By Lary Wallace
The lifers gripe, too. . . . A lot of them will say that Dix is a dead end for careers, a sounding board for civilian interference, a center that half-trains 100,000 Ultimate Weapons a year, and most of those six-monthers. They are putting in for Viet Nam (you pick up grade there), for Fort Benning or Fort Bragg (you really train there), or for return tours in Guam, in Korea, in Germany. Somewhere, there’s good duty.
That’s the debriefing Michael Herr delivers on his way out of “Fort Dix: The New Army Game,” his 1966 feature-story for Holiday in which he revisits the training post whose “chief business . . . is the basic training of recruits from” just about the entire Northeast. To convince all concerned of “the vital relevance of the foot soldier in the nuclear age,” the New Jersey base had “taken on the name of ‘The Home of the Ultimate Weapon,’ which for all its rhetoric fell like a short round on the average trainee until recently; the fighting in Viet Nam has restored it by proving that infantry is never obsolete.”
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American Journalism 1969–1975
This Fort Dix piece usually gets mentioned in books and scholarly articles that deal with Herr’s time in Vietnam, but these never offer much detail on its contents or even bother to quote directly from it. Most often, it gets mentioned for its influence on John Sack, already at Esquire, and his own Vietnam book, M. Proper credit should be given to how it prefigures Herr’s own book.
Like too few correspondents in Vietnam, Herr had a real affection for the soldiers fighting the war, even as he harbored great contempt for those strategizing it. As someone on the ground actually talking to the troops and recording precisely what they had to say, he sympathized with their predicament. “The New Army Game” should convince any reader that this sympathy has its roots in what Herr learned at Fort Dix, both as recruit and reporter.
In “The New Army Game,” as in Dispatches, Herr’s not afraid to show respect for certain factions within the Army. Although he writes that, when he’d been a recruit, “it would have broken my teeth to say something respectful about the Army,” he’s also able to write, “[T]he sight of a field-grade officer can still send a flash of malingerer’s guilt through me, an embarrassing urge to please.” Elsewhere, he wants to address “[o]ne of the prevailing lies told by the six-monther”—namely, that “the Army career man, for whom he has unqualified contempt, stays in only because he could not make it on the outside.” He then articulates his defense, but not before buttressing it in advance with a fair-minded concession to the opposing view:
Obviously, the Army employs thousands of misfits and prospective derelicts: I think of the fifty-five-year-old corporal who weighed more than 250 pounds, and whose life’s work was to sit by the mess-hall entrance with an automatic counter in his hand, clicking off the number of men filing in for each meal. . . . But it also pays hundreds of thousands of men who work at their jobs for purer motives: a fundamental pride in soldiering and its traditions, true contempt for what is soft or luxurious, and a kind of patriotism that doesn’t even know its own name, doesn’t turn edgy with jingoism or dissipate into cant.
In Dispatches, Herr extols “the Special Forces spooks running around in a fury of skill to ice Victor Charlie.” In “Fort Dix,” he evokes the Special Forces just as wonderfully but more elaborately, reminiscing on his days as a recruit:
We could come up from the training companies and see men from Special Forces, with green berets and their boots bloused under dress pants. Airborne cats. They moved around the cafeteria as if they had no bones, no fat, no nerves. Their faces were shaped like ax blades and tough as seasoned oxhide. We automatically believed the most fantastic stories we heard about their training, rattlesnake meat and all. We were six-monthers, and we knew they were crazy. When we were around them, we were very quiet.
Madness is something Herr communicates very evocatively in Dispatches—his own madness and the soldiers’—and he does so here, too. In Dispatches, he writes of those who’ve gone crazy as having taken “possession of the madness that had been waiting in trust for them for eighteen or twenty-five or fifty years”; In “Fort Dix,” he articulates precisely the same concept, but with an entirely different metaphor and imagery, writing of “those who touch bottom” as having “carried the fetus of their breakdown through the gates of Fort Dix when they first arrived.”
I’ve often wondered why this piece—standing near the middle of the eight that Herr wrote for Holiday between 1965 and 1968—employs the most tenderly evocative language of the bunch, and can only conclude that it must be the subject matter. Not just the extreme subject matter of war (because war really exists only in the background here), but the subject matter of a world Herr knew intimately from experience. It’s an inside job, and this lived-in familiarity with the Army and its language, official and unofficial both, allows for some of Herr’s most satisfying sentences—in Dispatches especially, but also here. A perfect example comes when Herr writes of those soldiers who patronize the officers’ club on Dix: “They come to the club to relax, to talk shop, get the nurses, G-2 the transfer and promotion possibilities and ride their hobby horses.” Right here, compressed, is much of the language that makes Dispatches: the late-beatnik/early-hippie slang (“get the nurses”), the military jargon as slang (“G-2 the transfer and promotion possibilities”), and old clichés made new through re-contextualization (“and ride their hobby horses”).
But Herr for some reason didn’t want the status of inside man when he came to write Dispatches; nowhere in the book does he even allude to his time in the Army. Only one possible reason occurs to me for why Herr would have made this counterintuitive decision (which he’s never publicly addressed, as far as I can find). I strongly suspect that he believed it would have distracted the reader and confused the book’s intentions. Some who read the book would have perceived him—unfairly—as a kind of draft-dodger; others, a half-generation or so younger than him in the anti-war movement, would have regarded Herr warily as a comrade in arms among the soldiers; while others, more neutral than either of these two factions, might have just been perplexed—not in a judgmental way; just confused—about where this ex-G.I. was coming from with his unflattering interpretation of what America was up to over there.
The truth is, Herr’s generational status was pretty unique. Born in 1940, he joined the reserves soon after college, and was in Vietnam as a reporter at twenty-eight. He was a little too old (and too non-conformist) to be a hippie, and too young (and too non-conformist) to be contemptuous of the hippies. He fit snugly inside the generational pocket that had to face Vietnam but didn’t have to go all the way in. When, in ’66, he comes to Fort Dix to report on “The New Army Game,” he witnesses a post touched with “an atmosphere of earnestness” that it didn’t have when Herr had been a recruit. He dates this change to what was by then “the major escalation of Vietnam, about July, 1965.”
In the safe, happy days of my enlistment, after Berlin and Cuba, before escalation, we would laugh whenever a training sergeant suggested that we might have to use what he was teaching. Since last summer the draft has increased the number being trained at Fort Dix by at least 25 percent. There is no certainty about the termination date of an enlistment, and there is every possibility of eventually going into combat.
Thanks to shrewdness and good luck, Herr could have avoided combat entirely. Instead he went directly into it, as a reporter, even ending up at one point firing off rounds of covering fire for a platoon he was supposed to be covering in an entirely different way. He watched people die, and worse. He almost died himself, several times, and sacrificed a substantial piece of his sanity, at least temporarily. He picked up grade in Vietnam, he did. But Fort Dix is where he got trained.