Michael Herr’s writing in Dispatches (1977), a memoir of his time as a correspondent in Vietnam, reminds me the lyricism of British writers in the trenches of World War I. It isn’t romantic: it’s acutely observational and informed by sense of history— or more simply put, just time. This is Herr:
“And at night it was beautiful. Even the incoming was beautiful at night, beautiful and deeply dreadful.
“I remembered the way a Phantom pilot had talked about how beautiful the surface-to-air missiles looked as they drifted up toward his plane to kill him, and remembered myself how lovely .50-caliber tracers could be, coming at you as you flew at night in a helicopter, how slow and graceful, arching up easily, a dream, so remote from anything that could harm you. It could make you feel a total serenity, an elevation that put you above death, but that never lasted very long. One hit anywhere in the chopper would bring you back, bitten lips, white knuckles and all, and then you knew where you were.”
And then this, randomly chosen from the memoir of World War I soldier Henry Williamson:
“The order came for the company to carry on the attack. Survivors, coming back through the wood, wet through and covered with mud, uniforms ripped by barbed wire, were stumbling as they passed through us. When they had gone away – away from the line, death behind them – a clear baritone voice floated back through the trees, singing Oh, for the wings, for the wings of a dove – far away, far away would I roam. They were wonderful, remarked a sergeant, a rugby-playing Old Blue in peacetime. Yes, because they were going out, I thought; they were euphoric, hurrying to warmth and sleep, sleep, sleep.”
A book never equaled about literature and war is Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory.
More here about Michael Herr: