hofmann tucks away a lot of information in clauses which – as the name suggests – are subordinate – passive, veiled and hidden. Creighton’s prose brings this information out into the daylight as active phrases which contribute to the flow of the prose and which the reader notices more.
  2. And this greater activity is really rammed home by Creighton’s final sentence which has the ta-dah! impact of the pithy couplet at the end of a Shakespeare sonnet. ‘It was the courage of ignorance’ is exactly the kind of didactic punchline the paragraph is crying out for, which brings the point out into the open and rams it home. (It’s easier to feel the impact of this last sentence if you’ve read the whole of the previous sequence of paragraphs: it neatly sums up an entire passage.)

The result of all this is that I didn’t really notice this passage at all when I read it in the Hofmann. It just drifted by, passive, subordinate and veiled. Whereas when I read the Creighton version, this passage really leaped out at me as the pithy and powerful conclusion of a man who had been through his first artillery barrage and now, looking back, realises how naive and foolish he was to have felt so confident.

It was only in the Creighton translation that I understood the point Jünger was making.

So: from very early on in my reading, I had the impression that Hofmann was more interested in tickling the tastebuds of modish readers who like poetic effects (jarring, modernist, poetic effects) than in finding a consistent register which would allow Jünger’s meaning and conclusions to come over as clearly, consistently and powerfully as possible.

To be even blunter – I felt that in reading the Hofmann, I not only had to put up with a steady flow of clunking un-English phraseology and word order, but that I was missing a lot of what Jünger wanted to say.

Hofmann’s clunks

At four o’clock already we were roused from our bed put together from bits of furniture, to be given our steel helmets. (p.93)
This is German word order, not English. French and German uses the equivalent of ‘already’ a lot more than we do in English. It’s a giveaway sign that the German is being translated word for word rather than into idiomatic English.

All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of coloured flares. (p.95)

When morning paled, the strange surroundings gradually revealed themselves to our disbelieving eyes. (p.97)
Show-off, poetic use of ‘pale’ as a verb.

In my unhealthy irritation, I couldn’t help but think that these vehicles followed no other purpose than to annoy us… (p.102)
I don’t think ‘to follow a purpose’ is an English idiom. We’d say ‘had no other purpose’, though it’s still clunky phrasing. How about: ‘I couldn’t help thinking the only point of these vehicles was to annoy us…’

The following morning, the battalion marched off into the direction of heavy firing… (p.131)
Doesn’t he mean either ‘in the direction of’ or, more simply, ‘towards’?

We ate heartily, and handed the bottle of ’98 proof’ around. Then we settled off to sleep… (p.166)
‘Settled off’? Obviously he means ‘settled down’. This is not English. Why wasn’t this book proof read by an English speaker?

Our first period in position passed pleasantly quietly. (p.142)

In the evening, the shelling waxed to a demented fury. (p.161)
‘Waxed’? I know that it can mean ‘grew’, but it hasn’t been used in this sense since Shakespeare.

German humour

Maybe they simply don’t survive Hofmann’s clumsy translation, but what appear to be  Jünger’s attempts at humour aren’t very funny. For example, I think the following is intended to include both a stylish reference to a German literary figure, and to be itself a humorous description of trying to get rid of lice.

Fairly unscathed myself thus far by that scourge, I helped my comrade Priepke, an exporter from Hamburg, wrap his woollen waistcoat – as populous as once the garment of the adventurous Simplicissimus – round a heavy boulder, and for mass extermination, dunk it in the river. Where, since we left Hérinnes very suddenly, it will have mouldered away quietly ever since. (p.20)

This is godawful English prose. What a mouthful of marbles! In Creighton’s version this becomes:

As I had been more or less free from this plague, I assisted a friend, Priepke, to deal with his woollen vest, which was as populous as the habit of Simplicius Simplicissimus of yore. So we wrapped it round a large stone and sank it in a stream. As our departure from Herne followed very suddenly upon this, it is likely that the garment enjoys a quiet resting-place there to this day.

Creighton’s version is not brilliant either, but at least he makes the sensible move of breaking up the long clotted main sentence into two smaller sentences. And the use of ‘so’ at the start of the second sentence gives a sense of logic and clarity to the description.

Still not that rib-tickling, though, is it?

In his introduction Hofmann devotes a couple of pages to explaining what an awful translator Creighton was, and how he made literally hundreds of elemental mistakes in his understanding of German. Maybe. But his version is much more readable than Hofmann’s. If Hofmann’s accusations against Creighton are true then, alas, it seems that the reader is stuck with two very flawed translations.

Worse, it appears that the Creighton contains content – passages of reflection and philosophising – which are simply not present in the Hofmann. Presumably this is because Creighton was translating from one of the more wordy and reflective versions of the book, and Hofmann has chosen to translate one of the leaner versions or to himself cut out the philosophising passages.

It is in these sections that Jünger gives his thoughts about the meaning of war and bravery. Creighton has quite a few of them; Hofmann has none. Maybe this makes the Hofmann version more pure and elemental but it does mean that the average English reader will never get to see and read Jünger’s thoughts about his central subject – men in war.

From all this I conclude that maybe what this important book deserves is some kind of scholarly variorum edition. An edition which:

  • clearly explains the textual history of the book
  • summarises the changes between all the different versions
  • decides which version to translate (and explains why)
  • renders it into clear, unfussy English

But which also features extensive footnotes or endnotes which include the important passages from all the other versions, so we can see how Jünger chopped and changed the text, and with notes explaining why he did this and how it reflected his evolving attitude towards the subject matter.

Jünger’s detached attitude

As to the actual content of the book, it is notorious for Jünger’s apparently cold, detached and heartless description of what he experiences.

There is absolutely no build-up in the way of the author’s birth, upbringing, family, education, feelings on the outbreak of war, agonising over which regiment to join and so on, none of the bonhomie and chat and certainly none of the humour which characterises, say, Robert Graves’s famous war book, Goodbye To All That.

Instead we are thrown straight into the action: the narrator just steps off a train in France, is told to line up with his squad, is marched to a village, has his first experience of shellfire, sees some men from a different unit get killed, and then he’s taken up the line and starts the trench soldier’s existence of sleeplessness, cold and discomfort.

It is a little as if an utterly detached intelligence from another planet has been embedded in a human body and proceeds to do everything it’s told, while all the time observing the strange human creatures and their customs.

I still viewed the machinery of conflict with the eyes of an inexperienced recruit – the expressions of bellicosity seemed as distant and peculiar to me as events on another planet. (p.27)

It’s only some way into the text that we even learn the year he’s describing, namely 1915. It is a bare bones approach. In the fifth chapter (‘Daily life in the trenches’) the text really returns to the ‘bones’ of his experience, as it reverts to its original format as a diary, each paragraph starting with a date and the events of that day. We follow a straightforward chronological sequence of dates which takes us through the summer and autumn 1915, through Christmas, and into the spring of 1916.

The names of lots of soldier comrades are given, but only in the briefest, most clinical way. Often they’re only mentioned on the date they die, in fact most of the diary entries are clipped descriptions of who died on what day, and how.

Jünger doesn’t seem to have any close friends. He certainly doesn’t have the witty conversations with them that Graves does, or hang out with a few close buddies like Frederick Manning does in his brilliant war memoir, The Middle Parts of Fortune.

Instead, Jünger observes with cool detachment everything that happens around him. After he’s wounded the first time – a shrapnel laceration across his thigh – Jünger is brought back to a clearing station, where the surgeon is overwhelmed with casualties.

At the sight of the surgeon, who stood checking the roster in the bloody chaos, I once again had the impression, hard to describe, of seeing a man surrounded by elemental terror and anguish, studying the functioning of his organisation with ant-like cold-bloodedness. (p.32)

As it happens, among his many other achievements, Jünger lived to become a famous entomologist i.e. an expert on insects, and went on to write books on the subject after the war. So it strikes me that his portrait of the surgeon, calm and detached among the slaughter, watching the people around him as if they were insects to be studied – is in fact Jünger’s self-portrait of himself.


Jünger’s vision of war

What it lacks in warmth, humour or human touch, the book more than makes up for with the thing that makes it so powerful, which helped it grow into a classic – which is Jünger’s hugely compelling descriptions of the brutal, the eerie, the strange, the heroic and the primordial nature of this utterly new kind of total war, and of the terrifying new race of men it seemed to be breeding.

Physical disgust

In the rising mist, I leaped out of the trench and found a shrunken French corpse. Flesh like mouldering fish gleamed greenishly through splits in the shredded uniform. Turning round, I took a step back in horror; next to me a figure was crouched by a tree. It still had gleaming French leather harness, and on its back was a fully packed haversack, topped by a round mess-tin. Empty eye-sockets and a few strands of hair on the bluish-black skull indicated that the man was not among the living. There was another sitting down, slumped forward towards his feet, as though he had just collapsed. All round were dozens more, rotted, dried, stiffened to mummies, frozen in an eerie dance of death. (p.25)

Not only are there corpses all around, but the book gives us hundreds of descriptions of men being shot, eviscerated, decapitated, buried alive, flayed by shrapnel, burned to death by fire, stifled by gas, and exploded.

There was another whistling high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine-gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for a moment tore open the extreme abysm of terror. (p.225)

The rate of deaths, the endless stream of deaths Jünger sees at first hand, right in front of him, never lets up, is staggering, stupefying. So many men, so many terrifying woundings, eviscerations, liquidations, smashings, manglings and screams of pain.

NCO Dujesiefken, my comrade at Regniéville, was standing in front of my foxhole, begging me to get into the trench as even a light shell bursting anywhere near would cause masses of earth to come down on top of me. An explosion cut him off: he sprawled to the ground, missing a leg. He was past help. (p.230)

Beside the ruined cottage lay a piece of trench that was being swept with machine-gun fire from beyond. I jumped into it, and found it untenanted. Immediately afterwards, I was joined by Oskar Kius and von Wedelstädt. An orderly of von Wedelstädt’s, the last man in, collapsed in mid-air, shot through one eye. (p.237)

One man beside me from the 76th, a huge Herculean dockworker from Hamburg, fired off one shot after another, with a wild look on his face, not even thinking of cover, until he collapsed in a bloody heap. With the sound of a plank crashing down, a bullet had drilled through his forehead. He crumpled into a corner of the trench, half upright, with his head pressed against the trench wall. His blood poured onto the floor of the trench, as if tipped out of a bucket. (p.248)

On his six visits to dressing stations in the rear and then on to hospitals to be treated, Jünger is in the company of men weeping and screaming from all sorts of pitiful wounds. At one hospital he is told they had received 30,000 casualties in the previous three weeks. Men die horrible deaths left, right and centre, all the time, unrelentingly. Death death death.

In the spring the ice and frost melt and the walls of the trenches thaw and dissolve, revealing the massed bodies and equipment of the men of 1914 and 1915, whose bodies had been built into the defences. The soldiers find themselves treading on the slimy gloop of the decomposing corpses from last year’s battles.

The scale of the killing is inconceivable.

Heightened alertness

Yet Jünger combines countless examples of disgusting physical injury and the ubiquity of slimy, popping, farting, rotting corpses, with an unquenchable lust for life and excitement. Nothing can stop his steely patriotism and lust for excitement.

Whenever possible he volunteers to go on night patrols into no man’s land, risking his life for often trivial rewards or none at all, generally ending up haring back to his own lines as rifle and machine gun fire starts up from the British or French opposite. But to be out there, sneaking silently in the presence of Death, is to be alive as nowhere else.

These moments of nocturnal prowling leave an indelible impression. Eyes and ears are tensed to the maximum, the rustling approach of strange feet in the tall grass is an unutterable menacing thing. Your breath comes in shallow burst; you have to force yourself to stifle any panting or wheezing. There is a little mechanical click as the safety-catch of your pistol is taken off; the sound cuts straight through your nerves. Your teeth are grinding on the fuse-pin of the hand-grenade. The encounter will be short and murderous. You tremble with two contradictory impulses: the heightened awareness of the huntsman, and the terror of the quarry. You are a world to yourself, saturated with the appalling aura of the savage landscape. ( p.71)

Battlefield stress

Sometimes it all seems like a dream or a nightmare, a waking nightmare from which there is no escape. On one occasion, caught out in no man’s land when his little squad bumps into some foraging Brits, the two groups fall to mad hand-to-hand fighting in which all their 20th century weapons fail, leaving only wordless, primitive struggle.

After one shot the magazine had clicked out of my pistol grip. I stood yelling in front of a Briton who in his horror was pressing his back into the barbed wire, and kept pulling the trigger. Nothing happened – it was like a dream of impotence. (p.88)

Later, Jünger is behind the lines in the village of Fresnoy when it comes under a pulverising artillery bombardment that blows houses to pieces and human beings into shreds of flesh.

I saw a basement flattened. All we could recover from the scorched space were the three bodies. Next to the entrance one man lay on his belly in a shredded uniform; his head was off, and the blood had flowed into a puddle. When an ambulanceman turned him over to check him for valuables, I saw as in a nightmare that his thumb was still hanging from the remains of his arm. (p.135)

It is a world of despairingly horrific sights and intense visions. A world in which everything is bright, overlit, too vivid, permanently visionary.

Like a vision in a dream, the sight, lit only by falling sparks, of a double line of kneeling figures at the instant in which they rose to advance, etched itself into my eye. (p.147)

A world in which even things which have just happened are so outside the range of normal human experience that they are impossible to process in any rational way.

I experienced quite a few adventures in the course of the war, but none was quite as eerie as this. It still makes me feel a cold sweat when I think of us wandering around among those unfamiliar trenches by the cold early light. It was like the dream of a labyrinth. (p.190)

Unsurprisingly, so many close encounters with death – not just close, but so irrational, so uncanny, so deep, arousing the cave man or the prehuman in their souls – had psychological repercussions.

It was only afterwards that I noticed that the experience had taken its toll on my nerves, when I was lying on my pallet in my dugout with my teeth chattering, and quite unable to sleep. Rather, I had the sensation of a sort of supreme awakeness – as if I had a little electric bell going off somewhere in my body. The following morning I could hardly walk. (p.88)

But like the men he so fulsomely praises, Jünger does get up, he commands, he leads, he doesn’t stop.

The emotions of war

The intensity of the war, the relentless bombardment, the lack of sleep, the continual toll of deaths from snipers or random mortar bombs, gives rise to new emotions and feelings – strange hilarities, clarities, hysterias – which he observes working within himself.

Here, and really only here, I was to observe that there is a quality of dread that feels as unfamiliar as a foreign country. In moments when I felt it, I experienced no fear as such but a kind of exalted, almost demoniacal lightness; often attended by fits of laughter I was unable to repress. (p.93)

And he repeatedly describes the madness of combat, the crazed exhiliration of the charge, bayonets fixed, down a confusing warren of corpse-strewn trenches, towards the top, and over into the face of the enemy.

On, on! In one violently bombarded defile, the sections backed up. Take cover! A horribly penetrating smell told us that this passage had already taken a good many lives. After running for our lives, we managed to reach a second defile which concealed the dugout of the front-line commanding officer, then we lost our way again, and in a painful crush of excited men, had to turn back once more. At the most five yards from Vogel and me, a middle-sized shell struck the bank behind us with a dull thump, and hurled mighty clods of earth over us, as we thought our last moment had come. Finally, our guide found the path again – a strangely constellated group of corpses serving as a landmark. One of the dead lay there as if crucified on the chalk slope. It was impossible to imagine a more appropriate landmark.

On, on! Men collapsed while running, we had to threaten them to use the last energy from their exhausted bodies. Wounded men went down left and right in craters – we disregarded their cries for help. We went on, eyes implacably on the man in front, through a knee-high trench formed from a thin chain of enormous craters, one dead man after another. At moments we felt our feet settling on soft, yielding corpses, whose form we couldn’t make out on account of the darkness. The wounded man collapsing on the path suffered the same fate: he too was trampled underfoot by the boots of those hurrying ever onwards. (pp.96-97)

Courage

And in this strange landscape, between the midnight hunting in no man’s land, the grinding lack of sleep of the nightly sentry routine, and the appallingly unrelenting artillery bombardments unleashed by the British, amid all this horror, Jünger’s comrades do not defect or resile. They stand to when ordered to. They muster by the revetments of the trenches causing Jünger to burn with pride.

It was in the course of these days that I learned to appreciate these men with whom I was to be together for two more years of the war. What was at stake here was a British initiative on such a small scale as barely to find mention in the histories of both armies, intended to commit us to a sector where the main attack was not to be. Nor did the men have much to do, only cover the very small amount of ground, from the entrance of the shelter to the sentry posts. But these few steps needed to be taken in the instant of a great crescendo of fire before an attack, the precise timing of which is a matter of gut instinct and feeling. The dark wave that so many times in those nights welled up to the traverses through fire, and without even an order being possible, remained with me in my heart as a personal yardstick for human trustworthiness. (p.85)

Something awesome is happening, and Jünger brilliantly conveys its tensed uniqueness.

These instants, in which the entire complement of men stood behind the traverses, tensed and ready, had something magical about them; they were like the last breathless second before a hugely important performance, as the music is turned off and the big lights go up. (p.77)

New men

For amid this inferno, a new race of men is being forged.

A runner from a Württemberg regiment reported to me to guide my new platoon to the famous town of Combles, where we were to be held in reserve for the time being. He was the first German soldier I saw in a steel helmet, and he straightaway struck me as the denizen of a new and far harsher world… Nothing was left in his voice but equanimity, apathy; fire had burned everything else out of it. It’s men like that that you need for fighting. (p.92)

Invulnerable, invincible men of steel, forged in the furnace of war.

As the storm raged around us, I walked up and down my sector. The men had fixed bayonets. They stood stony and motionless, rifle in hand, on the front edge of the dip, gazing into the field. Now and then, by the light of a flare, I saw steel helmet by steel helmet, blade by glinting blade, and I was overcome by a feeling of invulnerability. We might be crushed, but surely we could not be conquered. (p.99)

New men. Men of the future. The Overmen.

There was in these men a quality that both emphasised the savagery of war and transfigured it at the same time: an objective relish for danger, the chevalieresque urge to prevail in battle. Over four years, the fire smelted an ever-purer, ever-bolder warriorhood. (p.140)

Something primordial

Men being shaped anew in the storm of steel because these are conditions and circumstances unlike any ever experienced by any humans in all previous human history.

From nine till ten, the shelling acquired a demented fury. The earth shook, the sky seemed like a boiling cauldron. Hundreds of heavy batteries were crashing away at and around Combles, innumerable shells criss-crossed hissing and howling over our heads. All was swathed in thick smoke, which was in the ominous underlighting of flares. Because of racking pains in our heads and ears, communication was possible only by odd, shouted words. The ability to think logically and the feeling of gravity, both seemed to have been removed. We had the sensation of the ineluctable and the unconditionally necessary, as if we were facing an elemental force. (p.95)

The sheer unrelenting killing machine mincing its way through human flesh on an unprecedented scale awakes echoes of something infinitely primitive, primordial, echoes of pre-human conditions, the beginning or end of the world.

The whole scene – the mixture of the prisoners’ laments and our jubilation – had something primordial about it. This wasn’t war; it was ancient history. (p.150)

Conclusion

Storm of Steel follows Jünger’s diary in giving the German point of view of a number of Western front battles, in chronological order, from 1915 to 1918, including the Battle of the Somme and leading up to the German spring offensive of 1918, followed by the Allied counter-attack in the summer of 1918. At this point Jünger was wounded for the sixth time, and he was recuperating back in Germany when the war ended.

The text could be used as evidence of the camaraderie of the German forces, or of their officers’ awareness of their material inferiority to the Allies, or of their confidence in the superiority of the German fighting spirit.

The Creighton translation has an introduction by one R.H. Mottram, who himself fought in the war. In his opinion Storm of Steel is evidence of the obtuse refusal to face reality of the entire Germany military class. After the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in October 1914, it became clear that the war could only ever end with Allied victory – yet the German High Command stretched it out for four long, bitter years of psychological denial, resulting in ten million unnecessary deaths.

There are occasional moments when Jünger reveals a human side. Half way through the book there’s an unexpected passage in which Jünger discovers that his brother, who had also enlisted, is fighting in a unit right alongside his own. He immediately goes to find him, in the heat of a battle and, discovering him wounded in a farmhouse, arranges for him to be carried back to a field hospital in a piece of tarpaulin, probably saving his life.

So, all in all, Storm of Steel contains much material for historians or literary critics, psychologists or military analysts, to excerpt and analyse.

And there are countless details to shock and grab the casual reader’s attention, like the little girl lying in a pool of her own blood in a bombed-out village, or the soldier thrown into the exact pose of the crucifixion by a shell blast – the kind of details which feed into the modern liberal consensus that war is hell.

But in my opinion, all these elements are eclipsed by Jünger’s terrifying sense of a new world of war emerging, a world of unprecedented destruction and obliteration, in which a wholly new breed of heartless, battle-hardened warriors would arise to fight and flourish. Emerging from his visceral description of total war is a nightmare vision of the future, and an even more destructive conflagration to come.

As though waking from a deep dream, I saw German steel helmets approaching through the craters. They seemed to sprout from the fire-harrowed soil like some iron harvest. (p.235)


Related links

Other blog posts about the First World War

Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986)

Watchmen was initially published as a limited series of 12 comic books in 1986. It was subsequently packaged up into an omnibus paperback volume, which I bought for my son’s birthday a few years ago.

The pictures are by Dave Gibbons, but it is the complex, multi-layered narrative written by Alan Moore which critics instantly realised as something new and epoch-making in comic books. Watchmen won hosts of prizes and has come to be seen as a founding masterpiece of the (then new) genre of graphic novels, and one of the most influential comic stories ever written.

Its importance stems from:

  • the complexity of the narrative with its numerous intertextual elements
  • the cynical, jaded attitude shown by all the characters throughout
  • and the downbeat ending where the ‘goodies’ (if that’s what they are) do not defeat the baddie

The plot

1. Background

The story is set in a parallel universe in the 1980s. It is essentially the real world but with some key changes. (The story is, naturally enough, set in New York, home of most superhero narratives.)

In this alternative universe, back in the 1930s, various guys and women took up the new fad for caped law enforcers, with the result that there was a rash, an outburst, of masked vigilantes.

Some of them genuinely excelled at what they did –

  • Adrian Veidt who named himself ‘Ozymandias’, was the cleverest man in the world, who developed a corporate empire based on merchandising his own character
  • the ‘Night Owl’ was a technical genius who built gadgets and a flying ship to help him fight crime

Others were more run-of-the-mill, ordinary guys and gals, who liked dressing up and a good fight, examples being the self-named ‘Dollar Bill’, ‘the Mothman’, ‘Hooded Justice’ or ‘the Comedian’.

At the end of the decade these self-declared heroes came together to form a crime-busting association called the Minutemen in 1940. The narrative jumps back and forth between this founding meeting, and later meetings, up to and including a decisive one in the 1960s.

So many masked vigilantes came on the scene during these decades that the U.S. government eventually passed a law in 1977, the Keene Act, banning them. At that point – seven or eight years before our narrative begins – most of them hung up their masks and capes, and settled into comfortable, or less comfortable, middle-aged retirement.

2. The story

The ‘now’ of the narrative, is October 1985.

What triggers the story is the murder of one of the old vigilantes, the so-called ‘Comedian’. He is beaten up and thrown out of a window.

A member of the old gang team, Rorschach (so-named because mysterious constantly changing black and white patterns move across his mask), investigates the murder. We are privy to his thoughts which are written in exactly the tough guy style of Raymond Chandler, describing the city as a sewer and its inhabitants as vermin.

Rorschach starts at the scene of the crime, where the Comedian landed – splat – on the pavement. He goes on to visit Dan Dreiberg – once the so-called ‘Night Owl’ – as well as ‘Dr Manhattan’, to ask them what they knew about the Comedian in his retirement.

The narrative then leaves Rorschach to show us the backstory of the Night Owl, but especially of Dr Manhattan, arguably the most interesting character in the book.

Whereas most of the other Minutemen are just strong, athletic men and women with a fondness for dressing up in tight outfits and punching muggers, Dr. Manhattan is a genuinely genetically-altered superhero. Originally he was Dr Jonathan Osterman, a nuclear physicist who, in 1959, got trapped inside an ‘Intrinsic Field Subtractor’, was obliterated down to his constituent sub-atomic particles, before managing – nobody knows how – to reconstruct himself.

This rebuilt, molecularly perfect Osterman is now tall, statuesque, and a vibrating blue colour.

When he went along to meet the other Minutemen he took the moniker ‘Dr Manhattan’. He has a winningly Zen approach to life, the universe and everything, seeing that he can not only manipulate all metal substances, but can also foresees the future. Humans bore him.

The movie makes clearer what, for me, was rather obscure in the book, which is that it was with this apparently random incident – the creation of Dr Manhattan – that the alternative universe of the comic book diverges from history as we know it.

The divergences become quite drastic because, once he was fully reconstituted, Dr Manhattan put himself at the disposal of the U.S. government who immediately drafted him into their war machine and Cold War strategy.

He was sent to Vietnam, where he appears as an indestructible blue giant capable of destroying all the North Vietnamese weaponry (tanks and machine guns). Thus the North surrender within weeks, and Richard Nixon becomes a hero for winning the war. (In a throwaway line, typical of the density of the references and ideas in the text, we learn that the investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein were bumped off in a multi-storey car park and so never got to report the Watergate scandal, with the result that President Nixon – in this universe – was been elected for an unprecedented third term. In fact, Nixon is on his fifth term when the book is set.)

Dr Manhattan lives with the former ‘Silk Spectre II’, real name Laurie Juspeczyk, daughter of the original ‘Silk Spectre’ superheroine from the 1940s.

(In a digression which is typical both for its complex filling-in of the back story, and for its brutality, we are shown the scene where, after one of the 1940s meetings, the Comedian badly beats up and begins to rape the Silk Spectre before being interrupted by some of the other superheroes who then beat him up. This incident, disturbing in itself – and obviously quite a jarring ‘subversion’ of the superhero mythos – echoes and re-echoes, like so many other incidents, throughout the text).

But Laurie is getting fed up with Dr Manhattan’s lack of emotion (in a great scene she discovers that while he is ‘making love’ to her, his true self is carrying on conducting experiments in his laboratory – the love-maker is merely a clone: he can clone himself at will, in real time).

After a big row, Laurie leaves him and turns up on the doorstep of Dan Dreiberg, ‘Night Owl II’ who, she wanly confesses, is now more or less her only friend from ‘the old times’. After some chat, they have sex – as Laurie’s full-busted figure all along suggests she will – and then don the old costumes and go out in Night Owl’s impressive flying machine to fight crime.

Meanwhile, Dr Manhattan has been persuaded against his better judgement to do a TV interview – but instead of being praised for being a key element in America’s Cold War protective armoury, he is surprised by an investigative reporter who bombards him with accusations that everyone he’s worked with has got sick from radiation poisoning.

Dr Manhattan is hounded off the set and out of the studio doors by the audience and a baying crowd, crystallising his feeling that he’s had it with puny mortals and their silly concerns. In front of this live audience, Manhattan teleports himself to Mars. Here, in complete peace and quiet, he creates a palace from his thoughts alone.

This very public disappearance of America’s most important military asset badly affects the balance of power in the ongoing Cold War, and is a key moment in the plot – for the Russians decide to test the resolve of the West, now that their key weapon has so publicly and spectacularly resigned.

Multi-leveled text

The text is complex and multi-leveled. Here are some of the other elements:

1. Newsvendor We keep being taken back to a newsvendor on a street corner in New York, who reads out the day’s news headlines, news which is echoed on the TV sets which various characters watch or have on in the background of conversations.

The reappearance of the newsvendor in each of the twelve instalments is a device for showing how, over the 12 days of the narrative, the U.S.S.R. invades Afghanistan and then threatens to push on into Pakistan. They have been emboldened to do this by Dr Manhattan’s disappearance. Thus the papers and TV are full of speculation about whether the West will respond to Russian aggression thus sparking a nuclear war.

2. Countdown clock This sense of mounting tension is emphasised by the way that each of the twelve editions of the magazine opens with a big image of a clock whose hands start at twelve to midnight, and move forward one minute with each episode. As if counting down towards disaster…

3. The Black Freighter Throughout all the instalments, what you could call the Main Narrative is punctuated by an apparently unrelated story about a doomed pirate, set in the 18th century and written in 18th century prose. This is a story which appears in daily instalments in a newspaper which is being read by a black kid who buys it from the newsvendor who I mentioned above.

While the newsvendor chats with his adult customers about the impending war, the kid sits propped against a fire hydrant, his mind totally absorbed by the grim tale of a pirate set adrift in a doomed boat full of corpses, and his various ill-fated attempts to escape.

At regular intervals the pictures and text of this Gothic tale ‘take over’ the main narrative set in 1985; sometimes the monologue of the damned pirate jostle alongside dialogue of the ‘contemporary’ characters; sometimes the entire Watchmen strip disappears for a page or so, replaced by detailed drawings of the pirates’ adventures.

The pictures of the pirate narrative are done in a deliberately different style from the main illustrations, using a pastiche of the highly-visible dots you used to see in really old comic books. Not only does this so-called ‘Black Freighter’ narrative routinely invade the ‘main text’, but its words often cleverly counterpoint the thoughts or dialogue of the main characters. For example the ghoulish pirate survivor might be thinking about death on the high sea, while the newsvendor and his customers are worrying about the risk of thermonuclear war and mass death. It’s all dark stuff.

4. Scrapbook This ‘intertextuality’ is also exemplified in the way that each of the twelve instalments ends with four pages of prose which are kind of scrapbooks of texts relevant to the main narrative. For example, the first couple of instalments end with excerpts from the tell-all book supposedly written by one of the Minutemen, Hollis Mason, an account of the early days of the group which he titled Under the Hood. These lengthy prose extracts expand our understanding of various plotlines referred to in the comic book sections.

Later on, the prose sections become more varied, but always shed new light on aspects of the main story. For example, the end of chapter nine features several ‘texts’ relating to the original Silk Spectre I, Sally Jupiter, namely an interview with her in an old newspaper from 1939, correspondence with a film studio interested in making a movie of her life, a fan letter from a would-be crime fighter, and then a magazine interview with an older, alcoholic Sally Jupiter from 1976.

Critique of Watchmen’s multitextuality

Some readers and critics think these multiple levels give the book greater ‘depth’. I disagree. I think it makes it a lot more complex but complexity and depth are not the same thing.

When I was a kid in the 1970s there were any number of magazines about pop music or teen heart-throbs which used the same approach of coming up with imaginative and diverse visual ideas to vary their appearance and format. These could include letters from the stars, or their horoscopes, or recipes for their favourite meals, or their top fashion tips, or mocked-up pages from their diary, each in the appropriate visual style, using different page layouts, letter heads, maybe notes with mocked-up handwriting of the hearth-throb in question – and so on and so on.

This didn’t make magazines like Jackie any more profound – it just made them more visually imaginative and interesting. Now I really think about it, I remember any number of ‘annuals’ of my favourite TV shows such as Dr Who or Blue Peter, which came up with all kinds of visually inventive ways of presenting tit-bits of information about the stars of the show, or features about keeping a rabbit or the solar system or instructions on how to build your own dalek – and so on and so on.

It never struck me that the proliferation of visually novel ways of presenting all this turned my Dr Who annual into War and Peace. It was just par for the course; they were all like that.

Thus the inclusion of extraneous mocked-up texts onto the end of each instalment of Watchmen didn’t strike me as some radical new innovation, but as an editorial ploy I was used to ever since I started reading comics and annuals.

Thus the clutch of texts tacked onto the end of instalment 10 of Watchmen – in this case all relating to ‘Ozymandias’, the superhero alias of go-getting entrepreneur Adrian Veidt and which include a letter to a toy manufacturer about a new range of Ozymandias merchandise, and the Welcome letter to anyone who’s sent away for a pack of his Veidt Method of Physical Fitness and Self Improvement – these are fun, and they add to the visual and factual complexity a bit – but they don’t add any real depth to the book.

The crime trope

Watchmen mashes up tropes from numerous sources. One of the most obvious is pulp crime novels, the king of which was Raymond Chandler. There are plenty of Chandleresque pictures of Rorschach, in particular, walking down mean streets in the dark with his collar pulled up muttering murderous thoughts about the scum of the streets.

And the fundamental motor of the narrative is a whodunnit – ostensibly to find out who killed the Comedian, whether there really is a conspiracy to kill off the other retired old Minutemen, and why.

Clever and novel many elements of the book may be – such as the idea that superheroes can grow old and vulnerable and themselves be victims of a serial killer. And yet this whodunnit thread of the book is strangely uncompelling – and when the denouement is reached I found it more strange and inexplicable than a dazzling and satisfying revelation.

Maybe it was Moore’s aim to ‘subvert’ the thriller genre – or by mashing up elements from pulp crime thrillers with the superhero genre with quite a bit of pulp science fiction thrown in, to create something bold and new.

Whatever the motivation, this central thread of the plot just didn’t do it for me. I found it a) difficult to wade through the welter of distracting detail to even understand that it was a crime thriller and b) was so thrown by the spectacular side-plot about Dr Manhattan that I stopped caring about the whodunnit element and became intrigued solely by his actions.

As to the denouement, suffice to say that it turns out (as so often) to be one of the gang themselves who is knocking off their own members.

And he’s doing it because (like so many mad fanatics before him) he has become deluded into thinking that the only way to bring true peace to the world is by committing a really awesome atrocity (in this case, wiping out the population of New York – as usual), showing humanity what they are capable of – and thus shaming them into peace.

Sound likely to you?

And so the climax of the book turns out to be nothing to do with the mounting paranoia about a nuclear war between America and Russia which has been steadily promoted by the narrative, and reinforced by the ominous full-page picture of a clock ticking towards midnight! Turns out that that whole threat, much discussed by all the characters from the newsvendor and his customers to all the superheroes, was a red herring.

Instead, the climax of the story is the unleashing of a secret weapon which destroys half of New York (and, in the movie, just to universalise things a bit, also wrecks Los Angeles, Moscow and Hong Kong).

Conclusion

I didn’t feel engaged with any of the characters. I didn’t really believe in them, and I found it impossible to believe in the idea of ordinary men and women just putting on masks, adopting silly pseudonyms and then magically being able to ‘fight crime’.

Either the idea of masked crime fighters is risible or it isn’t – but it is a difficult balance to make it both sad and silly (as it seems to be in the opening pages depicting the Comedian as a raddled drunk and Rorschach as a maniac) and then in the next few pages ask us to believe that Night Owl and Silk Spectre actually can fly round the city in their cool flying machine, rescuing kids from burning buildings.

Once undermined in the early pages, I found the notion of crime-busting superheroes stayed undermined.

The only character I liked was Dr Manhattan because the purity of his conception and his indifference to the human trivia who surround him lifted him far above the crime-busting silliness of much of the rest of the plot. I immediately sympathised with his wish to get away from silly humans, and found that identifying with this essentially science-fiction character made me more or less indifferent to the Chandleresque whodunnit plot.

Within the world of comic books, Watchmen had a powerful impact because of its complexity: because it created new heroes while at the same time undermining the entire superhero ethos, because of its stylish mix of sci-fi, noir and superhero tropes, because of its downbeat vibe and its very downbeat ending – because this pessimistic mood caught the vibe of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s 1980s, because of the cleverness of adding in the intertextual elements of letters, quotes from fictional books, magazine articles, added extra complexity and resonance.

But from outside the world of comic books, it still looks as if Watchmen adopts almost all the familiar tropes of the superhero comic book, and subverts few if any of them. And even these ‘subversions’ I found a) difficult to actually understand b) had no impact on me.

Watchmen administered a seismic shock to the comic book genre which influenced a whole generation to write more ‘realistic’ and ‘gritty’ stories. To outsiders like me, it looks like a very clever play on existing tropes which doesn’t, ultimately, change any of them at all.

Art work

I couldn’t understand why the book is meant to mark a great departure in comic book style. The page is still made up of cartoons. All the ‘good’ guys are tall, muscular and handsome.

And all the women are long-legged, slender-waisted and big busted i.e. look like the same idealised, soft porn figures that have been half the point of comic books right back to their origins in the 1930s.

Although there are several women among the original Minutemen, we only really get to know one – Silk Spectre – and her role is to wear a tight outfit and be made love to first my Dr Manhattan then (several times) by the Night owl. But all the women seem to be variations on the same sex goddess trope. I was amused to discover that a number of manufacturers make a ‘Silk Spectre’ costume. Can you see why?

The movie

It took Hollywood  20 years to sort out the rights, the script and to settle on a visual strategy for turning such a complex and multi-layered comic strip text into a movie. The result is that rare thing, an attempt at a really faithful, accurate rendition of the original book.

Watchmen the movie uses all the characters and tells the exact same story, in the same order, as the source book. It even shoots scenes from the same angles shown in the comic strips. With the result that:

1. It is very long – two and a half hours long.

2. This is without the inclusion of the pirate story, the so-called Black Freighter plotline. This was originally going to be included as live-action footage interspersed among the main narrative, as happens in the book, but it turned out that it would have cost too much (some $20 million extra), so someone had the bright idea of making it as an animation. In the event even this animated version of the sub-plot was cut because it would have made the final version of the film well over three hours long. However, the Tale of the Black Freighter is available as a standalone DVD and has been reincorporated into the movie in a Directors’ Cut version.

3. More interestingly, director Zack Snyder’s choice to follow the comic book narrative so closely means that the movie does not follow the familiar three-act movie structure. Instead it follows closely the rather meandering, and sometimes distracted, narrative of the book. Many movie fans complained about this because it didn’t produce the usual feast of fights and fireworks every fifteen minutes – the amount of time a bored teenager can sit through ‘character’ stuff’ before he needs another fix of CGI and explosions.

But I liked the film for precisely that reason. Following ‘book logic’ and not movie screenplay rules, results in a very different feel to the movie. It feels much slower and often rather confusing. I liked that.

The movie was also criticised for the quality of the acting. If we were talking about the real world, I’d agree that the acting was wooden, as was the direction. But I found the Watchmen book itself oddly wooden, opaque, emotionless and flat, and so I thought the movie captured that quality really well.

Since I didn’t believe in any of the characters from the book, finding them all just cyphers drifting through a weird mash-up of science fiction, noir and comic book clichés without any discernible purpose or end, I thought the movie faithfully captured that odd sense of anomie – and that is rare and interesting in a Hollywood film.

Seen from this point of view, i.e. the hope that the film would not follow superhero movie convention, it was disappointing that so much did still fall into superhero cliché – namely the familiar stylised fights, for example where Night Owl and Silk Spectre II defeat a whole gang of muggers with superhuman speed and slow-motion violence; or where flying machines swoop around the New York skyline; or where Night Owl and Silk Spectre have sex in his flying machine, she wearing only her knee-length PVC boots, both of them revealed to have the air-brushed-to-perfection bodies of porn stars.

This didn’t feel like it was subverting very much.

In other words, the film of Watchmen successfully captures the complex storylines and odd mood of the book, and so both audiences and critics – who essentially want the same meal dished up with slight variations – didn’t like it.

The film didn’t make much return on investment with a box office of $185.3 million on a budget of $138 million. After twenty years, a prequel comic was published chronicling the adventures of the Comedian and Rorschach in the earlier days. There’s talk that the Watchmen characters will be adapted for an HBO TV series. Everything is swallowed by the machine. Nothing subverts anything. In time, everything is turned into product.


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People Power: Fighting for Peace @ Imperial War Museum London

O silly and unlucky are the brave,
Who tilt against the world’s enormous wrong.
Their serious little efforts will not save
Themselves or us. The enemy is strong.
O silly and unlucky are the brave. (W.H. Auden, 1937)

It’s the centenary of the Imperial War Museum, set up in the same year as the Battle of Passchendaele and the Russian Revolution. 100 years of terrifying conflict, warfare, worldwide destruction and incomprehensible hecatombs of violent death. To mark the hundred years since its founding IWM London is mounting an exhibition chronicling the history of protest against war and its mad destruction.

People Power: Fighting for Peace presents a panorama of British protest across the past decades, bringing together about three hundred items – paintings, works of literature, posters, banners, badges and music – along with film and TV news footage, and audio clips from contemporaries, to review the growth and evolution of protest against war.

The exhibition very much focuses on the common people, with lots of diaries, letters and photos from ordinary men and women who protested against war or refused to go to war, alongside some, deliberately limited, examples from better-known writers and artists.

The show is in four sections:

First World War and 1920s

Having finished reading most of Kipling recently, I have a sense of how tremendously popular the Boer War (1899 to 1902) was in Britain. If there was an outburst of creativity it was in the name of raising money for the soldiers and their families, and commemorating ‘victories’ like Mafeking on mugs and tea towels. I am still struck by the vast success of Kipling’s charity poem, the Absent-Minded Beggar (1899).

12 years later the Great War prompted the same outpourings of patriotic fervour in the first year or so. But then the lack of progress and the appalling levels of casualties began to take their toll. From the first there had been pacifists and conscientious objectors, Fabian socialists like H.G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, or the Bloomsbury Circle with its attendant vegetarians, naturists and exponents of free love (as documented in the current exhibition of art by Vanessa Bell at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, and hilariously satirised by John Buchan in his gung-ho adventure story, Mr Standfast). 

The exhibition features personal items and letters revealing the harrowing experiences of Conscientious Objectors who faced non-combatant service, forced labour, imprisonment and hostility from wider society. (Conscription of all unmarried men between 18 and 41 was only brought in in March 1916 when the supply of volunteers dried up.)

In fact the first half of the show very much focuses on the ordeals and changing treatment of Conscientious Objectors, because both the First and Second Wars featured conscription, forcing some men to make very difficult choices. In the Great War there were 16,000 COs; in the Second War 60,000.

The show brings out the principled stand of Quakers, religious non-conformists with absolute pacifist principles, who had been persecuted ever since their foundation in the turmoil of the Civil Wars. The Quakers set up the Friends Ambulance Unit, and there is a display case showing photos, letters from the founders and so on.

One of the Great War artists, CRW Nevinson, served with the unit from October 1914 to January 1915 and two of his oil paintings are here. Neither is as good as the full flood of his Futurist style as exemplified in La Mitrailleuse (1915) – like many of the violent modernists his aggression was tempered and softened by the reality of slaughter. His later war paintings are spirited works of propaganda, but not so thrilling as works of art:

The exhibition displays here, and throughout, the special tone that women anti-war protestors brought to their activities. Many suffragettes became ardent supporters of the war and there is on display the kind of hand-written abuse and a white feather which women handed out to able-bodied men in the street who weren’t in uniform. There is fascinating footage of a rally of Edwardian women demanding to be able to work – and of course tens of thousands ended up working in munitions factories and in countless other capacities.

The millions of voiceless common soldiers were joined by growing numbers of disillusioned soldiers and especially their officers, who had the contacts and connections to make their views known. Siegfried Sassoon is probably the most famous example of a serving officer who declared his disgust at the monstrous loss of life, the mismanagement of the war, and revulsion at the fortunes being made in the arms industry by profiteers.

There’s a copy of the letter of protest Sassoon wrote to his commanding officer in 1917 and which ended up being read out in the House of Commons, a photo of him hobnobbing with grand Lady Garsington and a manuscript of one of the no-nonsense poems Sassoon published while the war was still massacring the youth of Europe (in Counter-Attack 1918):

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

Fascinatingly, the hand-written text here has Sassoon’s original, much blunter, angrier version.

‘Good-morning, good-morning!’ the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of ’em dead,
And we’re cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
‘He’s a cheery old card,’ grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he murdered them both by his plan of attack.

The recent exhibition of Paul Nash at Tate Britain explored how the blasphemous ruination of the natural landscape by ceaseless bombardment affected this sensitive painter. This exhibition shows some of the Nash works that IWM owns. Nash went on to have a nervous breakdown in the early 1920s.

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

Wire (1918) by Paul Nash © IWM

1930s and Second World War

Throughout what W.H. Auden famously called the ‘low dishonest decade’ of the 1930s the memory of the Great War made pacifism and anti-war views much more widespread and intellectually and socially acceptable. Even the most jingoistic of soldiers remembered the horror of the trenches. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had been directly involved in the Great War government and this experience was part of his motivation in going the extra mile to try and appease Hitler at the infamous Munich Agreement of 1938.

All sorts of organisations organised and lobbied against the looming menace of war. In 1935 the Peace Pledge Union was founded. The exhibition shows black and white film footage of self-consciously working class, Labour and communist marches against war. Nevinson is represented by a (very poor) pacifist painting – The Unending Cult of Human Sacrifice (1934). There is the fascinating titbit that Winnie the Pooh novelist A.A. Milne published a 1934 pacifist pamphlet titled Peace With Honour. But like many others he later changed his mind, a change recorded in letters here: the rise of fascist Germany was just too evil to be wished away.

The exhibition includes diaries, letters and photography which shed light on the personal struggles faced by these anti-war campaigners – but nothing any of these high-minded spirits did prevented the worst cataclysm in human history breaking out. The thread of conscientious objectors is picked up again – there were some 62,000 COs in the second war, compared to 16,000 in the first, and letters, diaries, photographs of individuals and CO Tribunals give a thorough sense of the process involved, the forms of alternative work available, as well as punishments for ‘absolutists’ – those who refused to work on anything even remotely connected with the war.

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

A march of 2,000 anti-conscription protesters in London, 1939 © IWM

The single most inspiring story in the exhibition, for me, was that of John Bridge, a convinced pacifist and physics teacher, who nonetheless volunteered to train as a bomb disposal expert. He has a display case to himself which shows photos, letters and so on, and gives a detailed account of his war time service in a succession of conflict zones, along with the actual fuses of several of the bombs he defused, and the rack of medals he won for outstanding bravery. In serving his country but in such a clear-cut non-aggressive, life-saving role, I was shaken by both his integrity and tremendous bravery.

Cold War

The largest section of the exhibition explores the 45-year stand-off between the two superpowers which emerged from the rubble of the Second World War – the USA and the USSR – which was quickly dubbed ‘the Cold War’. Having recently read John Lewis Gaddis’s History of the Cold War, I tend to think of the period diving into three parts:

1. The early years recorded in black-and-white TV footage characterised by both sides testing their atom and then hydrogen bombs, and leading to the near apocalypse of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. The exhibition commemorates the many mass marches from the centre of London to the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire about thirty miles away. Interestingly, it includes some of the early designs for a logo for the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (founded in 1958). These various drafts were made by artist and designer Gerald Holtom, before he settled on the logo familiar to all of us now. This, it turns out, is a combination of the semaphore signals for the letters ‘N’ and ‘D’.

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

© Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) Badges courtesy of Ernest Rodker

Although Holtom is also quoted as saying it draws something from the spread arms of the peasant about to be executed in the Spanish painter Goya’s masterpiece, The Third of May 1808.

2. The Cuban crisis shook the leadership of both nuclear powers and led to a range of failsafe arrangements, not least the connection of a hotline between the US President and the Russian Premier. I always wondered what happened to the whole Aldermaston March culture with its earnest young men and women in black-and-white footage carrying banners against the bomb. The exhibition explains that a 1963 Test Ban treaty between the superpowers took a lot of the threat out of nuclear weapons. It also coincides (in my mind anyway) with Bob Dylan abandoning folk music and going electric in 1965. Suddenly everything seems to be in colour and about the Vietnam War.

This was because the Cold War, doused in Europe, morphed into a host of proxy wars fought in Third World countries, the most notable being the Vietnam War (additionally complicated by the fact that communist China was the main superpower opponent).

The same year Dylan went electric, and TV news is all suddenly in colour, the U.S. massively increased its military presence in Vietnam and began ‘Operation Thunder’, the strategy of bombing North Vietnam. Both these led in just a few years to the explosion of the ‘counter-culture’ and there’s a section here which includes a mass of ephemera from 1960s pop culture – flyers, badges, t-shirts etc emblazoned with the CND symbol amid hundreds of other slogans and logos, and references to the concerts for peace and tunes by the likes of Joan Baez and John Lennon.

Reviled though he usually is, it was actually Republican President Nixon who was elected on a promise to bring the Vietnam War to an end. Nixon also instituted the policy of détente, basically seeking ways for the superpowers to work together, find common interests and avoid conflicts. This policy was taken up by his successor Gerald Ford and continued by the Democrat Jimmy Carter, and led to a series of treaties designed to reduce the number of nuclear weapons on both sides and ease tensions.

3. Détente was running out of steam when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December 1979 and a year later the tough-talking Republican President Ronald Reagan was elected US President. Reagan’s more confrontational anti-communist line was accompanied by the development of a new generation of long-range missiles. When the British government of Mrs Thatcher agreed to the deployment of these cruise missiles at RAF Greenham in Berkshire, it inaugurated a new generation of direct protest which grew into a cultural phenomenon – a permanent camp of entirely female protesters who undertook a range of anti-nuke protests amid wide publicity.

The Greenham camp began in September 1981 after a Welsh group, Women for Life on Earth, arrived to protest the arrival of the cruise missiles, and continued for an impressive 19 years until it was disbanded in 2000.

The exhibition includes lots of memorabilia from the camp including a recreation of part of the perimeter fence of the base – and provides ribbons for us to tie onto the metal wire, like the Greenham women did, but with our own modern-day messages. And this impressive banner made by Thalia Campbell, one of the original 36 women to protest at Greenham Common.

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Banner by Thalia Campbell © Thalia Campbell courtesy of The Peace Museum

Peter Kennard is very much the visual artist of this era, with his angry, vivid, innovative photo-montages. I remembered the IWM exhibition devoted entirely to his shocking striking powerful black-and-white posters and pamphlets.

Modern Era

When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 (and Ronald Reagan and Mrs Thatcher left power, 1989 and 1990 respectively), many pundits and commentators promised that the world would benefit from a huge ‘peace dividend’. Frances Fukuyama published his influential essay The End of History – which just go to show how stupid clever people can be.

In fact, the fall of communism was followed in short order by the first Gulf War (1990-91), the Balkan Wars (1991-5), civil war in Somalia, the war in Afghanistan (2001-2014), the war in Iraq (2003-2011), and then the Arab Spring, which has led to ongoing civil wars in Syria and Libya. In all of these conflicts Western forces played a role.

Obviously the 9/11 attacks on New York ushered in a new era in which radical Islam has emerged as the self-declared enemy of the West. It is an age which feels somehow more hopeless and depressed than before. The Aldermaston marchers, the peaceniks of the 1960s, the Greenham grannies (as they were nicknamed) clung to an optimistic and apparently viable vision of a peaceful world.

9/11 and then the ruinous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with the financial crash of 2008 and the never-ending conflict in the Middle East, along with the permanent sense of threat from Islamic terrorism, somehow make this an era without realistic alternatives. Financial institutions rule the world and are above the law. Appalling terrorist acts can happen anywhere, at any moment.

Protest has had more channels than ever before to vent itself, with the advent of the internet in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s and yet, somehow… never has the will of the bienpensant, liberal, cosmopolitan part of the population seemed so powerless. A sense that the tide is somehow against the high-minded idealism of the educated bourgeoisie was crystalised by the Brexit vote of June 2016 and then the (unbelievable) election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

This final section of the exhibition includes a world of artefacts from this last 28 years or so – the era of Post-Communism.

In terms of anti-war protest it overwhelmingly showcases the numerous protests which have taken place against Western interference in and invasions of Arab countries. It includes a big display case on Brian Haw’s protest camp in Parliament Square (2001-2011).

There’s a wall of the original ‘blood splat’ artwork and posters created by David Gentleman for the Stop the War Coalition, including his ‘No More Lies’ and ‘Bliar’ designs, as well as his original designs for the largest protest in British history, when up to 2 million people protested in London on 15 February 2003 against the Iraq War.

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

Photo-Op by kennardphillipps (2005) © kennardphillipps

The exhibition also features a kind of continual aural soundscape in that there are well-amplified sounds of chants and protests from the different eras and installations washing & overlapping over each other, as you progress through it. In addition, there are also headphone posts where you can slip headphones on and listen to a selection of voices from the respective era (1930s, 1950s, 1980s).

Effectiveness

Did it work? Any of it? Did Sassoon’s poems stop the Great War a day earlier? Did all the political activism of the 1930s prevent the Second World War? Did the Greenham Women force the cruise missiles to be removed? Did anything anyone painted, carried, did or said, stop Bush and Blair from invading Iraq?

On the face of it – No.

This uncomfortable question is addressed in the final room (more accurately an alcove or bay) where a large TV screen shows a series of interviews with current luminaries of protest such as Mark Rylance (actor), Kate Hudson (General Secretary of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), Vanessa Redgrave (actor), Lindsey German (convenor of the Stop the War Coalition), David Gentleman (artist associated with Stop the War).

From these fascinating interviews there emerge, I think, three points:

1. To the Big Question the answer is No – All the marches, banners, posters and activism never prevented or stopped a single war.

2. But, on the plus side, very large protests can influence the culture. There is now probably a widespread feeling across most of British society that British troops must not be sent to invade another foreign country, certainly not another Middle Eastern country, ever again. This helped decide the vote in August 2013 in which MPs voted against David Cameron’s proposal to allow RAF planes to join other NATO allies in attacking ISIS forces inside Syria. But was this due to any of the protests, or simply due to the long drawn-out mismanagement of the war which so obviously led to bloody chaos in Iraq, and the loss of lots of British troops and – for what?

And the protests didn’t create a culture of total pacifism, far from it – In December 2015, MPs voted in favour of allowing RAF Typhoons to join in attacks on ISIS in Syria i.e. for Britain to be involved in military operations in the Middle East. Again.

So none of the interviewees can give any concrete evidence of any government decisions or military activity being at all influenced by any mass protest of the past 100 years.

3. Community

But instead, they all testified to the psychological and sociological benefits of protest – of the act of joining others, sometimes a lot of others, and coming together in a virtuous cause.

For Mark Rylance joining protests helped him lance ‘toxic’ feelings of impotent anger. One of the other interviewees mentioned that marching and protesting is a kind of therapy. It makes you feel part of a wider community, a big family. It helps you not to feel alone and powerless. Lindsey German said it was exciting, empowering and liberating to transform London for one day, when the largest protest in British history took place on 15 February 2003 against the prospect of the invasion of Iraq.

This made me reflect on the huge numbers of women who took part in the marches against Donald Trump in January 2017, not just in Washington DC but across the USA and in other countries too. Obviously, they didn’t remove him from power. But:

  • they made their views felt, they let legislators know there is sizeable active opposition to his policies
  • many if not most will have experienced that sense of community and togetherness which the interviewees mention, personally rewarding and healing
  • and they will have made contacts, exchanged ideas and maybe returned to their communities empowered to organise at a grass-roots level, to resist and counter the policies they oppose

Vietnam

The one war in the past century which you can argue was ended by protests in a Western country was the Vietnam War. By 1968 the U.S. government – and President Lyndon Johnson in particular – realised he couldn’t continue the war in face of the nationwide scale of the protests against it. In March 1968 Johnson announced he wouldn’t be standing for re-election and declared a winding-down of U.S. troop involvement, a policy followed through by his successor, Nixon.

But:

a) Handing over the people of South Vietnam to a generation of tyranny under the North Vietnamese communist party was hardly a noble and uplifting thing to do.

b) In the longer term, the debacle of the Vietnam War showed American and NATO leaders how all future conflicts needed to be handled for domestic consumption i.e very carefully. Wars in future:

  • would need to be quick and focused, employing overwhelming force, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ tactic
  • the number of troops required should never get anywhere near requiring the introduction of conscription or the draft, with the concomitant widespread opposition
  • the media must be kept under tight control

This latter is certainly a take-home message from the three books by war photographer Don McCullin, which I’ve read recently. During the Vietnam War he and the hundreds of other reporters and photographers could hitch lifts on helicopters more or less at will, go anywhere, interview everyone, capture the chaos, confusion, demoralisation and butchery of war with complete freedom. Many generals think the unlimited reporting of the media lost them the war in Vietnam (as opposed to the more obvious conclusion that the North Vietnamese won it).

The result was that after Vietnam, Western war ministries clamped down on media coverage of their wars. In McCullin’s case this meant that he was actively prevented from going to the Falklands War (April to June 1982), something which has caused him great personal regret but which typifies, on a wider level, the way that that War was reported in a very controlled way, so that there’s been an enduring deficit in records about it.

From the First Gulf War (1990-91) onwards, war ministries in all NATO countries have insisted on ’embedding’ journalists with specific units where they have to stay and can be controlled.

Like the twentieth century itself, this exhibition is sprawling, wide-ranging, and perplexing – sparking all sorts of ideas, feelings and emotions which are difficult to reconcile and assimilate, since its central questions – Is war ever morally justified? If so, why and when and how should it be fought? – remain as difficult to answer as they were a hundred years ago – as they always have been.

The video


Related links

Reviews of other exhibitions at the Imperial war Museum

Dispatches by Michael Herr (1977)

‘… the madness, the bitterness, the horror and doom of it…’ (p.87)

Types of history

There’s a vast and ever-growing factual historiography of the Vietnam War, which for the past twenty years has been able to take advantage of the post-communist opening up of archives in Moscow, Beijing and Hanoi to present a fully-rounded history of the Indochina conflict, setting it in the long perspective stretching back to the Great War and forwards past the collapse of Russian communism in 1990.

These accounts are now able to analyse the course of events from the perspective of the Viet Cong, North Vietnamese and Chinese, and can bring the same detachment historians have been used to applying to the Great War or the Crimean War.

But then, and quite separately, there is the mythology of the American War in Vietnam – a whole cultural complex, a mood, a movement, like a fashion, whose most enduring features at this distance in time are the classic movies it produced – Apocalypse NowThe Deer Hunter and so on – and the powerful pop music of the late 1960s – from the Beach Boys to Jimi Hendrix – which provided a soundtrack to the conflict.

All of this has been mixed and mashed with contemporary TV news footage and documentary clips of jungle mayhem, urban bombings, the last helicopters leaving the U.S. embassy in Saigon, cut and edited into sequences readily available on the History Channel or YouTube. A ‘myth’ as instantly recognisable as montages of flappers and jazz recall the Roaring Twenties or bomb blasts illuminating the night-time sky over Baghdad recall the Iraq War.

New journalism

Michael Herr’s Dispatches is one of the classic accounts of the Vietnam war but from a very particular, unconventional, mythopoeic perspective. The late 1960s saw the birth of ‘the New Journalism’, epitomised by the wacky reportage of Tom Wolfe and later taken to the limit in the ‘Gonzo Journalism’ of Hunter S. Thompson.

In this new approach the ‘reporter’ identified powerfully with the counterculture of the day, especially its openness to drugs and pop music. Their ‘pieces’ abandoned traditional journalistic attempts at objectivity in order to present personal, subjective accounts and to freely deploy literary devices like stream-of-consciousness, different points of view, florid imagery and so on. And the ‘reporter’ more often than not became the hero, the dazed centre of the report, struggling to make sense of the crazy world around him.

Herr was in at the start of this movement and a 1965 piece by him about Vietnam is included in the 1973 book-length anthology, The New Journalism, edited by Tom Wolfe, which gave the ‘movement’ its name.

Dispatches’ prose and attitude is very much of its time, it’s the kind of knackered paperback you found lying around your elder brother’s room along with Zen and the Art the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) and Jonathan Livingstone Seagull (1970) among the butts of old joints and Leonard Cohen LPs. It is the high-tide of the new journalism approach to reporting Vietnam, it is a landmark, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece.

Dispatches

So Dispatches isn’t a work of history but neither is it conventional journalism. It consists of six titled sections (themselves made up of shorter numbered section), some of which appeared in magazines like Esquire and Rolling Stone, which are copyrighted 1968, 1969, 1970, and which report on events the author witnessed from 1967 through 1968.

1. Breathing In (pp.11-61)

The first section opens in late 1967. The tone is hip, knowing, cool. Herr’s prose is always wearing shades and three days of stubble. His gift for phrase-making and capturing the mixed-up street slang-cum-war jargon of the Army in Vietnam to try to convey the mind-bending experiences offered in so many ways by the war, is frequently breath-taking.

In the months after I got back the hundreds of helicopters I’d flown in began to draw together until they’d formed a collective meta-chopper, and in my mind it was the sexiest thing going; saver-destroyer, provider-waster, right hand-left hand, nimble, fluent, canny and human; hot steel, grease, jungle-saturated canvas webbing, sweat cooling and warming up again, cassette rock and roll in one ear and door-gun fire in the other, fuel, heat, vitality and death, death itself, hardly an intruder. (p.16)

Long looping sentences clotted with nouns, he also turns and twists the language to give familiar phrases new meanings in new contexts. He has a fantastic gift for vivid phrase making.

It was the same with your ongoing attempts at getting used to the jungle or the blow-you-out climate or the saturated strangeness of the place which didn’t lessen with exposure so often as it fattened and darkened in accumulating alienation. (p.19)

1960s slang and Nam slang, street slang, American slang, drug slang, black slang, war slang all meet on top of a sustained attempt to define indefinable sensations, pin down evanescent ideas, track down fleeting emotions:

At least actual contact when it was happening would draw long raggedy strands of energy out of you, it was juicy, fast and refining, and travelling towards it was hollow, dry, cold and steady, it never let you alone. (p.20)

This first section is the most trippy and poetic, pushing you in the deep end of deranged military activities and manic thoughts, offering up a smorgasbord of anecdotes, insights and reflections punctuated by manic moments under gunfire, contributing to the overwrought, druggy vibe.

2. Hell Sucks (pp.62-73)

Just one of the blasphemous mottos all the Marines were allowed to paint on their helmets – Born to Kill, Far from Fearless, Mickey’s Monkey, Avenger V, Born to Raise Hell (p.65).

Once Herr has established his recklessly anecdotal, prose poetic, wigged-out style in the first section, this second one is a relatively short burst describing the intense days Herr spent in the city of Hue during the Battle which raged around the Viet Cong-held Citadel in January 1968 – many mangled bodies, death-eyed G.I.s (uniformly referred to as ‘grunts’) telling him their Zen stories, hiding behind the huge Citadel wall from NVA snipers and everywhere terrified and injured civilians.

(Compare and contrast Don McCullins’ account of his eleven days in the same place and time, in his gripping autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour.)

3. Khe Sanh (pp.74-133)

The longest section, this gives an impressionistic account of the time Herr spent inside the American camp at Khe Sanh up near the Demilitarised Zone, during part of the epic siege which took place between 21 January and 9 July 1968. There’s more factual information here than in any of the other sections, explaining where Khe Sanh was, the layout of the camp and surrounding hills, information about the U.S. military units and the suspected North Vietnamese Army units which were surrounding and bombarding it, reporting on the progress of the ‘battle’ i.e. the enormous tonnage of bombs the U.S. Air Force dropped on the Viet Cong, as well as sections giving the ‘official’ version of U.S. strategy and events, including an interview with a half-deaf and totally out-of-touch colonel back at HQ.

But much more than that, this section gives a sense of how it felt to be there, numb with terror or awed by the beauty of incoming rounds or outgoing tracer fire, laced with insights about the bitter rivalry between the Marine corps and the Air Cavalry, the anxiety every correspondent felt about the next chopper that can take you out of harm’s way.

It also has the most extended portrait of specific U.S. soldiers – an odd couple comprising skinny blonde Mayhew and huge black ‘Day Tripper’, describing their arguments and confusion and unspoken solidarity.

This section contains a great one-page account of a VC sniper secure in a bunker a few hundred yards from the camp, who survives so much shooting and bombing and even napalming of his position that the Marines end up cheering him and nicknaming him ‘Luke the Gook’.

It has the one-page story of mean Southern redneck Orrin who gets a letter from his girl back in Tennessee telling him she’s pregnant with another man’s baby and describing Orrin’s hard-core vow to survive the war and get home in order to kill her. And, so ubiquitous is superstition among combat troops, that from that moment on, Orrin’s vow made him ‘lucky’, so that other soldiers sought out his presence, as if his vendetta would preserve him.

There’s the story of the voodoo black grunt who uses an M-79 grenade-launcher to ‘take out’ a wounded VC who’s lying out in the perimeter barbed wire screaming, without even looking, from the sound alone, to everyone’s awe. A scene lifted entire and used in Apocalypse Now, presumably by Herr himself who worked on the script for that epic film. (He also co-wrote the screenplay of Stanley Kubrick’s Nam movie, Full Metal Jacket.)

Eventually, after the six month siege ended with the VC melting away from Khe Sanh, the U.S. Army secured its perimeters, cleared up and after a few months completely abandoned the entire camp, removing all assets then blowing up the bunkers. Herr doesn’t invent the air of crazed futility about the whole enterprise, it is there in the actual facts, in the historical record, in the universal sense of pointlessness and absurdity.

Postscript: China Beach (pp.134-136)

Short description of China Beach facing the Bay of Danang where lucky troops get to go for a few days rest and recuperation (R&R). Its main point is that a few weeks later Herr bumps into some soldiers from the division he was with at Khe Sanh, and asks after the skinny joker, Mayhew, who we’d got to know in the previous section – only to learn he’d been killed, a direct hit from a  VC rocket-propelled grenade.

4. Illumination Rounds

These are short snippets, satoris, epiphanies.

  • The time he was riding in a Chinook which was under VC fire and the trooper next to him was hit and bled to death.
  • The bad reputation of the overpaid civilian construction engineers drinking and whoring in Saigon.
  • After a massacre of VC the U.S. captain had twenty or so VC corpses loaded into helicopters and then dropped on the centre of nearby villages to make a not-so-subtle point.
  • A pen portrait of Davis, a grunt shacked up down a back alley in Saigon with a local hooker, getting stoned with the boys and his unhappiness at the trap he’s caught himself in.
  • Meetings with the officer who claimed to have invented the phrase ‘Dink’ for VC, shortened from Rinky-Dink, because he didn’t like the common nickname ‘Charlie’.
  • How he first heard Jimi Hendrix on a tape deck switched on by a black grunt while they were all pinned down by VC fire in a paddy field. Jimi Hendrix – Fire (May 1967)
  • The Army surgeon in the provincial hospital at Can Tho a few days into the January 1968 Tet Offensive, who had been operating on wounded men for twenty hours without a break and ‘could not have looked worse if he’d lain all night in a trough of blood’ (p.150).

And so on…

5. Colleagues (pp.152-199)

This, the most thought-provoking section, begins as an account of the community of photographers and correspondents in Vietnam, which he estimates topped 700. His closest buddies were the photographers Tim Page, Sean Flynn, Rick Merron and Dana Stone (the ‘lapsed logger from Vermont’). They each get pen portraits, descriptions of their looks and attitudes and abilities, but the star of the show is Flynn, son of Hollywood actor Errol Flynn, who worked hard to live down his parentage but earned his chops as a fearless photographer.

This could have got a bit pally about his heroic mates, but Herr takes it deeper, with a number of anecdotes examining the odd relationship between the correspondents and the grunts. For example, the soldiers can’t believe the journos are there by choice.

And Herr moves on to ponder just what it was that drove him and the others to volunteer, to be there at all, to chopper out to wherever the ‘action’ was. To test themselves? To see if they measure up as men? And for the rush, the unparalleled adrenaline rush which comes from being under fire, running, shit-scared – which at the same time is the most exciting thing in the world and the most gut-churningly, pant-wettingly terrifying thing in the world – but which they become addicted to. Thus they come to understand not only the sick-to-death despair of the grunts who just wanna go home, but also the inexplicable compulsion of the soldiers who extend their tours, sign on for more. And also the terrible alienation of those who finish their time, ‘rotate back to the World’ – but discover they just don’t fit in any more; nothing makes sense or is so intense or meaningful as what they’ve just been through; who miss their comrades; who have to come back.

And then this section goes deeper still to consider the strengths and failures of media reporting on the entire war and Herr emerges from the stoner prose to make some really strong, sober points.

  1. His generation, he says, were saturated with TV and films – they experienced the war even on the ground in terms of movie scenarios, expecting people to get up after the firefight, adopting poses they’d seen in the movies – all of which prevented them, for a while, from realising this was ‘real’.
  2. The official version of events given out by the Army at their daily press conferences (nicknamed by the press corps the ‘Five O’Clock Follies’) was ludicrously detached from events on the ground, which correspondents had often witnessed for themselves that same day (‘most of what the Mission wanted to say to the American public was a psychotic vaudeville’, p.173). But the correspondents still had to report it, the official view. And since they all reported the same Official Version then – compared to the scattered, disorganised, highly personal nature of each of their alternative views – the Official Version tended to dominate the media and create the strongest impression on the Great American Public, simply by nature of its repetition and its consistency.
  3. Also militating towards the Official Version was the fact that most photographers and journalists worked for daily newspapers or TV stations and so were always in a tearing hurry to file a ‘story’, some – any – pics and words to send back to their agency or paper or channel, and the Official Version was always the easiest, the readiest-to-hand. This was another factor in its predominance, even though almost all the correspondents in the country knew it was horse shit.
  4. And another element of its dominance was the sheer amount of information the officials gave out, using a bewildering and evergrowing set of metrics, data and statistics – ‘kill ratios’, ‘tonnage of bombs dropped’, ‘enemy casualties’, ‘territory seized’, ‘light losses’, ‘moderate losses’, ‘heavy losses’ – to lie, lie and lie again, to hide the bitter truth that they were losing and ‘the Mission’ was failing. These blizzards of stats were easily printed and broadcast, they filled space and sounded impressive – they reassured the public that everything was under control.

Only slowly did Herr realise what a privileged position he was in because he was not a correspondent – he was a writer sent with an open-ended brief from the monthly men’s magazine Esquire, which he interpreted as the freedom to skip around, catching choppers to wherever sounded ‘interesting’, wherever the ‘action’ was, which gave him the time to really get to know the grunts, to get under their skin, to see the war from their point of view.

All of this leads up to what I take to be the credo or manifesto or thinking which lies behind Herr’s deliberate adoption of the common soldier’s point of view, language, drugs and spaced-out attitude. Which is that –

The press got all the facts (more or less), it got too many of them. But it never found a way to report meaningfully about death, which is of course what it was all about. (p.173)

So on one level the entire book can be seen as an experiment in trying to create a prose style which can report meaningfully about death. Not facts or history, though some are required to give context. Instead a turbo-charged attempt to capture the incredibly intense emotions of bewildered, confused soldiers under fire in a chaotic, incomprehensible war.

In interviews Joseph Heller claimed that his World War Two classic, Catch-22 was actually more a satire about corporate America, about project management and management theory and management speak than about the  actual war. In Vietnam the ghastly wedding of management speak and grotesque carnage reached new heights – Herr contemptuously refers to the more senior officers who asked the press corps to

… get with the programme, jump on the team, get in for the Big Win. (p.184).

But Herr was blissfully free of the straitjacket of daily reporting which tied up most of his comrades, free to understand the crucial central fact, that:

Conventional journalism could no more reveal this war than conventional firepower could win it. (p.175)

And hence, quite simply, the rationale for his new journalism approach – for his stoner, tripped-out, grunt-level view of the madness. And that’s why his book is still a classic. 50 years after the event, 40 years after it was published, it still captures and describes in the gaudy poetry of American street slang the unbelievable intensity, horror and beauty of modern armed combat, as no straight journalism, military reports, or sober histories ever could.

This section winds down with very personal reminiscences of his gang of buddies as the legendary Tim Page returns to Nam, and Herr, Page and Flynn enjoy wacky, frat-house adventures, getting stoned, playing the Mothers of Invention real loud, winding up Army Press Officers – he makes it sound like a swell life, like one long mad party, driving down to China Beach to catch some rays, then travelling back to Hue, now completely pacified and cleaned up, incapable of believing all the pain and carnage he witnessed there.

From what I can make out, Herr was only in Nam for about nine months, from the end of 1967 through the Tet Offensive (Jan-Sep 1968), the Battle of Hue (Jan-Mar 1968), the siege of Khe Sanh (Jan-Jul 1968) and leaving in September 1968.

The end of the book is desperately sad, like coming down after a great party. Herr is back in the States when he hears that Tim Page has received his final, almost fatal, head injury, and flies back to see him. Page has definitely retired, has a girlfriend, slowly recovers the use of his legs and even his left arm. They get stoned with Flynn and other friends, laugh about the old times, cry about the old times. It’s all over. Time to go back to ‘the World’, where they will never quite fit in or feel at ease.

6. Breathing out (pp.200-207)

A few last pages struggling to make sense of 1968 and the way the war and the rock music fused in that year and then short-circuited the decade. Then came the awful 1970s and Herr watched on TV the choppers he had loved cadging lifts across war zones on, being pushed off U.S. aircraft carriers into the South China Sea after the final American troops were withdrawn from Vietnam in 1973.

And then, finally, in spring 1975 the North Vietnamese Army fought their way south to conquer and unite the country after thirty years of struggle. Herr poignantly reports seeing pictures of victorious Viet Cong soldiers sitting on the banks of the Danang River, exactly where the U.S. Press Centre had been and where Herr and his pals had sat smoking and joking and laughing. All gone now.


Analysis

The fantastically powerful and evocative trippy, stoner prose and the ‘attitude’ it describes can be analysed out into distinct strands:

Meaningless chaos – coming under fire in ‘random contacts’ – the GI who points his gun at Dana and, they all felt, could easily have pull the trigger. The whole war effort ‘out of control’ (p.45) all mirrored by the deliberate sense of getting-out-of-control created by the drugs of choice, pot and acid.

The risibility of the official version handed out at the daily 4.45 news conference, also known as ‘the Five O’Clock Follies’ – the man handing out press passes ‘thought it was all a fucking circus’ (p.177), and the actual troops on the ground often seemed lost souls in a demented fantasy.

Entire divisions would function in a bad dream state, acting out a weird set of moves without any connection to the source. (p.50)

To Herr and his stoned contemporaries the entire conduct of the war seemed like a very bad dream, irrational, insane.

Search and Destroy, more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming out of the Command psyche. (p.55)

That phraseology is not a rational analysis of a military strategy, but Herr has thought it through and the insanity didn’t call for a sane response. ‘(Who’s crazy? What’s insane?)’ (p.61), the only ‘answerable style’ for the madness is a mad style.

Drugs Dope is referred to openly throughout, the evening sessions with joints passed round, the household fuelled by booze and grass, the widespread smoking of joints among the troops. As to stronger drugs, Herr refers  once to the powerful hallucinogen psilocybin (the active ingredient of ‘magic mushrooms’) but surprisingly rarely to the other great 1960s drug, LSD or ‘acid’.

And yet the prose reeks of acid, of the way LSD strips your sense of their blinkers and protection and exposes your nervous system to massive sensory overload. Indeed that concept of too much information, of the brain, nervous system and mind being subjected to more than it can cope with, is mentioned throughout the text as a metaphor for the experience of combat when the adrenaline shock, and the rush of terrified awareness, is experienced as just ‘too much’ to process or handle.

Once your body was safe your problems weren’t exactly over. There was the terrible possibility that a search for information there could become so exhausting that the exhaustion itself became the information. Overload was such a real danger, not as obvious as shrapnel or blunt like a 2,000-foot drop, maybe it couldn’t kill or smash you, but it could bend your aerial for you and land you on your hip. (p.58)

Even when Herr quits the war and ‘rotates back to the World’, Page gives him a small ball of opium to float him through the flight home (p.200).

Pop culture is all around them, every unit has tape cassette players and either in bunkers or even out on patrol are liable to click Play and the room or trail or trench would echo to the sounds of Purple Haze by Jimi Hendrix or the latest single by the Rolling Stones.

Prose poetry

The rangy, slang, street poetic prose owes a lot to the Beats, to Allen Ginsberg’s poetic rants and William Burroughs’ cut-up prose, but also to the eloquence of American slang, a can-do attitude to the English language which creates openings and expressions from a recalibration, a special angling, of even the most ordinary words. During the 1960s the drug-cum-Zen-cum-Beat poetry language of a small sub-section of 1950s Bohemian culture, along with Black street slang and the argot of the urban jazz world, all mixed and went feral, spreading across street culture and into the songs and films and eventually official channels of the media and even the Army itself.

The book is alive with slang terms from all these sources, mashed together:

  • ‘believer’ – a dead Viet Cong (p.41)
  • ‘dig’ meaning to ‘get’, to ‘understand and enjoy’ – ‘can you dig it?’
  • ‘dink’ meaning ‘Vietnamese’ (92)
  • ‘gook’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese fighter’
  • ‘greased’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘grunt’ meaning infantry soldier (15). According to the online etymological dictionary the term originates from the Vietnam war and is first recorded in print in 1969.
  • ‘hip to’ meaning ‘up to speed with’ (86) as in ‘hip to…the sound, the trip, the mission, the attitude’
  • ‘jag’ meaning ‘prolonged bout’ as in ‘a crying jag’
  • ‘jive’ – routine, schtick, can be negative or positive – ‘don’t jive me, man’
  • ‘luck out’ meaning ‘get lucky’ (69)
  • ‘Slope’ meaning ‘Vietnamese opponent’ (86)
  • ‘spade’ meaning ‘Afro-Caribbean’ (98)
  • ‘tightly wrapped’ meaning ‘uptight, tense’ (97)
  • ‘tough shit’ meaning ‘bad luck’ (86)
  • ‘totalled’ meaning ‘killed’
  • ‘wiggier’ from ‘wiggy’ meaning ‘weird, freaked out’ (p.52), ‘wigged-out crazies’ (p.189) ‘the wiggiest goof of them all’ (p.197)
  • ‘zip’ meaning ‘enemy Vietnamese’

Beyond individual words, Herr records slang phrases which capture the alternative realities opened up by drugs and war and the lethal combination of both:

  • ‘Well, I’ll be dipped in shit.’
  • someone looks like ‘ten thousand miles of bad road’
  • ‘get some’ can refer to sleep, or just ‘action’, hence a demented chopper machine gunner can fire randomly into the jungle yelling ‘get some, get some’ – in a cracking throwaway Herr refers to this phrase as ‘the American banzai’ (p.184)
  • ‘have a pair’ (p.53) or ‘grow a pair’, as in a pair of testicles, to prove you are a man
  • the ‘thousand yard stare’, a vivid description of the distant look in the eyes of soldiers fresh from action – ‘Hill 861 was the home of the thousand-yard stare…’ (p.101)
  • ‘it’s hotter than a bastard’ (p.164)

But it’s the way often fairly simple vocabulary is stacked together in spaced-out ways designed to capture the fleeting moment, the psych, the thereness of the impression, you had to have lived it, you had to know it, which transcends the context of Vietnam to become a series of experiments in time-encapsulating language, and helps give the book its enduring sense of life and weirdness.

Sitting by a road with some infantry when a deuce-and-a-half rattled past with four dead in the back. The tailgate was half lowered as a platform to hold their legs and the boots that seemed to weigh a hundred pounds apiece now. Everyone was completely quiet as the truck hit a bad bump and the legs jerked up high and landed hard on the gate. ‘How about that shit,’ someone said, and ‘Just like the motherfucker,’ and ‘There it is.’ Pure essence of Vietnam, not even stepped on once, you could spin it out into visions of laughing lucent skulls or call it just another body in a bag, say that it cut you in half for the harvest or came and took you under like a lover, nothing ever made the taste less strong. (p.203)

Tracks referenced in the text

‘Whenever one of us came back from an R&R we’d bring records, sounds were as precious as water.’ (p.187)

The text is littered with references to contemporary pop songs. One of the things which made the war seem so special was the way that pop music evolved incredibly quickly into more adult (pretentious) rock over precisely the same period (1965-70), and so seemed to be directly commenting on the escalation and spiralling insanity of the conflict. Thus Herr can comment on the Beatles track, Magical Mystery Tour – ‘That was a song about Khe Sanh; we knew it then, and it still seems so.’ (p.91).

I began making a list of tracks as I came across them mentioned in the text and listening to them off the internet. Taken together, they evoke a vivid revolutionary world, which is immensely evocative even though it is all at least 50 years old, having gone through nostalgia, into obsolescence, been revived, and now becoming history. I remember some of these songs from my boyhood – my kids have never heard of any of it.


Credit

Sections of Dispatches by Michael Herr were published as articles in American Review No. 7Esquire and Rolling Stone in 1968 through 1970. It was published in book form in 1977 by Alfred A. Knopf. All quotes and references are to the 1982 edition of the 1978 Pan Books paperback edition.

Related links

Embers of War by Frederik Logevall (2012)

This is a staggeringly good book. The main text is a hefty 714 pages long, with another 76 pages of endnotes, a comprehensive list of further reading, and a thorough index. It is beautifully printed on good quality paper. It is in every way an immaculate book to own and read and reread (in fact I found it so addictive I read the first 500 pages twice over).

Vietnam before the war

Most histories of the Vietnam War focus on ‘the American War’ of the mid- and late-1960s. Logevall’s epic account comes to an end in 1959, when there were still only a few hundred U.S. troops in the country, before the American war of the movies and popular legend had even started (the Gulf of Tonklin Resolution in the U.S. Congress which gave President Johnson full power to prosecute a war was passed in August 1964.)

Instead, Logevall’s focus is on everything which preceded the full-blown American involvement. It is a masterly, incredibly detailed, superbly intelligent account of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence from French colonial rule over Indochina, which has its roots way back before the First World War, but whose major and fateful decisions were made in the years immediately after the Second World War. For the core of the book covers the twenty years between 1940 and 1960 which saw the First Indochina War of Independence and the bitter defeat of the French imperial army. Logevall’s intricate and comprehensive account for the first time makes fully comprehensible the circumstances in which the Americans would find themselves slowly dragged into the quagmire in the decade that followed.

Above all this is a political and diplomatic history of the events, with a great deal of space devoted to the personalities of the key political players – Ho Chi Minh, Viet Minh General Giap, U.S. Presidents Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower, French president Charles de Gaulle – along with exhaustive explanations of their differing aims and goals, and thorough analyses of the diplomatic and political negotiations which were constantly taking place between a dizzying and continually changing array of politicians, statesmen and military leaders.

The attractiveness of the book is the tremendous intelligence with which Logevall dissects and lays bare the conflicting political goals and shifting negotiating positions of all these players. Time and again he puts you in the room as Truman and his team discuss the impact of China going communist (in 1949) on the countries of the Far East, or Eisenhower and his team assessing the French forces’ chances of winning, or the debates in the Viet Minh high command about how best to proceed against the French army at Dien Bien Phu. In every one of these myriad of meetings and decision-points, Logevall recaptures the cut and thrust of argument and paints the key players so deftly and vividly that it is like reading a really immense novel, a 20th century War and Peace only far more complex and far more tragic.

Ho Chi Minh

A central thread is the remarkable story of Ho Chi Minh, who could have been a sort of Vietnamese Mahatma Gandhi, who could have led his country to peaceful independence if the French had let him – and who certainly emerges as the dominating figure of the long struggle for Vietnamese independence, from 1918 to 1975.

Ho Chi Minh was born Nguyễn Sinh Cung in 1889. In his long life of subterfuge and underground travel he used over 50 pseudonyms. The text skips through his education to his travels from Asia to Europe via the States (as a cook on merchant navy vessels, seeing the major American cities, establishing himself as a freelance journalist in Paris), and then the story really begins with Ho’s presence at the peace conference which followed the Great War.

Vietnam had been colonised by the French in the 1850s and their imperial grip solidified around the turn of the century. The French divided Vietnam into three units, Tonkin in the north (capital Hanoi), the narrow central strip of Annam, and Cochin China in the south (capital Saigon). Logevall eloquently evokes the atmosphere and beauty of these two cities, with their wide boulevards, French cathedrals and opera houses. The French also colonised Laos, which borders Vietnam to the central west, and Cambodia, which borders it to the south-west. These three countries were collectively known as French Indochina.

Between the wars

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson arrived at the Versailles peace conference which followed World War One brandishing his much-publicised Fourteen Points, the noble principles he hoped would underpin the peace, the fourteenth of which explicitly called for the self-determination of free peoples.

As Logevall points out, in practice the Americans were thinking about the self-determination of the peoples in Europe, whose multicultural empires had collapsed as a result of the war e.g. the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires; the principle wasn’t really addressed at the inhabitants of Europe’s overseas empires.

In a typically vivid snapshot, Logevall describes how the young optimistic Vietnamese nationalist Ho Chi Minh, who had already gained a reputation as a journalist advocating independence for his country, hired a morning coat and travelled to Versailles hoping to secure an interview with President Wilson to put the case for Vietnamese independence. But his requests were rebuffed, his letters went unanswered, nobody replied or took any notice. It was the start of a long sequence of tragically lost opportunities to avert war.

Instead the ‘victorious’ European empires (Britain and France) were allowed to continue untroubled by American interferences and French colonial administration of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, with all its snobbery and exploitation, strode on into the fragile 1920s and troubled 1930s.

Dispirited by the complete lack of interest from the Allies at Versailles, Ho traveled to Soviet Moscow in the early 1920s, where he received training from the infant Communist International (or Comintern) before returning to Vietnam to help organise a Vietnamese nationalist and communist movement.

But according to Logevall’s account, Ho continued to have a soft spot for America – not least because it was itself a country which had thrown off colonial shackles – and continued for decades to hope for help & support in Vietnam’s bid to escape from French control. In vain. Maybe the central, tragic theme of the book is how the American government went in the space of a decade (1940 to 1950) from potential liberator of the world’s colonial subjects, to neo-imperial oppressor.

The impact of the Second World War

In the West, and particularly in Britain, we think of the Second World War as starting with the German invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939, which prompted Britain and France to declare war on Nazi Germany. But the war in the East had its own timeframes and geography, and is really marked by the step-by-step aggression of Japan through the 1930s. For the highly authoritarian, militaristic Japanese government was the rising power in the East. Japan invaded Manchuria in northern China 1931 and then, in 1937, invaded the rest of coastal China, penetrating south. China was already embroiled in a chaotic civil war between various regional warlords, the nationalist movement of Chiang Kai-Shek and the nascent communist forces of Mao Zedong, which had been raging since the late 1920s. The border between north Vietnam and China is 800 miles long and the French colonial administrators watched developments in their huge northern neighbour with growing trepidation.

Meanwhile, in faraway Europe, Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime successfully intimidated the western democracies (i.e. Britain and France) into allowing him to reoccupy the Rhine (March 1936), occupy Austria (March 1938) and seize the Czech Sudetenland (September 1938). But it was the surprise Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and then Hitler’s September 1939 invasion of Poland which plunged the continent into war.

None of this affected distant Indochina until the Germans’ six-week Blitzkrieg campaign in May 1940 against France. The victorious Nazis allowed a puppet right-wing government to be created in France, under the 84-year-old Marshall Petain and based in the spa town of Vichy. As a result of their defeat, the colonial administrations around the French Empire – in West and North Africa, in the Middle East and in Indochina – found themselves obliged to choose between the ‘legitimate’ new Vichy administration, which soon began persecuting socialists, freemasons and Jews (Logevall makes the ironic point that there were only 80 Jews in all Indochina and most of them were in the army) or the initially small group of followers of the self-appointed leader of the ‘Free French’, Charles de Gaulle.

When the highly armed and aggressive Japanese continued their expansion into northern Vietnam in September 1940, the Vichy French briefly resisted and then found themselves forced to co-operate with their supposed ‘allies’ – or the allies of their Nazi masters back in Europe. The Japanese wanted to cut off supply lines to the Chinese nationalists opposing them in China and also needed the rice, rubber and other raw materials Indochina could offer. In an uneasy understanding, the Japanese allowed the Vichy officials to administer the country at a civil service level – but they were the real masters.

Pearl Harbour

By setting it in its full historical context, Logevall for the first time made clear to me the reason the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour (on 7 December 1941) and the central role played in this cataclysmic event by Indochina.

From 1940 U.S. President Roosevelt and his advisers were concerned about Japan’s push southwards and especially their seizure of Vietnam. If they continued, the Japs would be in a position to carry on down the Malay peninsula, taking Singapore and threatening the Philippines in the East and Burma to the West.

When, in July 1941, Japanese troopships were sighted off Cam Ranh Bay on the south coast of Vietnam, it set American alarm bells jangling and, after much discussion, the President imposed a goods blockade on Japan, including oil and rubber, insisting the Japanese withdrew from China. Negotiations with the moderate Japanese Prime Minister Konoye continued through the summer but neither side would back down and, in October 1941, Konoye was replaced by General Hideki Tojo, who represented the aggressive stance of the armed forces. His government decided the only way Japan could continue to expand was by eliminating the American threat and forcibly seizing required raw materials from an expanded Japanese empire. Hence the plan was formulated to eliminate the American Pacific fleet with a surprise attack on Pearl Harbour, and it was in this context that the Japanese Fleet launched the notorious attack on 7 December 1941.

Logevall describes this tortuous process and its consequences with great clarity and it is absolutely fascinating to read about. He introduces us to all the key personnel during this period, giving the main players two or three page biographies and explaining with wonderful clarity the motives of all the conflicting interests: The Vichy French reluctant to cede control to the Japanese and scared of them; the Japanese busy with conflicts elsewhere and content to rule Indochina via the compliant French; the Americans reeling from Pearl Harbour but already making long-term plans to regain Asia; and in Vietnam, alongside Ho’s communists, the activities of the other groups of Vietnamese nationalists, as well as numerous ‘native’ tribes and ethnic minorities. And far away in embattled London, the distant but adamantine wish of General de Gaulle and the ‘Free French’ to return Indochina to French rule.

Roosevelt and Truman

For most of the war the key factor for Asia was President Roosevelt, a lifelong anti-colonialist, who condemned and opposed the European empires. Admittedly, he had to tread carefully around key ally Winston Churchill, who was doggedly committed to the preservation of the British Empire, but he had no such qualms about France, which he despised for collapsing so abjectly to the German Blitzkrieg of 1940.

Roosevelt was only reluctantly persuaded to support the haughty, pompous General de Gaulle as representative of the so-called ‘Free French’ – he preferred some of the other leaders in exile – but took a particular interest in Indochina. Roosevelt gave strong indications in speeches that – after the Germans and Japanese were defeated – he would not let the French restore their empire there. Instead, the president got his State Department officials to develop the idea of awarding ‘trusteeship status’ to post-colonial countries – getting them to be administered by the United Nations while they were helped and guided towards full political and economic independence.

Alas for Vietnam and for all the Vietnamese, French and Americans who were to lose their lives there, Roosevelt died just as the Second World War drew to a close, in April 1945, and his fervent anti-imperialism died with him.

He was replaced by his unassuming Vice-President, plain-speaking Harry S. Truman from Missouri. (In the kind of telling aside which illuminates the book throughout, Logevall points out that Truman was only selected as Vice-President because he was so non-descript that when all the competing factions in the Democratic Party cancelled out each other’s nominations, Truman was the only one bland enough to be left acceptable to all parties.)

Vietnam’s first independence and partition

The atom bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki crystallised Japan’s defeat and she surrendered on 2 September 1945. Within days of Japan’s fall, Ho and his party were organising major celebrations of Vietnam’s independence. In a historic moment Ho spoke to a crowd of 300,000 cheering compatriots in Ba Dinh Square, central Hanoi, on 2 September 1945, formally declaring Vietnam’s independence. Logevall quotes American eye witnesses who were startled when Ho quoted extensively from the American Declaration of Independence, as part of his ongoing attempt to curry favour with the emerging world superpower.

But alas, back in Washington, unlike his predecessor Roosevelt, President Truman had little or no interest in Indochina and all talk of ‘trusteeship’ leading to eventual independence disappeared. Instead the victorious allies had to make practical arrangements to manage Indochina now Japan had surrendered. It was agreed that the north of the country would be taken over by an army of the nationalist Chinese (at this stage receiving huge aid from America) while the British Indian Army would take over temporary running of the south, in a temporary partition of the country while both forces waited for the full French forces to arrive and restore imperial rule.

Riven by political infighting and a spirit of defeatism, the French had rolled over and given up their country in 1940. Then a good number of them spent five years collaborating with the Nazis and shipping Jews off to concentration camps. Now they expected the Americans to give them huge amounts of money and military resources to help them return to their colonies, and they expected the colonial peoples to bow down to the old yoke as if nothing had happened.

General de Gaulle typified the militaristic, imperial French view that ‘metropolitan’ France was nothing without its ‘magnificent’ Empire; that France had a unique ‘civilising mission’ to bring the glories of French culture to the peoples of Vietnam and Laos and Cambodia (and Algeria and Syria and Mali and so on). Of course, the Empire provided cheap raw materials and labour for France to exploit.

The tragedy is that the Rooseveltian anti-imperial America which Ho and his followers placed so much hope on, betrayed them. Why? Two main practical reasons emerge:

  1. Restoring France Almost immediately after the end of the Second World War Stalin set about consolidating his grip on the Russian-occupied nations of Eastern Europe by establishing puppet communist regimes in them. The communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the start of the Berlin Airlift, both in 1948, epitomise the quick collapse of the wartime alliance between Russia and America into a Cold War stand-off. In this context, the Americans thought it was vital to build up Western Europe‘s capitalist economies to provide economic and military counterweight to the Soviet threat. Hence the enormous sums of money America poured into Europe via the Marshall Plan (which came into force in June 1948). A glance at the map of post-war Europe shows that, with Germany divided, Italy in ruins, Spain neutral, and the Benelux countries small and exposed, France emerges as the central country in Western Europe. If France’s empire contributed economically (through its raw materials), militarily (through colonial soldiers) and psychologically to France’s rebuilding, then so be it. The nationalist aspirations of Algeria, Tunisia and the other African colonies, along with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia were sacrificed on the altar of building up a strong France in Europe to act as a bulwark against the Soviet threat.
  2. The domino theory It was only later, after China fell to communist control in October 1949, that Cold War hawks began to see (not unjustifiably) evidence of a worldwide communist conspiracy intent on seizing more and more territory. This received further shocking confirmation when North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950. It is from the communist victory in China and the start of the 1950s that the Americans began to talk about a ‘domino effect’ – seeing non-communist countries as dominoes lined up in a row, so that if one fell to communism all the others would automatically follow. As the map below shows, the fear was that i) communist victory in Korea would directly threaten Japan ii) communist forces in central China would threaten the island of Formosa and the other western Pacific islands, and iii) most crucial of all – the collapse of Vietnam would allow communist forces a forward base to attack the Philippines to the east, open the way to the invasion of Thailand to the west, and threaten south down the long peninsula into Malaya and Indonesia.

Cast of characters

Logevall introduces us to a number of Americans on the ground – diplomats, analysts and journalists – who all strongly disagreed with the new American line, but were powerless to change it. Against their better judgement the Americans allowed the French to return to run Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Logevall explains the arguments among the French themselves, and accompanies his account of the next nine years (1945-1954) with a running commentary on the changing patterns of the very fractured French political system (19 governments in just 8 years), and the conflicting priorities of the French communist party, the Socialists, the centre and the Gaullist right.

In contrast to French perfidy and inconsistency, Ho emerges as very much the hero of this account for the patience and mildness of his demands. Ho was in communication with both the French and American authorities – the French ignored all requests for independence, but he had some hopes the Americans would listen. Ho guaranteed that his independent Vietnam would allow for capitalism -for private property, a market economy. He said American firms would receive preferential treatment in rebuilding the post-war economy.

All on deaf ears. The same crowds who had greeted Ho’s historic declaration of independence in September 1945, stayed away from the pathetic French re-entry into Saigon the next year. On their first night of freedom, French troops who had been interned by the Japanese were released and went on a drunken rampage, beating up Vietnamese in the streets for being collaborators. Photo journalist Germaine Krull saw Vietnamese nationalists paraded through the streets with ropes tied round their necks while French women spat on them. Krull realised, right there and then, that the French had lost all respect and deference – instead of befriending the Vietnamese and creating a genuine partnership with promises of ultimate nationhood, the French hardliners had insisted nothing must question the ‘Glory’ and ‘Honour’ and ‘Prestige’ of La Belle France.

And so the quixotic quest for gloire and grandeur and prestige condemned France to nine years of bitter war, hundreds of thousands of death and, ultimately, to crushing humiliation. It feels like a grim poetic justice for the arrogance and stupidity of the French.

Dien Bien Phu

Almost immediately armed clashes between French soldiers and small guerrilla units or individuals began in all the cities and towns. Various nationalist groups claimed responsibility for the attacks but slowly Ho Chi Minh’s communists emerged as the best disciplined and most effective insurgent forces. The communists made up the core and most effective part of the coalition of nationalist forces christened the Viet Minh. Saigon became a twitchy nervous place to be, with an irregular drumbeat of gunshots, the occasional hand grenade lobbed into a cafe, assassinations of French officials in the street.

Logevall gives a detailed narrative of the slow descent of the country into guerilla war, with the dismal attempts of successive generals to try and quell the insurgency, by creating a defensive line of forts around Hanoi in the north, or sending search and destroy missions into the remote countryside.

The diplomatic and political emphasis of the book comes to the fore in the long and incredibly detailed account of the manoeuvring which surrounded the climactic Battle of Dien Bien Phu, from the beginning of its inception in 1953.

I have just reviewed a classic account of this battle, Martin Windrow’s epic military history, The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam, so won’t repeat the story here. Suffice to say the French had the bright idea of creating a defensive stronghold in an isolated valley in remote north-west Vietnam which could only be supplied from the air. Why? a) They intended to use it as a base to undertake offensive actions against Viet Minh supply lines running from China past Dien Bien Phu southwards into neighbouring Laos and b) they planned to lure the Viet Minh into a set piece battle where they would be crushed by overwhelming French artillery and airborne power.

The plan failed on both counts, as the Viet Minh surrounded the fort in such numbers that ‘offensive’ missions became suicidal; and with regard to luring the Viet Minh to their destruction, the French a) badly underestimated the ability of the Viets to haul large-calibre cannon up to the heights commanding the shallow valley and b) the battle took place as the monsoon season started and so air cover was seriously hampered (and in any case the Viet Minh were masters of camouflage, who only manoeuvred at night, making them very difficult to locate from the air).

The result was that the series of strongholds which comprised the French position were surrounded and picked off one by one over the course of a gruelling and epic 56-day battle.

Logevall devotes no fewer than 168 pages to the battle (pp.378 to 546) but relatively little of this describes the actual fighting. Instead, he chronicles in dazzling detail the intensity of the political and diplomatic manoeuvring among all the interested powers, particularly the Americans, the British and the French. Each of these governments was under domestic political pressure from conflicting parties in their parliaments and congresses, and even the governments themselves were riven by debate and disagreement about how to manage the deteriorating situation. Press reports of the French Army’s ‘heroic’ stand against the surrounding forces for the first time caught the public imagination, in France and beyond and the battle began to become a symbols of the West’s resolve.

It is mind-boggling to read that the Americans repeatedly mooted the possibility of using atom bombs against the Chinese (who were by now openly supporting the Viet Minh forces) or of giving the French some atom bombs to deploy as they wanted. The generals and politicians rejected dropping atom bombs directly onto Dien Bien Phu since they would obviously wipe out the French garrison as well as the attacking forces. Extra peril was added to the international scene when the Americans detonated their first hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll in March 1954, intensifying the sense of Cold War superpower rivalry.

But it is in his running account of the minute by minute, phone call by phone call, hurried meetings between ambassadors and Foreign secretaries and Prime Ministers, that Logevall conveys the extraordinary complexity of political and strategic manouevring during these key months. The central issue was: Should the Americans directly intervene in the war to help the French? The French pleaded for more, much more, American supplies and munitions; for American troops on the ground; or for a diversionary attack on mainland China; or for more, many more bombing raids over Viet Minh positions.

Republican President Eisenhower was himself a supremely experienced military leader and had come to power (in January 1953) by attacking the (Democrat) Truman administration’s ‘capitulation’ in letting China fall to communism – and then for letting the Korean War to break out on Truman’s watch.

Logevall’s account is so long because it chronicles every important meeting of Eisenhower’s cabinet, examining the minutes of the meeting and analysing the points of view of his political and military advisers. And then analysing the way decisions were discussed with other governments, especially the British Foreign secretary (Anthony Eden) and Prime Minister (an ageing Winston Churchill).

Basically, Eisenhower found himself forced into a position of issuing fiercer and fiercer threats against the growing communist threat. In a keynote speech delivered on 7 April 1954, he warned of the perils of the Domino Effect (the first time the phrase entered the public domain) but hedged his bets by insisting that America wouldn’t go to war in South-East Asia unless:

a) the decision was ratified by Congress (one of the Republican criticisms of Truman was that he took the Americans into the Korean War by Presidential Decree alone, without consulting the Congress)
b) it was a ‘United Action’ along with key allies, namely the British

The focus then moves to the British and to British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden. Would he agree to U.S. demands to form a coalition, and thus give the Americans the fig leaf they needed to go in and help the French, whose situation at Dien Bien Phu was becoming more desperate each day.

But Logevall explains the pressure Eden was under, because he knew that any British intervention to prop up the ailing French imperial position in Indochina would be roundly criticised by India and other members of the newly-founded Commonwealth at an upcoming meeting of Commonwealth heads of state, and the British very much wanted to ensure the continuation of this legacy of their Empire.

Moreover, British government opinion was that the French were losing and that the Americans, if they intervened, would quickly find themselves being sucked into bigger and bigger commitments in Vietnam in a war which the British thought was doomed to failure. The risk would then be that the Americans would be tempted to ‘internationalise’ the conflict by directly attacking the Viet Minh’s arms supplier – China – possibly, God forbid, with atomic weapons – which would inevitably bring the Russians in on the Chinese side – and we would have World War Three!

Hence the British refusal to commit.

American Secretary of State John Foster Dulles flew to Britain several times but failed, in one-on-one meetings, to change Eden’s position. And it was this failure to secure British (and thence Australian and New Zealand) support to create a ‘United Action’ coalition which meant that Eisenhower wouldn’t be able to win round key members of Congress, which meant that – he couldn’t give the French the vital military support they were begging for – which, ultimately, meant that Dien Bien Phu was doomed.

It has been thrilling to read Martin Windrow’s bullet-by-bullet account of the battle (The Last Valley: Dien Bien Phu and the French Defeat in Vietnam) alongside Logevall’s meeting-by-meeting account of the diplomacy. Logevall gives you a sense of just how fraught and complex international politics can be and there is a horrible tragic inevitability about the way that, despite the French paratroopers fighting on bravely, hoping against hope that the Americans would lay on some kind of miracle, a massive air campaign, or a relief force sent overland from Laos – none of this was ever to materialise.

Instead, as the battle drew towards its grizzly end, all the parties were forced to kick the can down the road towards a five-power international conference due to start in Geneva in May 1954. This had been suggested at a meeting of the Soviets, British and Americans in Berlin late the previous year, to address a whole range of Cold War issues, from the status of West Germany and a final peace treaty with Austria, through to the unfinished aspects of the Korean War Armistice, and only partly to the ongoing Indochina crisis.

Dien Bien Phu had begun as only one among several operations carried out by General Navarre, head of French forces in Indochina, but it had steamrollered out of control and its air of a heroic last stand had caught the imagination of the French population and, indeed, people around the world, and had come to symbolise all kinds of things for different players – for the West a last ditch stand against wicked communism, but for many third-world populations, the heroic overthrow of imperial oppressors. And so the military result came to have a symbolic and political power out of all proportion to the wretched little valley’s strategic importance.

In the event, the central stronghold of Dien Bien Phu was finally overrun by the Viet Minh on 7 May 1954, the Viet Minh taking some 10,000 French and colonial troops (Algerian, West African, Vietnamese) prisoner. About two-thirds of these then died on the long marches to POW camps, and of disease and malnutrition when they got there. Only a little over 3,000 prisoners were released four months later.

The Geneva Conference (April 26 – July 20, 1954)

Meanwhile, Logevall works through the geopolitical implications of this titanic military disaster with characteristic thoroughness. Briefly, these were that the French quit Indochina. News of the French defeat galvanised the Geneva Conference which proceeded to tortuously negotiate its way to an agreement that a) the French would completely quit the country; b) Vietnam would be partitioned at the 17th parallel with the North to be run by an internationally-recognised Viet Minh government, while the South would be ruled by the (ineffectual playboy) emperor Bao Dai (who owned a number of residences in the South of France and was a connoisseur of high class call girls).

The negotiations to reach this point are described with mind-boggling thoroughness in part five of the book (pages 549 to 613), which give a full explanation of the conflicting views within each national camp (Americans, Russians, French, Chinese, British, Viet Minh) and the key moments when positions shifted and new lines of discussion became possible. Maybe the key breakthrough was the election of a new French Prime Minister, the left-of-centre Pierre Mendès France, who broke the diplomatic stalemate and set himself the deadline of one month to negotiate an end to the whole wasteful, crippling war.

Why did the Viet Minh in the end accept less than total independence for their country? Because they were leant on by the Chinese Premier Chou En-lai, himself carrying out the orders of his master, Mao Zedong. Mao didn’t want to give the Americans any excuse to intervene in the war, with the risk of attacks on mainland communist China. In fact the Russians and Chinese partly agreed to this temporary partition because they secured agreement from everyone that full and free elections would be held across the entire country in 1956 to decide its future.

The Americans, meanwhile, held aloof from the final agreement, didn’t sign it, and now – with the French definitively leaving – felt that the old colonial stigma was gone and so they were free to support the newly ‘independent’ nation of South Vietnam by any means necessary. When July 1956 – the date set for the elections – rolled around, the elections were never held – because the communist North had already in two years become very unpopular with its people, and because the Americans knew that, despite everything, Ho Chi Minh’s nationalists would still win. So both sides conspired to forget about elections and the partition solidified into a permanent state.

This then, forms the backdrop to the Vietnam War – explaining the long tortuous history behind the creation of a communist north Vietnam and a free capitalist South Vietnam, why the Americans came to feel that the ongoing survival of the south was so very important, but also the depth of nationalist feeling among the Vietnamese which was, eventually, twenty years later, to lead to the failure of the American war and the final unification of the country.

The volta

A high-level way of looking at the entire period is to divide it in two, with a transition phase:

  • In part one America under Roosevelt is trenchantly against European empires and in favour of independence for former colonies.
  • Under Truman there is growing anxiety about Russian intentions in Europe, which crystallise with China going red in 1949 and the North Korean attack in 1950 into paranoia about the communist threat so that –
  • In part two, America under Eisenhower (president for the key eight years from January 1953 to January 1961) reverses its strategy and now offers support to Imperial powers in combating communist insurgencies in Indochina, Malaya, Indonesia, as well as in Africa and South America.

What I found particularly rewarding and instructive was the detail on the earlier, wartime Roosevelt period, which I knew nothing about -and then Logevall’s wonderfully thorough explanation of what caused the change of attitude to the European empires, and how it was embodied in anti-communists like Secretary of State from 1953 to 1959 John Foster Dulles, and Eisenhower’s clever Vice-President, Richard Nixon.

Dien Bien Phu as symbol of French occupation of Indochina

Ngo Dinh Diem

The last hundred pages of the book cover the six and a half years from the end of the Geneva Conference (July 1954) to the inauguration of John F. Kennedy as the youngest ever U.S President in January 1961.

Titled ‘Seizing the Torch 1954 – 59’, this final section deals relatively briefly with the French withdrawal from Tonkin and northern Annam i.e. from the new territory of ‘North of Vietnam’ which was now handed over to the control of Ho Chi Minh’s Democratic Republic of Vietnam. (There is a good description of this difficult and potentially dangerous operation in Martin Windrow’s book).

The partition triggered the flight of an estimated 900,000 Vietnamese refugees from the North to the South – shipped to the South in a fleet of American passenger ships in what was titled Operation ‘Passage to Freedom’.

And in the North, the communists began to implement a foolishly harsh and cruel regime copied direct from the communist tyrannies of Russia and China. Most disastrous was their ‘land reform’, based on the categorisation of rural dwellers into different types – landlord, rich peasant, middle peasant, poor peasant etc – made with a view to rounding up and executing, or torturing or sending to labour camps everyone arbitrarily put in the ‘rich’ categories.

All this led swiftly to the predictable collapse of rural markets and the threat – yet again – of famine. There are records of Ho himself berating his top comrades for the brutality and foolishness of this brutal policy, but he doesn’t seem to have done much to stop it: the cadres had learned it from the masters; this was how Stalin and Mao had led their ‘revolutions’.

But Logevall’s real focus, as always, is not so much on these domestic social changes but on the continuing  international diplomatic and political jockeying, now focusing on the supposedly ‘independent’ and ‘democratic’ regime in the new territory of South Vietnam. With the French withdrawing all colonial forces and administration during 1955, the path was for the first time clear for the Americans to act with a free hand. As usual Logevall explicates the complex discussions which took place in Washington of the various options, and shows how policy eventually settled on installing the peculiar figure of Ngo Dinh Diem as President, under the aegis of the docile emperor Bao Dai.

Logevall first paints a thorough picture of Diem’s personality – a devout Catholic who went into self-imposed exile in Europe at various Catholic retreats in between cultivating American opinion-formers in his perfect English -and who, upon taking power in South Vietnam, began to immediately display authoritarian traits, namely confining power to a small clique of  his own direct family, and launching harsh persecutions of suspected communists and ‘traitors’.

In parallel, Logevall shows the tremendous efforts made by the American government to justify his corrupt and inefficient rule. The fundamental problem in Vietnam, as in so many other U.S. puppet states, would turn out to be that the Americans’ candidate was wildly unpopular: everyone knew that if a genuinely democratic election were held, Ho Chi Minh would win a decisive victory, even in the capitalist south. Thus the Americans, in the name of Democracy, found themselves defending a leader who would lose a democratic vote and showed clear dictatorial behaviour.

Diem wasn’t the representative of ‘democracy’ – he was the front man for free-market capitalism. As such he was enthusiastically supported by Eisenhower, Dulles and – as Logevall shows in some fascinating passages – by the stranglehold that mid-twentieth century U.S. media had on public opinion. Logevall lists the activities of a well-connected organisation called the ‘American Friends of Vietnam’, which included all the main publications of the day, most notably Time magazine, which ran glowing tributes to Diem in every edition.

Logevall introduces us to the born-again anti-communist doctor, Tom Dooley, whose account of working as a medic among refugees from the North – Deliver Us From Evil – was filled with the most appalling atrocity stories and became a highly influential bestseller, serialised in Reader’s Digest, which had a circulation of 20 million. Only decades later was it revealed to be a preposterous fake – with none of the atrocities Dooley recorded having any basis in fact.

It was ordinary American families who consumed this barrage of pro-Diem propaganda through the press and radio and TV from the mid-1950s onwards, with kids who in eight years time (when the States escalated the war in 1965) would be old enough to be drafted to go and give their lives to support the Diem regime.

But the reality in South Vietnam was much different from this shiny propaganda. Almost none of the huge amounts of American aid, soon rising to $300 million a year, went on health or education. Over 90% went on arming and training the South Vietnam Army which, however, continued to suffer from low morale and motivation.

America’s ‘support’ ignored much-needed social reform and was incapable of controlling Diem’s regime which passed increasingly repressive laws, randomly arresting intellectuals, closing down the free press, and implementing a regime of terror in the countryside.

More and more peasants and villagers found themselves forced to resist the blackmailing corruption of the Diem’s rural administrators, and revolt arose spontaneously in numerous locations around the country. This is a historical crux – many commentators and historians insist that the communist agitation in the South was created by the North; Logevall demurs and calls in contemporary analysts as evidence and witnesses. In his opinion, revolt against Diem’s repressive regime grew spontaneously and was a natural result of its harshness.

Indeed, newly opened archives in the North now reveal that the Hanoi leadership in fact agonised about whether, and how much, to support this groundswell of opposition. In fact, they were restrained by China and, more distantly, Russia, neither of whom wanted to spark renewed confrontation with America.

Nonetheless Hanoi found itself drawn, discreetly, into supporting revolutionary activity in the South, beginning in the late 1950s to create an administrative framework and a cadre of military advisers. These were infiltrated into the South via Laos, along what would become known as the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. In response the Diem regime used a nickname for the communist forces, calling them the Viet Cong, or VC, a name which was to become horribly well-known around the world.

While the American press and President awarded Diem red carpet treatment, a tickertape parade in New York, and fawning press coverage when he visited the States in 1956, back home things were growing darker. As 1957 turned into 1958, Diem reinstituted the use of the guillotine as punishment for anyone who resisted his regime, and his roving tribunals travelling through the countryside used this threat to extort even more money from disaffected peasants. But simultaneously, the communist apparatus in the south began to take shape and to receive advice about structure and tactics from the North.

The beginning

The book ends with an at-the-time almost unnoticed event. On the evening of 8 July 1959 eight U.S. military advisers in a base 20 miles north of Saigon enjoyed a cordial dinner and then settled down to watch a movie. It was then that a squad of six Viet Cong guerrillas who had cut through the flimsy surrounding barbed wire, crept up to the staff quarters and opened fire with machine guns. Master Sergeant Chester Ovnand and Major Dale Buis died almost immediately, before armed help arrived from elsewhere in the camp to fight off the intruders. Ovnand and Buis’s names are the first of the 58,000 Americans who died in Vietnam and whose names are all carved into the black granite of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

Conclusion

Embers of War won many prizes and it really deserves them – it sheds light not only on the long, tortured death of French imperialism in Indochina, and gives incredible detail on the way the Americans inch-by-inch found themselves being drawn deeper into the Vietnam quagmire – it also shows any attentive reader how international affairs actually work, how great ‘decisions’ are ground out by the exceedingly complex meshing of a welter of complex and ever-shifting forces – at international, national, domestic, military, political and personal levels. On every level a stunningly informative and intelligent work of history.

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The Vietnam War by Mitchell Hall (2000)

This is one of the Seminar Studies series produced by academic publisher Longman, a set of short introductions to historical topics.

This one on the Vietnam War features an 87-page overview of the war’s long and tangled history, with 23 pages of original source documents, a 6-page chronology, a 2-page list of the main characters, a 3-page glossary, and an 8-page bibliography. Designed for A-level students this is still a very useful short overview and reference book.

Vietnam geography

Vietnam is a 1,000-kilometer-long sliver of land along the east coast of the fat peninsular once known as Indochina. It widens in the north to form a kind of flowerhead shape around the northern city of Hanoi in the delta of the Red River, which is less than 50 miles from the border with China. Along the central belt which borders Laos in the west, it is sometimes as little as 30 miles wide. In the south it broadens out again before arriving at the southern city, formerly known as Saigon, on the big delta of the River Mekong.

Map of Vietnam

From 100 BC to 950 AD Vietnam was ruled by the Chinese. In the Middle Ages various dynasties tried to unite the long coastal strip and in the 1700s successfully seized the southern tip, the Mekong Delta, from the decaying Khmer Empire in Cambodia.

European explorers arrived in the 1500s, the French bringing Catholic missionaries, but it wasn’t until the 1800s that serious exploration and missionary work began. By the 1850s the French had established military control over most of Indochina, which they divided into administrative provinces and ran in the usual patronising, exploitative style.

The disastrous 20th century

World War Two was a catastrophe for European Empires all through Asia, which were overthrown by the triumphant Japanese Empire. The Japanese allowed Vietnam to continue to be run by the new Axis-friendly Vichy French regime. But when the Nazi regime in Europe collapsed in 1945, the Japanese briefly took direct rule, before their own defeat in August 1945.

Throughout the 1920s various Vietnamese nationalist movements had arisen, only to be suppressed by the French authorities. The most enduring was to be the communist one, led by Ho Chi Minh, who had trained in Bolshevik Moscow in the 1920s, and helped form the Vietnamese communist party in 1930. In 1941 Ho helped establish a broad-based nationalist movement, including moderates and radicals, which became known as the Viet Minh (full name ‘Việt Nam Độc Lập Đồng Minh Hội’, meaning ‘League for the Independence of Vietnam’). The communists were helped by Moscow to organise during the Vichy years and were given arms and advice by the American OSS during Japan’s brief period of direct rule.

This last year of the war saw a disastrous famine in Vietnam in which as many as two million starved to death. It had been inadvertently begun by Vichy French switch of agriculture from food crops to cash crops, and was exacerbated by Japanese rule, which was focused solely on feeding Japan’s home population. The collapse of civil authority and widespread hatred of the oppressor meant that, the moment Japan surrendered in August 1945, Ho Chi Minh’s call for a general uprising was met with enthusiasm in the northern and central provinces. This ‘August Revolution’ consolidated Viet Minh rule in the north and Ho called for Allied recognition of a united independent Vietnam.

What a world of pain would have been avoided if the Americans had simply agreed. Imagine if Truman had continued to supply arms and support to Ho, helped to establish a united nationalist government, and gained the eternal gratitude of the Vietnamese people.

Instead, as in Korea, the Allies i.e. America, designated a geographic division of the country: China to accept Japanese surrender in the north and Britain to accept it in the south. British soldiers occupied Saigon and put down nationalist and communist elements, pending the return of the French.

The French returned to find that: Ho Chi Minh’s Viet Minh organisation effectively controlled the north of the country; and the south included large pockets of Viet Minh and communist sympathisers, alongside competing nationalist interests, for example the Buddhist, Cao Dai and Hoa Hao religious sects, which made it very difficult to rule.

Dienbienphu

The French struggled to restore peace in the south and enforce their somewhat optimistic claim to be able to control the north. As sporadic outbreaks of violence dragged on, a French general, Henri Navarre, decided to draw the Viet Minh into an open set-piece battle such as his forebears had fought in Europe and set up a massive stronghold at Dienbienphu, far in the north and west towards the border with Laos, in the spring of 1954. The Vietminh’s leading strategist, General Vo Nguyen Giap, surrounded the 13,000 French with 50,000 Vietminh troops and after a grinding two-month conflict, took Dienbienphu.

This catastrophic defeat coincided with peace talks in Geneva about the entire region, and a deal was brokered whereby Vietnam was divided along the 17th parallel into a Vietminh-held north and the French-controlled south, with a promise to hold elections throughout the country in 1956. The French began withdrawing from South Vietnam, handing authority over to the ’emperor’ Bao Dai, who appointed Ngo Dinh Diem Prime Minister in June 1954.

American involvement

Immediately after the Second World War America, true to its vehemently anti-colonial principles, had sought to undermine and hamper the return of the French to Indochina. However, within a few short years Russia’s increasingly aggressive stance in Europe had driven a wedge between the wartime allies and changed US policy. Now US policy around the world was subordinated to the idea of ‘containment’: the fear that Russia would back or impose communist governments in every country it was able to, in an aggressive strategy to spread communism throughout the world – unless actively halted by the West.

This paranoid view of the world was strongly reinforced when Mao Zedong’s communists finally won the Chinese Civil War in October 1949, and then Kim Il-sung’s North Korean communists invaded South Korea in June 1950. It was easy to see this as a concerted effort to make all Asia communist, an outcome which would ultimately threaten pro-western Japan, and then the American West Coast.

And so the Americans switched from criticising the French to supporting them with supplies and advisers. Dienbienphu was a turning point. From then onwards hawks within the US administration began to win the argument. Thus, as the French withdrew their forces and administrators, the Americans found themselves getting drawn into supporting Diem’s southern government. This was despite Diem’s unsavoury policies. Himself a member of Vietnam’s Catholic minority, Diem forcefully repressed other religious groups and kept key positions of power within his family or clan. As with the unsavoury Syngman Rhee in South Korea, America found that the logic of its anti-communist position drew it into supporting a repressive dictator who breached every principle of human rights and good governance Americans supposedly believed in, solely on the basis that he wasn’t a communist.

The French leave Vietnam

In 1955 the last French troops left the country. In 1956 Diem instituted a fierce anti-communist drive. In 1957 fighting broke out between the Republic of Vietnam Army and anti-regime opponents, who Diem referred to as the Viet Cong – a name which would catch on. (The original phrase was Việt Nam Cộng-sản which means ‘Vietnamese communist’. It was abbreviated to Viet Cong, then just VC. In the NATO phonetic alphabet V and C are conveyed by ‘Victor’ and ‘Charlie’ – hence the widespread use of ‘Charlie’ by American troops to refer to the enemy.)

Hanoi, effective capital of the communist North, was able to recruit a wide range of anti-Diem forces in the name of overthrowing the dictator and reuniting the country. In 1959 Hanoi sent the first shipments of men and supplies to their forces in the south to fuel what had, in effect, become a civil war. The various nationalist forces were organised into the People’s Liberation Armed Forces, supplied and directed by communists. By 1961 they controlled significant parts of the countryside and had sympathisers in every southern city.

President Kennedy took office in January 1961 and walked straight into the Vietnam problem. Like his predecessors he saw it through a Cold War lens as a case of communist aggression. Kennedy authorised the despatch of US special forces to Vietnam to train and support the South Vietnam army. By 1962 advisers estimated that Diem held only 49% of South Vietnam – but instead of recognising historical reality, this only spurred the Americans to redouble their support for the losing side. In 1963 the North commissioned isolated attacks on southern military targets, in which growing numbers of Americans were killed. It was a red rag to a bull.

Why America lost the Vietnam War

1. Civil war or Cold War ‘invasion’ The Americans saw the Vietnam conflict solely in terms of the global Cold War, and solely as a communist conspiracy. They failed to acknowledge the nationalist motivation of many of their opponents, who simply wanted to see their country reunited and all foreign oppressors thrown out.

Thus the Americans persisted in thinking about the war as an ‘invasion’ from the communist North, which could be put down by bombing the North, as if this conflict resembled Germany invading France. But this book makes clear that as much as 40% of the population of the south were opposed to Diem’s regime and, after he was assassinated in a coup, his numerous successors were even less popular.

The Americans manoeuvred themselves into the hopeless position of propping up the unpopular side in a civil war.

2. The failure of ‘attrition’ The American military adopted a policy of ‘attrition’. They thought they could wear down the enemy through constant conflict in which America’s vastly larger weaponry would inevitably triumph. It would become a contest of wills. Victory was measured by body count. If more VC died than US troops died then, eventually, finally, in the end, America would win.

But in the event the American willpower cracked first. Why? To this day the military men and their supporters blame the tremendous anti-war movement which grew up back in the States for undermining the war effort. But politicians have to represent the will of the people and by the end of the 1960s the people of America had had enough.

At a deeper level the whole sorry saga recalls the parable of the fox chasing the rabbit: the fox is quicker, cleverer and stronger than the rabbit; but the fox is only running for its dinner whereas the rabbit is running for its life. The Americans were only fighting yet another war for not very clear aims, with a manifestly failing strategy, in defensof a corrupt and unpopular government. The Vietnamese were fighting for a free, united country. The Americans could go home anytime; the Vietnamese had to live there. Which side would you bet on?

American involvement

Hundreds of thousands of books, articles, movies, newspaper and magazine pieces, academic studies and websites are devoted to the American part of the Vietnam War, from roughly 1964 to 1973. Suffice to say that when President Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, there were about 16,000 US troops in Vietnam, helping Diem’s government against Viet Cong insurgents. Six years later there were as many as 550,000 US military personnel in country.

Diem was himself assassinated a few weeks before Kennedy, and south Vietnam then suffered a series of coups by military men, rendering the southern government ever-more illegitimate and precarious. In 1965, after half a dozen military coups, Nguyễn Văn Thiệu became president and was the figurehead of the Southern regime the Americans were supposedly fighting for, for the rest of the conflict.

1964 was the key year when America could still have walked away with some dignity, and we now know it was filled with fraught debates at senior levels in the administration of President Johnson, who replaced the assassinated Kennedy.

The central event came on 2nd August when a US destroyer high up in the Gulf of Tonkin (aiding commando attacks against the North Korean coast) was attacked by some North Vietnamese boats. Two days later the same ship reported being under attack again. There is now consensus that the second attack never took place and, apparently, the first one resulted in precisely one bullet hole in the ship’s infrastructure. Nevertheless, this ‘attack’ gave Johnson administration the fig leaf it needed to go to Congress and force through the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution on 7 August 1964, which allowed the president ‘to take any measures he believed were necessary to retaliate and to promote the maintenance of international peace and security in southeast Asia.’ It was the legal fig leaf to take America into a full-blown war.

Rolling Thunder

Further North Vietnam-inspired attacks on southern targets, which killed some US servicemen, persuaded a dubious President Johnson that a bombing campaign against the North would bring them to the negotiating table. Having just read accounts of the bombing campaign of the Second World War and the Korean War, I share the President’s doubts – but the American air force won the argument and Operation Rolling Thunder – a sustained bombing campaign against Northern military targets – commenced in March 1965. Two things happened:

  • this stepping-up of the war sparked the first public protests, especially on university campuses, which formed the seeds of what would grow into a massive nationwide anti-war campaign
  • selective bombing didn’t either bolster the regime in the south or force the North to the negotiating table and so, as always happens, the generals insisted that the campaign be broadened to take in vital infrastructure, and then towns and then cities

Tim Page’s photo of the US air force man with a helmet with a set of stickers on it reading, ‘Bomb Hanoi’, ‘Bomb Saigon’, ‘Bomb Disneyland’, ‘Bomb Everything’, captures the horribly inevitable logic of all bombing campaigns. They never work and then their proponents say that’s because we’re not bombing enough.

That’s what the Luftwaffe told Hitler to get him to authorise the bombing British cities: did it bring Churchill to the negotiating table? No. Then Bomber Harris persuaded Churchill to allow indiscriminate ‘area’ bombing of German cities: did that bring Hitler to the negotiating table? No. the Americans fire-bombed Japanese cities for a year, reducing many to rubble, killing 100,000 civilians in the great firebombing of Tokyo alone: did that bring Japan to the negotiating table? No. The American Air Force bombed North Korean targets for years: did that hasten the negotiations to a conclusion? No.

But once again, the USAF persuaded a doubtful civilian leader to allow mass bombing of an enemy: did it bolster the South Vietnamese regime? No. Did it bring a defeated North Vietnam to the negotiating table? No. An estimated 50,000 North Vietnamese died.

The realisation that the (ever-expanding) bombing campaign wasn’t working, drove demands from the military authority on the ground, General Westmoreland, for more ground troops. Slowly, reluctantly, lacking a clear end-goal, Johnson authorised increasing US troops, 23,000 by the end of 1964, 385,000 during 1966, a massive 535,000 by early 1968.

The Tet Offensive

1968 was the decisive year. In January, taking the Americans completely by surprise, the North launched the Tet Offensive, striking a host of military sites all over South Vietnam, even attacking the US Embassy in Saigon.

Map of Tet Offensive targets

Although the Viet Cong lost at least 10 times the number of American dead in the Tet Offensive (45,267 to 4,124) the graphic TV images and newspaper reports, combined with the vigorous anti-war campaigns led by students back in the States, undermined American determination. It was a contributory factor to Lyndon Johnson deciding not to stand for re-election as president and to the election victory of his successor, Republican Richard Nixon, who became president in January 1969. Nixon had campaigned to bring the war to an end and tried to implement a policy of ‘Vietnamisation’ i.e. handing the war back to the South Vietnamese to fight.

Even with this determination it still took four years to get to the Paris Peace Accords of 1973, during which time plenty more pacification campaigns were carried out, plenty of programmes to bolster the South Vietnam government’s position and popularity – in fact bombing was actually increased.

In March 1969 Nixon took the fateful decision to extend the ongoing bombing into neighbouring Cambodia, through which the Viet Minh had been sending arms and supplies. This had the effect of destabilising the pro-American government there and bolstering the fierce local communist party, the Khmer Rouge, with catastrophic results.

The Americans also led a predominantly South Vietnamese Army campaign into Laos, to destroy Viet Minh bases, but the Southern army was badly worsted, abandoning much of its equipment on the field of battle. This augured badly for the whole ‘Vietnamisation’ strategy and, sure enough, once the Americans had withdrawn, the South was to ultimately lose the war. The Viet Minh knew they only had to sit tight and watch the American war effort collapse.

Decay and collapse

The biggest revelation to me in this short, punchy account, is the state of decay the American army reached during the war.

  • Drugs A Department of Defense study indicated that 60% of US military personnel in Vietnam used drugs in 1970.
  • Desertion The desertion rate hit an all-time high in 1971 – from 1963 to 1973 about half a million US soldiers deserted, nearly 20% of the total.

In 1972 the North launched the ‘Easter Offensive’, but were surprised at the solidity of the Southern fightback and the violence of the American response (this included the largest bombing campaign of the entire war, which devastated Northern supplies). As many as 100,000 Northern soldiers died and around 25,000 from the South. Even as it withdrew its troops, and transferred vast sums to President Thieu’s regime to train the southern army, America was still capable of lashing out.

Peace talks

Not only was their victory on the battlefield not as assured as they had assumed, but the international situation was shifting against the interests of the communist North. In February 1972 President Nixon made a historic state visit to China, and Hanoi could see that, ultimately, friendship with the U.S. was more important to Beijing than a never-ending war. At the same time Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger were pursuing a policy of détente with the Russians. Stymied on the battlefield and sensing that either Russia or China might start to cut off supplies and force an unfavourable settlement, Hanoi finally agreed to come to the negotiating table, where all modern wars end. In fact Kissinger had been having secret talks with Le Duc Tho, a member of North Vietnamese politburo, from as far back as August 1969. Now there was movement.

A draft peace agreement had been hammered out by October 1972. But President Thieu refused to sign it without significant concessions by the North which thereupon withdrew from discussion. This led Nixon to agree to a final mass bombing of the North – the so-called Christmas Bombing campaign – in December 1972, inflicting huge damage and bringing condemnation from at home and abroad. But it brought Hanoi back to the table and Peace Accords were finally signed in Paris in January 1973. They provided for:

  • A ceasefire to begin on January 28, 1973
  • US troops had sixty days to withdraw all of their forces
  • both side to release all their war prisoners
  • South Vietnam and People’s Revolutionary Government to negotiate a political settlement which would allow South Vietnamese people to decide their own political future
  • Reunification of Vietnam was to be ‘carried out step by step through peaceful means’

The Americans withdrew their last forces but continued to send vast sums to Thieu’s administration. All prisoners were released, including some 591 U.S. prisoners of war. Only 159 Marines remained to guard the U.S. Embassy.

Final defeat

In spring 1974 the North launched a military campaign against the central highlands. In August President Nixon chose to resign rather than face impeachment over the Watergate affair. His successor, President Ford ignored Nixon’s secret promises to the southern regime. Emboldened by their success in the midlands, VC forces attacked towns and cities. Their strategists had thought it might take as long as two years to wear down the Southern army, particularly in light of the billions of dollars of munitions the Americans had sent them. In the event the entire campaign to conquer South Vietnam took 55 days.

Right up to the last week, U.S. officials avowed confidence in the South, which explains the final, panic-stricken scenes of helicopters landing on the Embassy roof as communist forces closed in on Saigon. Saigon fell to the North on 30 April 1975, and Vietnam was finally, after thirty years of hugely destructive conflict, reunited.

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