I have a lot of books — two bookcases and a long shelf worth — and considering library books and those given away or sold, I’ve probably read three or four times the amount of books I currently have out on display in my home office. But I don’t think I’ve owned any of my current collection as long as my copy of Dispatches by Michael Herr. Bought new, probably in 1978 or ’79 (the publisher’s note says my copy was printed in 1978, the first paperback edition by Avon), today the pages are yellowed and dog-eared, and a few are torn.
I first read Dispatches as a high school student and later carried it with me during an abortive first attempt at college and then around the country and to Italy on active duty with the U.S. Navy. Just yesterday I finished re-reading Dispatches for the … fourth time? Maybe for the fifth time — I’m not sure. There are passages I know intimately and have quoted, many while serving on active duty.
Michael Herr spent eighteen months in Vietnam as a war correspondent for Esquire magazine and it was always his intent to write a book about the experience; Dispatches was the result. The book is somewhat disjointed, ranging back and forth in time, but is centered around two major events: the Battle for Hue during the Tet Offensive and the Battle of Khe Sanh. Considered a non-fiction novel, the narrative focuses not on battles, or even the war, but on the men who fought it and those who covered it as journalists.
Some events and scenes in the book are undoubtedly what I would call “sea stories” — a mix of real and made-up for the purpose of making a point (Read more about sea stories in my post titled “There Was This One Time…”). Once you realize you’re being told a sea story, you understand there is (usually) a larger purpose at work. For Herr and Dispatches, it isn’t to give a verbatim account of his time in Vietnam as it is to give readers the flavor of that time.
Much of Dispatches is written in a “stream of consciousness” style, with run-on sentences, variable punctuation and heavy doses of philosophy and 1960s pop culture. It can be hard to wrap your head around, I admit. Dispatches most certainly is not a history of the war, so having some background knowledge can be important to understanding the flow of events and off-stage characters like General Westmoreland and Robert “Blowtorch Bob” Komer.
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I believe this book had such a profound and lasting impression on me because when I first read it I was still extremely naïve about war. Fed a sanitized and Hollywood-ized version of warfare — recall, it would be nearly a decade before the film Platoon would be released, heralding a new crop of more (if not totally) realistic depictions of war — Herr deconstructed those fantasies with fluid, visceral prose:
One night I woke up and heard the sounds of a firefight going on kilometers away, a “skirmish” outside our perimeter, muffled by distance to sound like the noises we made playing guns as children, KSSSHH KSSSHH; we knew it was more authentic than BANG BANG, it enriched the game and this game was the same, only way out of hand at last, too rich for all but a few serious players. The rules now were tight and absolute, no arguing over who missed who and who was really dead; No fair was no good, Why me? the saddest question in the world.
— Herr, Michael (2011-11-30). Dispatches (Vintage International) (pp. 55). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Search and Destroy, more a gestalt than a tactic, brought up alive and steaming from the Command psyche. Not just a walk and a firefight, in action it should have been named the other way around, pick through the pieces and see if you could work together a count, the sponsor wasn’t buying any dead civilians. The VC had an ostensibly similar tactic called Find and Kill. Either way, it was us looking for him looking for us looking for him, war on a Cracker Jack box, repeated to diminishing returns.
— Herr, Michael (2011-11-30). Dispatches (Vintage International) (p. 61). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Vietnam was unlike any war the United States participated in before, or since. Fought for reasons that made sense to many during the height of the Cold War, the peculiarities of the conflict will, I hope, make it forever an oddity. Strategically we were in Vietnam to prove to the world (read: the Soviets) that we would fight for democracy; tactically, we did not try to capture territory — the traditional goal of war — but rather to kill. We set out to kill enough Viet Cong and North Vietnamese to reduce their operational effectiveness or perhaps to alter their goal of reuniting the divided halves of the country.
The limitations of those tactics, the futility of Search and Destroy missions covering the same territory over and over, the importance placed on “kill counts” while mouthing platitudes like “hearts and minds,” all of that was internalized by Soldiers and Marines who were mostly draftees, men who couldn’t or wouldn’t avoid serving by finding the loopholes leveraged by kids who were generally well-to-do and more educated.
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Knowing Dispatches isn’t the easiest book in the word to read I was not a bit surprised to find quite a few negative reviews on Amazon. As a quick summary, most of the eighteen one-star reviews focused strictly on the first fifty or so pages, which the reviewers just did not understand or found too difficult to get through. Yeah, that stream-of-consciousness thing.
A few reviews indicated the writer thought Herr belittled the Soldiers and Marines he wrote about, something I do not agree with. Yes, he relates some truly brutal behavior but there are also stories of courage and compassion, and with any endeavor involving humans there are going to be extremes. Herr makes it clear — again, to me — that the peculiar environment of the war had more to do with those negative events than simply slapping labels on the Soldiers and Marines.
A lot of people used to say that it got ****ed up when they made it as easy for us to shoot as not to shoot. In I and II Corps it was “loose policy” for gunships to fire if the subjects froze down there, in the Delta it was to shoot if they ran or “evaded,” either way a heavy dilemma, which would you do?
— Herr, Michael (2011-11-30). Dispatches (Vintage International) (pp. 61-62). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Brutality was just a word in my mouth before that. But disgust was only one color in the whole mandala, gentleness and pity were other colors, there wasn’t a color left out. I think that those people who used to say that they only wept for the Vietnamese never really wept for anyone at all if they couldn’t squeeze out at least one for these men and boys when they died or had their lives cracked open for them.
— Herr, Michael (2011-11-30). Dispatches (Vintage International) (p. 67). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
My favorite negative review — such an interesting statement, that — is included in the above picture. I laughed a little at the characterization of most writers as dishonest, and — an added plus! — journalists as pieces of garbage. This no doubt says a lot more about the reviewer than the book being reviewed.
The suggestion to read books from real soldiers, written in a “matter of fact way” indicates this person did not understand Herr wasn’t trying to offer a straight memoir. As for the “real soldiers” statement, does the fact Herr didn’t enlist in any way diminish his experiences in Vietnam? I don’t think so, personally. .
Finally, I’m still trying to figure out what is meant by “Drama is the luxury of the insincere” but — of course — the reviewer is entitled to his or her opinion. I’m just not sure if he or she actually read the same book I did.
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I recommend Dispatches to anyone looking to get a ground-eye view at Vietnam. Other good books on the subject include Loon by Jack McLean (my review), A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo and The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien.
Much of the narrative in Dispatches may appear to us today as cliché, but that is because Herr’s experiences have been co-opted by popular culture (He contributed to this by writing the screenplay for Full Metal Jacket and contributing to the screenplay of Apocalypse Now). Remember that Herr tosses some sea stories in the mix, so don’t fixate on individual events so much as the overall vibe.
If nothing else, perhaps Dispatches will convince readers to explore more about Vietnam and world of that time. I fear with Iraq and Afghanistan still fresh in our memories, Vietnam and more importantly the men and women who served there have been forgotten. If that is so, it will be for a second time.